A note on media circusii

As I just mentioned to a friend, having had the opportunity to witness a media frenzy up close in response to a particular announcement:

I will tell you this, my respect for science journalism could not be any lower. It was all a dance around the event. Of course an announcement like this has a very short shelf life, thus it seems to be about technique and not substance (quelle surprise!). People went through very complicated and sophisticated motions, none of which really involved conveying anything close to accurate information, basic facts that had already been masticated in the form or press releases. These press releases need not have been crinkled because they were neither read nor even spiritually digested. If you judged the media response by how fast it was, how aggressive they were for footage and their ubiquity, you would think something were signified. But it was all a show. A tiny fraction of the footage will play in the one minute spot, a tiny fraction of the photos will ever run, and the truth or even at a minimum, the most basic of facts will be mangled. No one would ever know the difference between file footage and new footage yet the masses are soothed by the hustle and bustle of manufactured importance and feigned understanding in the face of useless work for real understanding of actual importance. So declares he actions of the media.

I could go point by point over the inaccuracies reported or essentially fabrication of quotes in these stories, but what is the point? In many cases quotes are pulled and put into slightly different contexts, contexts that simplify the storytelling for the authors, or perhaps only indicate sloppiness on a deadline. If I were to say I attended the identical press conference as all of these reporters and yet could point to inaccuracies in essentially every press report read, could we start damning these people? They are phoning in our reality.

22 Responses to “A note on media circusii”


  • Sounds like Mikey “The Speedo Man” Fumento was there.

  • The science journalism thing is actually a long-standing worry for me. I’m wondering if you have any thoughts about how to change things.

    Is it a supply-side problem — primarily, one of incompetent science journalists, or of journalists who *think* they understand more science than they actually do? If so, could this be the answer to our oversupply of science Ph.D.s (i.e., send *them* to the press conferences and the newsrooms)?

    Is it a demand-side problem — with the public unable to get the least bit interested about science (at least when there’s a good Congressional sex scandal or a celebrity behaving badly), or interested but without the requisite understanding of the most basic details of science to really “get” the scientific findings they might be interested in?

    Do the people on the supply end misjudge the interest or intelligence of the people on the demand end?

    Can we lay this all at the feet of people who use print, audio, and video news to sell ads?

    Honestly, I know — in real life — people who aren’t scientists but who seem interested in good science reporting. But, I’m told I’m kind of a nerd.

  • I think it’s a self-reinforcing system. Look at the most e-mailed stories on a given day, say the day after these nobel prizes on KTVU (Bay Area Fox affiliate), 3/5 are about celebrities, 1/5 is on possible serial kiler/torturer, and 1/5 is about toys. SO, to some extent, people are MORE interested about science.

    Culturally, people don’t want to understand science. When they were describing the Nobel Physics recipient they end the segment with, “well, if you didn’t understand what I just said — I’m not sure I do.” Haha, science is for nerds and don’t feel like you need to care.

    Finally, just look at how hobbies have been forced away from science because it is a little less accessible. Very few people tinker with cars, fly RC planes or rockets, or otherwise dabble in science.

  • ok, the MORE in the first paragraph is a NOT

  • people need to be kept stupid to avoid facing the fact that we are all boned!

  • Holy crap! we’re boned? Why didn’t someone have some sort of shocking investigative expose on it? Where was CARL MONDAY?

  • The last thing you woudl ever want to do is make anyone in your audience feel insecure or dumb, even though you basically treat them that way. “Hey Scientists are ALIENS, we can’t understand thoss SUPER ELITISTS, in FACT it is the SCIENTISTS that ARE DUMB. Isn’t that true, dumb dumb? Americans have to work hard and feed their families, not waste their time trying to understand science.

    What was also going on besides the murder of scientific facts was the murder of other facts, like moving quotes to different contexts or simplifying quotes. What we would call fabrication, what they would call sloppiness.

  • The Uncanny Canadian

    Really interesting points Dr. Free-Ride. I suspect the answer is yes. I do know a few people that have gone into science journalism, and with one exception, they have all been highly disappointed in the career. The pay is not great, the freedom is low, you have to deal with prickly and cynical editors, and the interest is low. There are a few excellent science journalists that seem to have to carry the weight of a sea of mediocrity.

    As for the public, I feel like the public has an insatiable appetite for news and information about health and medicine, but that’s pretty much it, and even then they want an optimistic bottom line. For example, eating dark chocolate can be healthy. I don’t think it really goes deeper than that, unless they are personally involved in a disease. The public seems to have little or no interest in basic research and physical sciences.

    The obvious solution is to let the Republicans stay in charge, and then there will shortly be no science that need be spoken of, hence no problems in science reporting.

  • Also, with news cyckes being so short, everything has come down to speed, but also the “appearance of coverage” rather than actual coverage. It is a game, and only rarely is it more than that, usual with much longer term developing stories, consumer advocacy type stuff. Let’s put it this way, it’s really like an M and M candy shell with nothing inside, and that goes beyond science, especially for local TV. I will also tell you this, the AP science writer filing some of these stories had nary a clue, and clearly had a pre-determined, easy angle in mind, one that was not appropriate.

  • Well heck, it seems that maybe it’s time for a revolution.

