Skepticism

Afternoon Inquisition 9.25

Lately, we’ve discussed poor journalism in various posts and threads here on Skepchick. At times we’ve pointed out an apparent disregard for facts by some big outlets. Other times we’ve marveled at just what the media find newsworthy and what they don’t. Today’s Afternoon Inquisition is about another aspect regarding journalism.

Have we become desensitized to the media spin on news stories, or is getting the news each day just another great opportunity to exercise our skeptical chops?

And just as a follow up, if the majority of the media outlets are spinning a story in basically the same way, what method(s) do you use to sift through the rubbish to get to the truth?

Sam Ogden

Sam Ogden is a writer, beach bum, and songwriter living in Houston, Texas, but he may be found scratching himself at many points across the globe. Follow him on Twitter @SamOgden

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34 Comments

  1. I think people are apathetic to the accuracy of media stories. If people thought critically about the news headlines, I think the woo industry would collapes just like the mortgage industry.

    I find lots of good examples of the media’s poor reporting on science issues. The new LHC collider is a good recent example of poor reporting. Here is another great example of poor reporting: http://junkfoodscience.blogspot.com/2008/09/hearsay-squared-acupuncture-for-breast.html

    I mostly read the news for entertainment now. I always dig deeper for information on topics that interest me. It no longer surprises me when a simple Wikipedia search shows how lazy or ignorant today’s jounalists can be.

  2. I think its a bit of both… we are desensitized… but there is always the push to be skeptical.

    I get my news from a variety of sources…. some of which I know lean one way or the other.

    NPR, the BBC, and a few local type places give me what I hope is somewhat of a well rounded view.

  3. Cop-out answer: the only reason I look at the news (meaning: headlines) is just to be vaguely aware of what other people will be talking about. Honestly, I stop at the soundbytes on Google News.

    I have completely lost faith in American media. ..I briefly searched for some foreign material, but there was too much cruft to sort through, and my foreign languages aren’t strong enough.

    The only news (broad definition) I actually pay attention to these days comes from very specific sources, like Bad Astronomy or Ajaxian or Ruby Inside.

    Guh. This topic makes me sick to my stomach. A healthy media was supposed to be one of the things that kept America moral, and we’ve lost it.

  4. The thing about the news is that they aren’t exactly transparent about where they get their info, and I’ve seen lots of incorrect “specials” in the past about this or that. So I’ve pretty much given up trying to watch the news at all.

    I read news online because I find it’s easier to look up things I might actually be interested in (for example, the Canadian election as opposed to the number of local people who have died) and I can get the basic info without the “frantic” voices and super-graphic/music arrangements.

    I guess to shift through the rubbish I just try to reason things out. If I hear something that I think is ridiculous, it probably is so I can dismiss it or at least reserve judgement. If I hear a story about a science paper that is probably wrong, I can just go find the original paper. Etc etc. Multiple *kinds* of sources (especially original sources) help me figure things out the best I can.

    Blogs are nice for multiple perspectives on things — and it’s clear that it’s just opinion, but you can still get some useful links/facts within that. I find the news acts like what they’re saying is definitely true, 100%, no errors.

  5. I’ll wholeheartedly say that I am desensitized to media spin. I agree with JRice that I just look at the headlines so as to stay on top of discussion points with my friends. It’s hard to believe anything that is reported on, so I think I filter most of it out and just take the little bits that seem to make sense and are verifiable.

    I only really work on my skeptical replies to media nonsense when it’s a topic I’m actually halfway knowledgeable on, like astronomy! Then again, I also try and get my science news from science bloggers.

  6. @JRice: That’s why I read the foreign English-language media. The Brits, Germans, French, etc. all have decent English coverage and far different POV than we get from the US media. In my case, I’m also able to follow some Spanish language coverage as well. I do also follow scientific coverage, such as you mentioned.

    I’m thoroughly disgusted at the MSM in the US these days. So little info, so much manure and fluff. Part of the problem is the so-called “fairness doctrine” that seems to mean that everyone has a microphone, even if they are totally uninformed about the topic. It doesn’t help that more and more newsrooms are cutting the staff devoted to true investigative journalism and sending the rest out to act like paparazzi.

  7. PS…I find the American media’s coverage of the American election just appallingly terrible so I’ve been trying to avoid it, but it’s just everywhere making me more and more terrified that Sarah Palin may be one heart attack away from running your country.

  8. @Kaylia_Marie:

    The problem is, at a very basic level, some of the sources present accurate information, but they present it in ways (spin it) to promote a certain viewpoint or perhaps to further an agenda.

    If you’re like me and you want to know just the facts, what method, if any, do you use to sift through the smoke and mirrors that lead to unwanted opinions to get just the facts?

  9. I’m not sure. A lot of stuff has been turned into “infotainment” instead of actual news or journalism. When I watch The Journal on TV, it reminds me of how news used to be when I was a kid, when the anchor just read the stories and gave out the facts. Now there are always “experts” (in scare quotes because it is never quite clear what qualifies these people to be called experts), as well as human interest angles and lots of speculation during breaking news, because no one seems to have the patience to wait for real facts. On top of that, if an error is ever discovered, it will be on page 39D of the newspaper or on an obscure page of the TV stations website, so most people will never discover that the original story was bunk.

