February 14, 2008

Not catchy, but awfully true

Trying to determine what is going on in the world by reading newspapers is like trying to tell the time by watching the second hand of a clock. - Ben Hecht

Steve Salerno might not have the alliterative talents of Jeremy Justus (come on people, Jeremy is worth the admission price, purely for his titles), but despite a deficit of creativity and pizazz in his title writing, Steve does an inarguably elegant job of explaining why news is no better, and no more, than bubble gum for the ears and eyes, just like all of the other informational crap that we all consume and discard.

Think that a trash-mag and the nightly news have nothing in common? You know they do. You know it in you small throbbing cynical heart that they are spawn of the same devil.

If you've ever questioned whether or not the puerile "journalism versus blogs" *debate* truly is spurious claptrap, anencephalous blustering, and palavering posturing, then the answer lies here.

This is why *self-described [computer] bloggers* are just as legitimate, just as entitled to prattle, just as good - perhaps better - at pushing an unashamed barrow, equally prone to accidental truths, or monumental idiocies, as any news reporter or journalist ever will be, and, very often, providers of a far superior source of scurrilous nonsense and day-to-day ticky-tocky.

(Edited extract)

How broadcast journalism is flawed in such a fundamental way that its utility as a tool for informing viewers is almost nil.

by Steve Salerno

It is the measure of the media's obsession with its "pedophiles run amok!" story line that so many of us are on a first-name basis with the victims: Polly, Amber, JonBenet, Danielle, Elizabeth, Samantha. And now there is Madeleine. Clearly these crimes were and are horrific, and nothing here is intended to diminish the parents' loss. But something else has been lost in the bargain as journalists tirelessly stoke fear of strangers, segueing from nightly-news segments about cyber-stalkers and "the rapist in your neighborhood" to prime-time reality series like Dateline's "To Catch a Predator." That "something else" is reality.

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, in a given year there are about 88,000 documented cases of sexual abuse among juveniles. In the roughly 17,500 cases involving children between ages 6 and 11, strangers are the perpetrators just 5 percent of the time — and just 3 percentof the time when the victim is under age 6. (Further, more than a third of such molesters are themselves juveniles, who may not be true "predators" so much as confused or unruly teens.) Overall, the odds that one of America's 48 million children under age 12 will encounter an adult pedophile at the local park are startlingly remote. The Child Molestation Research & Prevention Institute puts it like so: "Right now, 90 percent of our efforts go toward protecting our children from strangers, when what we need to do is to focus 90 percent of our efforts toward protecting children from the abusers who are not strangers." That's a diplomatic way of phrasing the uncomfortable but factually supported truth: that if your child is not molested in your own home — by you, your significant other, or someone else you invited in — chances are your child will never be molested anywhere. Media coverage has precisely inverted both the reality and the risk of child sexual assault. Along the way, it has also inverted the gender of the most tragic victims: Despite the unending parade of young female faces on TV, boys are more likely than girls to be killed in the course of such abuse.

Sadly, we're mistaken. To argue that a decided sloppiness has crept into journalism or that the media have been "hijacked by [insert least favorite political agenda]" badly misses the real point; it suggests that all we need to do to fix things is filter out the gratuitous political spin or rig the ship to run a bit tighter. In truth, today's system of news delivery is an enterprise whose procedures, protocols, and underlying assumptions all but guarantee that it cannot succeed at its self described mission. Broadcast journalism in particular is flawed in such a fundamental way that its utility as a tool for illuminating life, let alone interpreting it, is almost nil.

We watch the news to "see what's going on in the world." But there's a hitch right off the bat. In its classic conception, newsworthiness is built on a foundation of anomaly: man-bites-dog, to use the hackneyed j school example. The significance of this cannot be overstated. It means that, by definition, journalism in its most basic form deals with what life is not.

Thus, journalism as currently practiced delivers two contradictory messages: that what it puts before you (a) is newsworthy (under the old man bites dog standard), but also (b) captures the zeitgeist. ("You give us 22 minutes, we'll give you the world," gloat all news radio stations across the country.) The news media cannot simultaneously deliver both. In practice, they fail at both. By painting life in terms of its oddities, journalism yields not a snapshot of your world, but something closer to a photographic negative.

Even when journalism isn't plainly capsizing reality, it's furnishing information that varies between immaterial and misleading. For all its cinema-verité panache, embedded reporting, as exemplified in Iraq and in Nightline's recent series on "the forgotten war" in Afghanistan, shows only what's going on in the immediate vicinity of the embedded journalist. It's not all that useful for yielding an overarching sense of the progress of a war, and might easily be counterproductive: To interpret such field reporting as a valid microcosm is the equivalent of standing in a spot where it's raining and assuming it's raining everywhere.