    We must infiltrate the ranks of teachers to convince the wee consumers-in-training that science is cool AND that you don’t need a larger-than-average brain to understand the basics of science.

    We must build in the populace an inexplicable hunger for truth — or at least, for reporting grounded in solid evidence. (I’m not sure how to do this. Perhaps repeated screenings of “A Few Good Men”?)

    We must then hijack the broadcast signals (which should be a trivial matter with the help of Science) for demonstrations of the fabrications and falsifications in the “journalism” (whether on science or other matters) that has gone out already. After this, our crack “truth squad” will break into transmissions to set the record straight as necessary.

    We must extend the attention span of the consumers of news. (ADD meds in the water supply? We’ll figure somethin’ out …)

    We must kidnap the celebrities and replace them with doubles who inexplicably talk about recent work in science when interviewed on the red carpet or after their DUI arrests.

    It can be done! Mwahahaha!!

  • Obviously the need to cover the news the night it breaks is important and thus the inability to wait for intelligent coverage of the topic to come out is harmful.

    But I honestly don’t even watch the local news anymore. They’ve got 30 minutes to tell you everything that happened in the day … 8 of those minutes go to commercials, 2-3 go to weather, 4-5 go to sports. That leaves at most 16 minutes to cover every other topic that happened.

    Science stories will only ever fall into the feel good story section which can get at most a couple minutes out of that remaining 16.

    We can assume that if they are sending a local ‘science’ reporter out to cover a science story all that the guy knows is what he’s read in several hours since he was assigned the story. Then, in addition to trying to create a small arc around the story, they have to go out, get footage, prepare their script for the news story, practice it a bit, make sure the graphics work etc.

    There are so many non-story related tasks involved here that it’s amazing they do get anything right. The deadlines are so tight that I bet they don’t understand any topic they’re discussing. They just try to shoehorn it into an existing template and hope that viewers will find it somewhat interesting.

  • Pinko, what you describe as an M&M could probably be referred to as the ‘event horizon’; the ‘news’ tries to get as close to that as it can. But the ‘news’ is, in the end, more like an m&m; Not a black hole in the center, but a peanutty brown one.

    the problem is that their own [ahem] doesn’t stink.

  • md nails it.

    Nacho, I only have training in one scientific discipline, but I could translate most scientific problems into layman’s terms. Some of these people can’t even do that.

    Anyhow, I think Bwaha (Dr. FR’s plan) is the only way to go. Sadly, it is the way the public already expects out of science, or SCIENCE.

  • AG expects nothing out of science and that’s what she gets.

    Thank goodness for science and ‘TEH AG’ of Massachusetts who will hear tomorrow about Bank of America and why it should not be allowed to have banks in this state.

  • Spent a month with a Fulbright Scolar when I was at Cambridge Technical Institute. The whole time I felt like he really understood and asked great questions. Read the final product in the Boston Globe Magazine and wondered if it was the same person or if someone had taken his notes and run it through bablfish a few times (science->layperson->science->layperson). Neither side realized that the writer was not getting the big picture. Now I talk to these guys at a 3rd grade level. They get about half of it.

    I honestly don’t think it is going to get better. In casual conversations at parties etc, if someone asks what I do (assuming it isn’t a nerd party which is where we usually congregate) as soon as I say something, eyes roll back into the head and they reply is usually: “Oh, well that must be interesting. Is that spinach dip?”

  • Oh yes, the spinach dip blow off. A classic.

    What is bad is I usually ask people lots of stuff about what they do, unless they are anonymous, but there isn’t usually an interest the other way around. Unless I wear my spinach dip t-shirt.

  • See now Fish, that’s why you should hang with AG. AG loves the nerds. AG super hearts the nerds. The more scientifically slutty, the better. If you cannot whore your science goods, AG is walking on to that spinach dip. (Fridge note to UC: There is a difference between science slut and being a cerebral little boy.) AG’s all, talk to me about what you do. Show me you are worthy of a PhD or MD or JD or whatever.
    Of course, AG has UC. Why wasn’t AG meeting you when you were single? UC on the other hand likes to dumb it down and talk in subtitles. AG just wants to put UC outside for a bit while she gets down to some hard core science details and if she’s super lucky, a number or two. Is that too much to ask? Seriously, some of us do want to know more about science and we don’t need it dumbed down. We may have questions, but we want to hear about it. At the least, tell us the cells are agnostic to mitosis or something. Run a gel and discuss, please.

    Of course AG can relate when people say things like, “Oh you work in medicine, you must be smart.” or “I have this pain or ailment, what kind of meds can you prescribe?”

    At the end of the day, AG just wants to get numbers. Is that too hard to ask for? Screw the dip. Are you cute, can you talk about interesting things and mostly importanly, is your mother deceased?

  • Crap, AG cannot type and spell at the same time. One day, just one day AG will get it all down.

    Digressing–

    The other problem with science and men is this — would it offend you if AG just walked up and said, “Stick it in?” If not, AG and the girls will cut out the small talk, science chattering and dip hunting.

    Your call.

  • Oh yes, the spinach dip blow off. A classic.

    Yes, but I expected more from my mom…

  • I got in trouble for using medical female anatomical terms around my grandmother. I mean sheesh, how else is a he/she/it/bird supposed to talk about breast cancer!

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  • you don’t even promise to bookmark?!

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