Skepticism

Afternoon Inquisition 8.22

Hello all! I’ll be bringing you the Friday edition of the Afternoon Inquisition.  Today’s question:

With the Internet constantly improving ease of access to vast amounts of data and information, are journalists becoming more or less skeptical?

Masala Skeptic

Maria Walters (a.k.a. Masala Skeptic) has spent a lot of time in ‘furrin parts,’ including Hong Kong, Trinidad, and Pittsburgh. Although her passport is from India, she’s spent most of her adult life in the United States. She currently lives in Atlanta and has an unhealthy affection for science fiction, Neil Gaiman and all things Muppet.

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35 Comments

  1. Oh man, I’m not sure how much less skeptical many could be. I think, I hope that as more and more journalists are fooled by fake info on the net that they will be more skeptical. Also I think, hope that editors will be more skeptical as more journalists use the internet to plagerise each other. I just don’t know. Tough, tough question.

  2. Well, there are both quack sites and skeptic sites. I would say they look at what they want to look at. If one wants to report about quackery, they look for quackery, and if one wants to report about skepticism, I would say they would search for skeptic sites. So in the end, I would say that the overall effect is zero. It could be negative because “internet is always right.” So, yeah, I think it depends whether the person feels like thinking or not. Of course, feel free to kick my butt if I am wrong at any of these aspects.

  3. I don’t think the amount of available information has much to do with how skeptical or non-skeptical a journalist is. I think they’re driven more by the types of stories they think their readers/viewers want.

  4. I doubt that the internet has made journalists either more or less skeptical.

    There has always been thorough journalism and shoddy journalism. We can just read a hell of a lot more of both these days.

  5. I’m not sure about being skeptical, but I think there’s pressure to bring “both sides of the story” to every story, even when one side is just obviously bullshit. I am not sure if this is journalists being less skeptical or editors saying, “If you don’t cover both sides equally, you’re fired.” I also am not sure whether this is related to the amount of info available online or not.

  6. I don’t think the amount of available information has much to do with how skeptical or non-skeptical a journalist is. I think they’re driven more by the types of stories they think their readers/viewers want.

    I think they are definitely driven by what they think readers want but I suspect the excess of ‘easily accessible’ information makes it easier to be lazy and not do your due diligence in digging into the details of a story.

  7. I think it has, in a way made journalists less skeptical. They are not less skeptical because there is more info on the internet, but because they are now expected to provide more info themselves, to be published on the internet. Between 24-hour news networks, live blogging of events, and round the clock updates on news websites, most journalists just repeat whatever crap they hear without researching the claims in the vague hope of being the first one in their market to say it.

  8. Yes, there is a lot of good skeptical information on the internet. But there is more peseudoscientific crap on the net, so if anything, that would lead to a lower grade of reporting.

    I am not sure of the effect though. Many reporters are just too lazy to do a simple internet search. Come on… who has time to actually check their facts before telling them to millions of people.

    And, as Sam said… a story on how UFO’s are real will likely draw in more viewers / readers than one saying they are fake. So, they go for the ratings / readers.

  9. I think journalism today is a lot more about getting a brand new story out first (as my coauthor recently wrote on our blog) than about real, thorough, skeptical investigation of the story. I can’t speak from personal experience about what it was like decades ago, but my suspicion is that with the rise of the internet, the expectation for fast-appearing breaking news stories has increased and put pressure on journalists in this direction. Maybe it’s not all what I would call “data,” but the vast amount of crap floating around on the internet has probably had a net negative effect on the quality of journalism.

  10. They do seem to be quick to publish stories without the usual fact-checking. I remember an incident where the North Denver Post ran a satire piece about a man who supposedly had his thumbs surgically altered to better fit his iPhone. It was regurgitated on several sites (including MacDailyNews) as real news. It was then re-reported as a “hoax” instead of “joke we didn’t get”.

    And just this week, the Daily Mail published an article containing the line “produces an output of 11.3 watts, which is enough electricity to run lighting for 63 hours or a radio for 30 hours”, which was then repeated on several news site before anyone noticed it was gibberish. Only the Engineer Online managed to correct it to read “generates 11.3W and charges a battery, which, when fully charged, could run lighting for 63 hours or a radio for about 30 hours”.

    I guess bad journalism is like the dark side of the force. It’s not more powerful but it’s easier and more seductive.

  11. It seems as though people are generally less skeptical because of the free access to so much information and misinformation (I heard about it on the INTERT00BZ!), and so reporters may also be catering to a less skeptical audience.

    I agree that the quickness with which information comes out is a huge factor.

  12. But there have always been lazy journalists. The internet neither makes it easier or harder to be lazy. Sure, you can find a ton of crap to regurgitate on the internet, but before the internet, you could just make up the crap and the average consumer wouldn’t have had the resources to call you on it. It’s just a different path of laziness.

    No matter what point in history we are talking about, there have never been an army of Woodwards and Bernsteins fighting for truth and justice.

    Like any other profession, there are legions of the mediocre and a few greats.

  13. @TheCzech: You’re right, but the internet rewards laziness even if it doesn’t change the difficulty (?) of being lazy. If your website updates every ten minutes with breaking stories (which you couldn’t possibly have had time to fact-check), everyone will keep refreshing your page or subscribing to your feed. Everyone will link to you as their source, and you’ll be able to sell more ad space than you have pixels.

  14. I’m not sure about being skeptical, but I think there’s pressure to bring “both sides of the story” to every story, even when one side is just obviously bullshit.