Journalism's paradoxes and problems come to a head in the concept of newsmagazination, pioneered on 60 Minutes and later the staple tactic of such popular clones as Dateline, 48 Hours, and 20/20. One of the more intellectually dishonest phenomena of recent vintage, newsmagazination presents the viewer with a circumstantial stew whipped up from:

  • a handful of compelling sound-bites culled from anecdotal sources,
  • public-opinion polls (which tell us nothing except what people think is true),
  • statistics that have no real evidentiary weight and/or scant relevance to the point they're being used to "prove,"
  • crushing logical flaws such as post hoc ergo propter hoc reasoning,
  • faulty or, at best, unproven "expert" assumptions, or other "conventional wisdom" that has never been seriously examined,
  • a proprietary knowledge of people's inner thoughts or motives (as when a White House correspondent discounts a president's actual statements in order to reveal to us that president's "true agenda"), etc.

One underlying factor here is that journalists either don't understand the difference between random data and genuine statistical proof, or they find that distinction inconvenient for their larger purpose: to make news dramatic and accessible. The media need a story line — a coherent narrative, ideally with an identifiable hero and villain. As Tom Brokaw once put it, perhaps revealing more than he intended, "It's all storytelling, you know. That's what journalism is about." The mainstream news business is so unaccustomed to dealing with issues at any level of complexity and nuance that they're wont to oversimplify their story to the point of caricature.

[That] doesn't stop journalists from finding patterns in happenstance. Take lightning. It kills with an eerie predictability: about 66 Americans every year. Now, lightning could kill those 66 people more or less evenly all spring and summer, or it could, in theory, kill the lot of them on one really scary Sunday in May. But the scary Sunday in May wouldn't necessarily mean we're going to have a year in which lightning kills 79,000 people. (No more than if it killed a half-dozen people named Johanssen on that Sunday would it mean that lightning is suddenly targeting Swedes.) Yet you can bet that if any half-dozen people are killed by lightning one Sunday, you'll soon see a special report along the lines of, LIGHTNING: IS IT OUT TO GET US? We've seen this propensity on display with shark attacks, meningitis, last year's rash of amusement-park fatalities, and any number of other "random event clusters" that occur for no reason anyone can explain.

Journalists overreact to events that fall well within the laws of probability. They treat the fact that something happened as if we never before had any reason to think it could happen — as if it were a brand-new risk with previously unforeseen causation.

The problem for society is that giving headline prominence to meaningless or marginal events exalts those events to the status of conventional wisdom. "Reporting confers legitimacy and relevance," writes Russell Frank, Professor of Journalism Ethics at Penn State University. "When a newspaper puts a certain story on page one or a newscast puts it at or near the top of a 22 minute program, it is saying to its audience, in no uncertain terms, that 'this story is important.'" The self-fulfilling nature of all this should be clear: News organizations decide what's important, spin it to their liking, cover it ad nauseam, then describe it — without irony — as "the 800-pound gorilla" or "the issue that just won't go away." This is not unlike network commercials promoting sit-coms and dramas that "everyone is talking about" in the hopes of getting people to watch shows that apparently no one is talking about.

This truism was not lost on the late David Brinkley, who, towards the end of his life, observed, "The one function that TV news performs very well is that when there is no news, we give it to you with the same emphasis as if there were."

On June 9, 2005, as part of its ongoing series of "Security Updates," CNN airs a special report titled "Keeping Milk Safe." Over shots of adorable first-graders sipping from their pint cartons, CNN tells viewers that the farm-to-shelf supply chain is vulnerable at every point, beginning with the cow; with great drama, the report emphasizes the terrifying consequences such tampering could have. Nowhere does CNN mention that in the history of the milk industry, no incident of supply-chain tampering has ever been confirmed, due to terrorism or anything else.

[Hurricane] Floyd caused a fair amount of damage when it finally hit on Thursday: 57 deaths and an estimated $6 billion in property loss. But here's where things get curious. By the time Floyd blew in, media interest clearly had ebbed. On television at least, coverage of the aftermath was dispatched in a day or so, with occasional backward glances occupying a few moments of air time in subsequent newscasts.

Bottom line, the coverage of Floyd before it was a real story dwarfed the coverage given the storm once it became a story. Evidently the conjured image of tidal waves crashing on shore was more titillating to news producers than film of real life homeowners swabbing brownish muck out of their basements.

Today's newspeople have substantially improved on one of the timeless axioms of their craft: "If it bleeds, it leads." They prefer the mere prospect of bad news to most other kinds of news that did occur.