  10. I tend to read everything with my skeptic hat on. Hmm. I think I just coined a term: “Defensive Reading”.

    For standard media I assume improper research has been done and, if the issue concerns me, I try to pick out sound bites that are easy to remember and verify.

  11. One must always remember that an expert in one field is not an expert in all fields. (I think Isaac Asimov once wrote something to that effect.)
    If you have a medical problem, you don’t ask a car mechanic how to care for it – you ask an MD.

    The problem is that there are far too many paid “experts” that are only experts in getting paid to be TV experts. I see this frequently in aviation coverage, where some “expert” is babbling total nonsense that a simple Google or Wiki search would prevent.

  12. @Fracture:

    0————0

    Totally. Reading defensively was something I tried to encourage the kids to do when I was teaching Human Comm. I had a whole lecture: the red pill lecture, where I took them through media ownership, spin, and gatekeeping in 50 minutes.

    Term coined by student, who at the conclusion of my first rpl, said “Why didn’t I take the blue pill?” Proudest teaching moment of my life.

  13. We (in the general sense) are definitely desensitized to media spin. In all directions. Otherwise, why would shows like Bill O’Rielly or any other pundit, on the left or the right, be so popular?

    In fact, I’d say we revel in media spin. We have spin for every point of view! Want conservative spin? Then Fox News, Hannity and Colmes are for you! More liberal? Just choose any other network! (I’m not as familiar with the liberal pundit shows, if there are any… there are some, right?)

    As for myself, when I get a hankering for news, I tend to compare between the BBC, Washington Post and New York Times. I’ve found the BBC reporting to be (generally) the best among them. Television-wise, I resort to the News Hour each Friday for the commentary of Shields and Brooks. I try to overcome spin by comparing these various sources, but I only have so much time during the day. Hence, I feel very uninformed.

  14. There have been reports over the years that the assumed education level of the audience for news writers is that of an eighth grader. Mass market news also has to compete with hundreds of other entertainment cable and satellite channels; so making the news pithy and presented in easily digested portions will often have the effect of misrepresenting the actual facts or the complexities of many stories. While there is certainly spin I think that making news marketable and profitable ends up skewing more stories than actual political motivations. News in general seems incomplete and shoddy with regard to research and fact checking IMHO.

    Personally I think the BBC reporting is among the most skewed toward a political point of view. I think you have to read or listen to the news from a variety of sources and use your thinking cap to sort out the chaff. Thinking one source is inherently more accurate than another seems a bit of a presumption based on ones own political and stylistic tastes.

  15. Although I don’t have a link to the story any more, I recently read an article where they surveyed people about their awareness of current events, and where they got their news. One of the highest scoring groups were watchers of the Daily Show and Colbert Report. Apparently, they were better at getting information to people with jokes than the more “serious” news organizations.

    I think the measure of a news sources quality is in seeing how they reports similar stories about different people. For example, Bill O’Reilly was incensed at Britney Spears’ 16 year old sister getting pregnant, but said that Sarah Palin’s 16 year old daughter getting pregnant was a personal and family choice, and looked down on reporters who were asking hard questions about that family choice. On the daily Show, when a politician does something stupid, regardless of the party, they are going to be the butt of the joke.

  16. While I suppose it may feel good to complain about the media, it doesn’t really solve the problem of getting access to news. Wikipedia is not necessarily a great resource either, particularly on controversial topics, as it often reflects the media’s current adopted position.

    The mental tool I find helpful is to ask myself, based on the type of report, what information should I expect to receive? Did I receive that information? If not, what was purposefully NOT reported?

    A few examples to illustrate the technique:

    During the recent spate of hurricanes off the US coast the news media in my region was talking them up as ‘possible category 5’s”. This obviously got my attention as they would have been catastrophic had they hit the coast at that level of power. However, in the remaining 24-48 hours no further mention of the storm category was made by the media (although the dire warnings and catastrophic talk did not subside). However, I could reasonably conclude from this that the storm category must have been around level 2 or less, as anything higher would have still been news worthy. A very windy storm does a lot of property damage but in itself is not news worthy. At this point I stopped following the broadcasts as I knew there was no real problem to be concerned about.

    On another recent occasion, a media news report on TV stated that a new study had shown that there was a 5 times greater risk in children who were heavy users of cell phones versus children who were not, for brain cancers. Since there was no mention of the actual probability (1 in 10? 1 in 10,000,000 ?) I concluded that the actual risk was near zero, since a near zero risk is not newsworthy. Again, no actual news there, and not worth considering further.

    Hope these guidelines help…

  17. I’m with Hedge!

    No, seriously, I read cnn.com headlines with a huge sack of salt, usually as a joke or to laugh at how bad they are with my friends. Daily Show and Jon Stewart are my best sifters of the manure media outlets are digging up. Basically, major media is more comedy to me than anything else.

    As far as real news goes, I try to use my own knowledge to read between the lines of what I read on digg.com, blogs, local newspaper, and a plethora of other sites. If I want to know about the LHC, I go listen to the direct broadcasts from the people there, and read science blogs covering them (Bad Astronomy, etc). If I want to know about a world event, however, I try to read the entire history from a combination of books and internet sources.