    Donna, that’s a great point. That’s an interesting component to skepticism in journalism – does the quest for ‘fair and balanced’ coverage mean that journalists are forced in some way to show the unskeptical side of the story. And aren’t there easy ways for them to get around this? Discuss the woo, but blow it away with fact and the science that debunks it?

  15. My experience of (generally mainstream) journalism hasn’t really changed all that much with the spread of the interwebs, in terms of scepticism anyway. The real revelation/revolution in this regard has been the meteoric rise of the blogosphere, and the free spread of all kinds of information. It’s easier than ever to find the facts (if any exist) behind news stories that seem a little off, and the ad hoc blogger/social news networks spread this stuff very fast indeed.

    I think my point buried here somewhere is that the level of scepticism found in mainstream journalism has started to matter less with the increasing freedom of information.

  16. This has nothing to do with the current topic so feel free to skip it. I was just at the Church of the FSM and a stray thought wondered through my mind. As stray thoughts are wont to do. IS eating pasta a blasphamous sacraliege or a wonderful testament to the generousity to the FSM?

  17. Oh man, I’m not sure how much less skeptical many could be.

    Agreed!

    I think the majority of competitive pressures drive them to less skepticism. Those pressures being:
    a) get a nice brownstone
    b) get invited to best parties
    c) get on TV
    d) Get the article written by deadline
    Most of those pressures favor laziness, currying favor, and worrying about who you are pissing off.

    Nails that stick up tend to get pounded down.

    blasphamous sacraliege :== Early stage cancerous tattoo at the base of your spine with a feudal theme?

  18. I’m pretty sure it’s considered Holy Communion.

    Next week on Pharyngula: PZ receives death threats after kidnapping a spaghetti bolognese. Attempts to nail it to a copy of the Torah prove messy and unsuccessful. Pastafarians claim victory.

  19. That was a leading question. (I have never beat my wife!) You could have just asked “are journalists becoming more or less skeptical?”

    That said…

    I haven’t seen evidence in my lifetime (at least, the portion during which I have paid attention to journalism–about a decade) to suggest there has been any change in journalistic skepticism. I can only speculate what journalism was like before then!

    I have, however, seen greater segmentation of journalism (for example, the number of magazines; blogging), so one could say that both skeptical extremes have garnered support. People can find whichever end of the spectrum they want.

    Mainstream media seems to me that it’s about the same as it was a decade or so ago.

  20. writerdd: i think you’re right…it’s what penn once referred to as “mandatory false dichotomies”. they set up a false dichotomy in order to create the illusion of a controversy (or highlight a stupid one) and then give equal time to both extremes, while completely ignoring that the consensus usually lies mostly on one side, with some wackos in the other.

    the way they frame issues such as id/evolution really isn’t any different than if they were to show the weather report and then give equal time to a dude with some folk knowledge giving a contradictory opinion.

  21. Sam – I think that IBY is on the right track here. The main thing to consider is that most journalists are not in the business of delivering “truthful” or fact-based stories. They are in the business of securing eyeballs for their advertisers, and that is the selective pressure that constitutes mainstream media’s evolutionary environment. Thus the content will move towards the stories that garner the highest number of viewers. I would argue that the advent of the intertoobz has only made it easier to determine which kind of story gathers the most attention.

    As far as answering Masala’s question, however, I would love to see some data to back up the general feeling expressed here: namely that the majority of journalists exhibit poor adherence to principles of research and fact-based reporting.

  22. $$$ If it smells it sells, and if momma’s crying folk are buying $$$

    Then again given the steady loss of readers and circulation most all print news papers are having I’d think the commiserate growth of internet based news will at least make reporters do more fact checking (as their customers/readers will often do it for them). So I’d conclude that if internet based legitimate news agencies are likely to be more factual (unsupported supposition) then a by product of being more factual may result in a commiserate increase in skepticism. ~just a thought.

  23. There a journalists and journalists. For every Woodward & Bernstein there’s an army of sleazey hacks desperately trying to find out who Lindsay Lohan threw up on last night. That being said, there are still serious journalists out there doing important work unrelated to Lindsay Lohan’s vomit, and I’m sure internet research forms an invaluable part of their job. The internet offers serious journos and hacks alike access to a huge information resource, especially in terms of official data. It’s now fairly easy and inexpensive to compile both personal and corporate information. Armed with a name, address and date of birth anyone with the right knowledge could probably find out your current credit rating, bank account and credit card numbers, employment history and any involvement in a registered company, all in the space of about half an hour.

    It terms of scepticism, journalism is like any market driven business and inevitably feeds the public appetite for vacuous celebrity gossip, endless sports trivia and lurid crime reporting interspersed with the occasional puff piece about alien abduction, ‘miracle’ cancer cures or a gorilla suit in a freezer. I think it’s largely immaterial whether the journalists peddling all this dross care if it’s true or not – as long as it sells and there’s a reasonable expectation they won’t get sued, they’ll print it.

  24. I do think that there is one form of news that has specifically become more crappy because of the internet and that is local television news.

    The reason for local news to exist has historically been local sports, local crime reporting, and the weather.

    Now, there is no reason for anyone to watch the local news for local sports or the weather. The internet fills those needs and it does so much better. So they hype the local crime and any other sensationalist garbage they can come up with.

    This has often taken the form of reporting every minor weather event as the storm of the century and so-called consumer news. “Your toothbrush might kill you! Find out how on Fox 5 at 10.”

    Local television news was always dodgy. Now it is total crap. This has likely resulted in a loss of skepticism as well out of total desperation.

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