The result is journalism as Stephen King might do it: the dogged selling of the cataclysm 'round the corner, complete with stage lighting and scenes fictionalized for dramatic purposes. Sure, the camera loves suspense.

But … is suspense news? Is it really news that someone thinks a hurricane might kill thousands? It might kill no one, either, which is historically closer to the truth. Honest journalism would wait to see what the storm does, then report it.

Nowhere are these foibles more noticeable — or more of a threat to journalistic integrity — than when they coalesce into a cause: so-called "advocacy" or "social" journalism.

To begin with, there are legitimate questions about whether journalism should even have causes. Does the journalist alone know what's objectively, abstractly good or evil? What deserves supporting or reforming? The moment journalists claim license to cover events sympathetically or cynically, we confront the problem of what to cover sympathetically or cynically, where to draw such lines and — above all — who gets to draw them. There are very few issues that unite the whole of mankind. Regardless, as Tom Rosenstiel of the Project for Excellence in Journalism told USA Today, "News outlets have found they can create more … identity by creating franchise brands around issues or around a point of view."

In his thinking and methodology, today's journalist resembles the homicide cop who, having settled on a suspect, begins collecting evidence specifically against that suspect, dismissing information that counters his newfound theory of the crime. Too many journalists think in terms of buttressing a preconceived argument or fleshing out a sense of narrative gained very early in their research. This mindset is formalized in journalism's highest award: the Pulitzer Prize. Traditionally, stories deemed worthy of Pulitzer consideration have revealed the dark (and, often as not, statistically insignificant) underbelly of American life. In 2007 the Pulitzer for "public-service journalism" went to The Wall Street Journal, for its "creative and comprehensive probe into backdated stock options for business executives…" The Journal reported on "possible" violations then under investigation at 120 companies. There are 2764 listed companies on the New York Stock Exchange; NASDAQ adds another 3200. Not to dismiss the sincerity and diligence of the Journal's work, but what's the final takeaway here? That 120 companies (0.02 percent) "possibly" cheated? Or that — so far as anyone knows — at least 5844 others didn't?

Food for thought: Every time I fly, I'm amazed that these huge, winged machines get off the ground, stay off the ground, and don't return to ground until they're supposed to. Think about the failure rate of commonplace products: Light bulbs burn out. Fan belts snap. Refrigerators stop refrigerating. But planes don't crash. Actuarially speaking, they simply don't. The entire process of commercial flight and the systems that support it is remarkable. Do you fully understand it? I don't. I'm sure lots of people don't. Still, you won't win a Pulitzer for a piece that sheds light on the myriad "little miracles" that conspire to produce aviation's normalcy, stability and success. You'd be laughed out of today's newsrooms for even proposing such a piece (unless you were doing it as the kind of feel-good feature that editors like to give audiences as gifts for the holidays). Have a flight go down, however — one flight, one time — and have a reporter find some overworked ATC operator or other aberration that may have caused the disaster, and voila! You're in Pulitzer territory for writing about something that — essentially — never happens.

The world we're "given" has an indisputable impact on how Americans see and live their lives. (How many other events are set in motion by the "truths" people infer from the news?) Here we enter the realm of iatrogenic reporting: provable harms that didn't exist until journalism itself got involved.

Figuratively speaking, we end up drowning in the tides of a hurricane that never makes shore.

I give you, herewith, a capsule summary your world, and in far less than 22 minutes:

  • The current employment rate is 95.3 percent.
  • Out of 300 million Americans, roughly 299.999954 million were not murdered today.
  • Day after day, some 35,000 commercial flights traverse our skies without incident.
  • The vast majority of college students who got drunk last weekend did not rape anyone, or kill themselves or anyone else in a DUI or hazing incident. On Monday, they got up and went to class, bleary-eyed but otherwise okay.

It is not being a Pollyanna to state such facts, because they are facts.

Next time you watch the news, keep in mind that what you're most often seeing is trivia framed as Truth.

Or as British humorist/philosopher G.K. Chesteron whimsically put it some decades ago:

"Journalism consists in saying 'Lord Jones is dead' to people who never knew Lord Jones was alive."

From The Skeptics Society email newsletter


  1. Oh dear girl!

    I know, nothing to do with the thread but better here than there.

  2. So true. One must be discriminating when choosing sources of news. The blogosphere helps.

  3. Michael, Michael, Michael!

    Look what you done to my head Pa!

    " I can't get it out of my head.
    No I can't get it out of my head.
    Now my old world is gone for dead
    Cos I can't get it out of my head, no no no no!"(know who sings that one, Pa?)

    Poaching eggs this morning, having a shower, getting the kid's lunches ready.Keep humming and singin' that song!
    Yep, look what you down to my brain.

    It's a pleasant change from Bob The Builder, though.