Friday, August 8, 2008

Stuff Believers Like: #4 The Local News.....

While watching the local news one evening a few years back, I sat in disbelief as a bubbly young woman excitedly reported on an amazing occurence. Sadly, the story, though covered as if an accurate and newsworthy description of reality, sounded like one of my own Onionesque satirical posts: Local Man's Beard Stumps Scientists or something along those lines. "When area farmer Billy Bob Jenkins* awoke one cold Fall morning, his life was forever changed," I might have written. "He was shocked to find that his once clean-shaven face was partially covered by hair growth in the shape of a cross on his left cheek. He then basked in the glow of the miraculous sign from God and called the local news station to spread the glorious word."

As I inspected the man's stubbled face during the many close-up views provided by the camera operator, and the perfectly shaped cross there upon it, it was abundantly clear that this was no miracle in the supernatural sense of the word, nor was it even an example of pareidolia, the false perception of a meaningful pattern within what is merely random noise. I guess you could say that Occam's was not the only razor applied to this man's face that morning. Unfortunately, like so many similar credulous fluff pieces on the local news, the claim of supernatural influence on the natural world was met without the slightest hint of critical evaluation.

The absence of rational reporting which dominates most forms of mass media, but particularly with smaller local news outlets, is a frequent source of delight and ammunition to the holder of a variety of beliefs. Rarely does a week go by in most locales where there isn't a report lending credence to some form of pseudoscience or supernatural phenomena, misinterpreting the findings of published scientific studies, or inappropriately announcing findings of preliminary studies which haven't yet undergone peer review. I find it difficult to even refer to the majority of what is out there as actual reporting to be honest, for true journalism has standards far higher than what is being produced in most markets.

The offenders out there that able to cause the most damage due to their reach, the CNNs and Fox News type outlets, are failing miserably these days as less qualified journalists are being assigned the science and health beat and as, in my opinion, the seepage of irrational thinking into mainstream consciousness is becoming more torrential. In the world of print media it is even worse secondary to hemorrhaging budgets. It isn't pretty but all hope is not lost. The recent Time Magazine article on the subect of vaccine safety comes to mind as a stellar example of how journalism can be done right when it comes to controversial scientific topics. Unfortunately, until the situation improves consistently, believers will be able to cite news reports as evidence for their particular brand of irrationality.

*Name changed to protect identity


The Laundress said...

ah, Skeptic,

finding myself suddenly clobbered by the realization that the most honest reporting comes from the blogosphere AND our print compatriot, The National Enquirer, well... these revelations do rock one's world, don't they?

your teesny green two-headed dog-faced girl (drinking a coke with an image eerily reminiscent of
A.J. Jacobs emerging from the condensation)


Zoo Knudsen said...

I don't think that the small fry local news outlets are dishonest, though I have no doubt there are unscrupulous producers out there. The main problem is intellectual laziness and, more commonly, a lack of even knowing that there is a way to critically approach a topic.