Clearing up another case of the dumbworms

Over at Atomic Nerds, LabRat tears a strip off of a “science” reporter who turned “this outrageously simplified theoretical model for mate selection seems to be consistent with observed behaviour, and might make a useful foundation for future research” into “scientists have proven that you shouldn’t fuck on the first date”:

Generally speaking, the more I learn about a given topic, the more irritating oversimplifications, desperate clinging to outmoded preconceptions, and outright lies I find in legacy media news articles on that topic.  I suspect this has two primary causes.

First of all, a journalism degree doesn’t give you any background in the subjects on which you’re called upon to report.  Crime reporters needn’t learn about the legal system, jurisprudence, or criminology; health reporters needn’t learn about endocrinology or exercise science; and science reporters needn’t learn about, you know, science.  One assumes* that journalists will rely on subject-matter experts for help, and convey the facts accurately, objectively, and without distortion.

Which leads me to the second point: journalists aren’t in the business of telling the truth.  They’re in the business of selling ads: half-page spreads or thirty-second shorts which just happen to be sandwiched between the column-inches or interest pieces those journalists produce.  They’re primarily rewarded for grabbing your attention and holding it long enough for one or more of their advertisers to try to sell you something.  They only suffer for hyperbole, misrepresentation, and blatant falsehood if they so outrageously abuse the facts of every story they touch that you decide to go somewhere else.

New media — blogs, youtube, and so on — aren’t at all immune to these problems, of course.  There’s nothing magical about the format that prevents glib dilettantes from writing breezy, off-the-cuff misrepresentations that would make a properly trained expert’s head explode inside of five sentences, or attention whores with a sidebar full of Google text ads from writing screed after hysterical screed carefully crafted to draw traffic at the expense of any shred of objectivity.  But the low cost of entry makes it a lot easier for real experts to play on the same field, rather than being relegated to the letters page.

It’s not that there’s any shortage of stupid on the internet — it’s that if you want smart, and you’re willing to work, you can actually find it.


* Or not

3 Responses to “Clearing up another case of the dumbworms”

  1. January 17, 2009 at 16:02

    Your comments have a lot of validity. You also find a lot of laziness amongst journalists which I suppose ties in to your comment about their having little knowledge on the subject that they are writing about and don’t have the time (to be generous) or the inclination to delve into the issue. Thus you find that many of them will simply take a press release from some organization and simply parrot the information into their own storyline. Modern journalism at its best.

  2. January 17, 2009 at 16:33

    “Thus you find that many of them will simply take a press release from some organization and simply parrot the information into their own storyline.”

    That’s true up to a point — I think it holds mostly when the story being reported follows received wisdom: “common sense”, “everyone knows that”, etc. If a corn-growers’ lobby puts out a press release about how “fat makes you fat, and everyone needs to eat lots of carbs”, for example, it’ll likely get repeated nearly verbatim. On the other hand, if a couple of endocrinologists get a paper in Nature about large meals of mostly simple carbs wrecking your metabolism, it’ll either get boiled down to “scientists prove that eating less helps you lose weight” or the journo in question will “present both sides of the story” and waste half the article parroting the “fat makes you fat” line.

    Glad to see you commenting here, btw.

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anarchocapitalist agitprop

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