  18. The only things I really trust from the various “news” sources are death tolls and damage assessments.

    If they tell me that a 6.8 earthquake hit a part of Japan and 3000 people died, I probably won’t question that.

    After all, that’s usually the one thing they nail. “If it bleeds, it leads,” right?

    As far as political news goes, I try to get different views from different sources. I don’t consider myself liberal or conservative, Democrat or Republican, so I try to take all the sources I can and (try to) filter out the fact from the conjecture.

    But I refuse to have anything to do with Fox News. Between O’Reilly, Hannity, Cavuto, and Gibson, Fox might as well call themselves “The Small Town Newspaper Opinion Column (Limited Only to Unbalanced Neo-Cons and Conspiracy Theorists).” Granted, I know that some of these programs are supposed to be opinionated shows but, Jesus Handsome Boy Modeling School Christ!

    And any network that has Bill Donohue on regularly and actually treats his repugnant ass with respect deserves none of mine.

    Oh, yeah, and “The Daily Show” tells it like it is. Not necessarily the most prestigious news source, but at least they cut through all of the spin and show the smoldering bullshit at the core.

  19. One of the problems with gettting meaningful news is the sound byte. More and more we get our stories via excessively brief sound bites. You cannot get meaningful news in a sound bite. It simply is not possible.

    I am gobsmacked that anyone would actually turn to Stewart or Colbert for “real” news. Those guys are fun in a rather predictable, trite, and juvenile way, but they are no more accurate, believable, or in-depth than is CNN. Like CNN they are perhaps more trustwrothy than Fox News, but not by much.

    Perhaps no one really wants real news? Perhaps everybody just wants to see/hear stories presented in a way that fits there confirmation bias?

    I’m rather surprised none of the Americans have mentioned the New York Times. It was and remains one of the very best US news sources post 9/11. For all its pomp and pretentiousness, the BBC remains quite trustworthy, and along with Reuters employs (or presents) some of the world’s very best journalists, as does Canada’s CBC — although it must be stated that the CBC has been declining in quality because the Canadian government has been raping its budget for the last 20 years.

    Last point: don’t be so quick to blame the journalists. It is not the journalist who sets budgets, editorial policy, and presentation guidelines.

  20. Oh, and to answer the original question:

    Have we become desensitized to the media spin on news stories, or is getting the news each day just another great opportunity to exercise our skeptical chops?

    Yes.

    Yes.

    I suspect both are true to a degree depending on personal bias and the story being presented.

  21. Misinformation in news is irreparable….

    Indeed. Bit it sure as shootin’ is popular.

    I’d be interested to find out how many American Skepchick folks read the New York Times or listen to NPR, as opposed to watching Colbert, Stewart, CNN, and/or local televised news. Such stats might point out something of interest about how even skeptical folks get their news.

    More and more broadcasters and publishers feel the need to present news as entertainment, or even with ridiculous prurient hooks. After all, budgets must be met; profits must be made. That’s why I would argue that you just cannot trust any news from any commercial enterprise.

    Although it has its own inherent risks, Western democratic country’s national news media tend to be more reliable and trustworthy.

  22. @SicPreFix:

    I’d be interested to find out how many American Skepchick folks read the New York Times or listen to NPR, as opposed to watching Colbert, Stewart, CNN, and/or local televised news.

    All of the above. Well, I don’t watch Colbert very often, but the Daily Show. And I catch those programs more for entertainment than to get the news.

  23. Sam, you also said: “sources present accurate information, but they present it in ways (spin it) to promote a certain viewpoint or perhaps to further an agenda.”

    I think that is impossible to avoid, not only due to the commercial or editorial reasons, but simply because nobody can possibly write purely objective “just-the-faks-Mam” prose.

    Perhaps the best way to sift through to what seems the most truthful (although the word “truth” opens its own kettle of wigglyworms) is to read as much as possible from a variety of sources with different perspectives that nonetheless appear to be reasonably factual.

    We might keep in mind that even though different perspectives may present different viewpoints, those differences do not equal truth versus lies. There are shades of gray and nuance in all reality.

  24. @SicPreFix:

    Absolutely.

    And thanks to everyone for your thoughtful answers to the Inquisition.

    You know, often skeptics espouse the virtues of thinking critically, but rarely do we show exactly how we do that. Discussing the various ways we sift through the media glitz and spin is a great and readily available way to show someone, who may not be familiar with the concept, just how to think critically.

    And I think equipping people with these kinds of skills is more productive than engaging in “us vs. them” type arguments.

  25. Sam: “And I think equipping people with these kinds of skills is more productive than engaging in “us vs. them” type arguments.”

    But… it’s… so… entertaining…

    SciPF: I used to listen to NPR. I consider them pretty biased (mostly left, clearly anti-Israel, pro-intellectual). I happen to agree with them on such things, which may be why I stopped listening. Or it could be that I started working from home and don’t commute anymore.

    (…My comment-referencing is broken, and I’m too lazy to make the links myself ATM. Sorry.)

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