Posts Tagged “lazy journalism”

February 08-09, 2013 Blizzard Storm Total Snow Accumulation/ by Brandon Vincent (National Weather Service Raleigh, NC) [Public domain], via Wikimedia CommonsI’ve blogged a time or two about New England’s famous “farmer’s almanacs” (there are two: the Farmers’ Almanac and the Old Farmer’s Almanac) and their nonsense “predictions” of what the winter will be. The Farmers’ Almanac has just released its prediction, and as the AP reports via CBS News, it’s rather dire (locally-cached article):

The Farmers’ Almanac is using words like “piercing cold,” “bitterly cold” and “biting cold” to describe the upcoming winter. And if its predictions are right, the first outdoor Super Bowl in years will be a messy “Storm Bowl.”

The 197-year-old publication that hits newsstands Monday predicts a winter storm will hit the Northeast around the time the Super Bowl is played at MetLife Stadium in the Meadowlands in New Jersey. It also predicts a colder-than-normal winter for two-thirds of the country and heavy snowfall in the Midwest, Great Lakes and New England.

“We’re using a very strong four-letter word to describe this winter, which is C-O-L-D. It’s going to be very cold,” said Sandi Duncan, managing editor.

The AP quite thoughtfully explains how we’re to be sure this “prediction” is accurate:

Based on planetary positions, sunspots and lunar cycles, the almanac’s secret formula is largely unchanged since founder David Young published the first almanac in 1818.

Modern scientists don’t put much stock in sunspots or tidal action, but the almanac says its forecasts used by readers to plan weddings and plant gardens are correct about 80 percent of the time.

Gee, I just love how the AP tells us that the Farmers’ Almanac must be accurate because its publisher says it’s accurate — and that, in turn, they back up by asserting that people use it to plan weddings. I am just so fucking glad they could clear that up for me!

I also love how they totally dismiss modern meteorology, as though no one has learned any more about the weather since 1818. I’m well aware of meteorology’s deficiencies … I was born and currently live in rural Connecticut, after all! … but to assume a putative prediction method dreamed up back in 1818 can’t possibly have been improved upon over the last two centuries? Come on. What a fucking joke!

The AP devoted just one clause of one sentence to mentioning that the two almanacs have skeptics, but nearly a couple of years ago, Discovery News ran a story addressing the almanacs’ accuracy, and they revealed there’s actually science behind that skepticism (cached):

Many atmospheric scientists and meteorologists scoff at the ability of olde-tyme formulas used by the digests to prognosticate the weather.…

For nigh on to two centuries, Americans have taken a gander at farmer’s almanacs for auguries about the weather. Millions of readers think they are the bee’s knees but atmospheric scientists scoff at the ability of olde-tyme formulas to prognosticate the weather.

“Based on my own analysis, and that of others, the monthly mean forecasts published by the ‘Old Farmer’s Almanac’ (OFA) lack value,” Nick Bond, of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and Washington’s State Climatologist, told Discovery News.

The “Farmers’ Almanac” and the “Old Farmer’s Almanac” are in competition with each other, but also face stiff competition from meteorologists with millions of dollars worth of satellites, radar dishes and other new-fangled contraptions.

The “Farmers’ Almanac” has weathered these scientific advances with stalwart faith in the founder’s formula.…

In 2003, Bond compared “Old Farmer’s Almanac” forecasts to actual weather events in the Pacific Northwest, the results are summarized in the Washington’s State Climatologist’s newsletter.

“The forecasts are sometimes correct. In terms of getting the sense of the weather anomalies right, for example whether it will be colder or warmer than normal, the OFA is correct about 50 percent of the time,” said Bond.

“Of course this is no better than flipping a coin,” he added.

Jan Null of Golden Gate Weather Services has compared “Old Farmer’s Almanac” forecasts to actual weather conditions across the United States for much of the 2000′s. His results corroborate those of Bond.

Back in 1981 another study, published in Weatherwise, looked at 60 monthly temperature and precipitation forecasts for 32 weather stations across the U.S. and compared them to “Old Farmer’s Almanac” forecasts. Once again, the accuracy of the “Old Farmer’s Almanac” was found to be no better than flipping a coin.

The almanacs’ claimed successes, it turns out, aren’t even true “successes”:

For example, the “Farmers’ Almanac” website notes they were “on the money,” when they forecast a hurricane threat for the Southeastern U.S. at the end of August, manifested in the form of Hurricane Irene.

“A forecast of a hurricane hitting the southeastern United States in August is probably a pretty good bet in any year,” said [U. of Missouri scientist Neil] Fox. “You tend to hear about these ‘remarkable’ predictions, but not, of course all the times they get it wrong! I certainly would not make my plans based on this.”

The bottom line is that the mass media have no viable excuse for reporting any of this bilge as though it were really “news.” They have even less excuse for reporting the almanacs’ claims about their own accuracy as though they were fact, when clearly they are merely raw assertions with no demonstrable basis. There’s no place for this kind of hypercredulity, at the AP or in any other newsroom. No one is served this insipid trash.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons.

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Archdiocese of Hartford / Parishes / St. Philip ChurchNote: See below for an update on this story.

A couple years ago, America’s Catholic bishops commissioned a report on child sexual abuse among its clergy, which concluded that it was a “historical problem” (in other words, something that had happened “historically,” but had stopped occurring). Unfortunately for the bishops and their sycophants who wrote this report, the reality is that child abuse by R.C. clergy is anything but “historical.” Here in Connecticut, just within the archdiocese of Hartford, it’s been an issue a few times within those past two years.

As one would expect — given that this is the archdiocese that dared use the “but the victims enjoyed it” defense in court during a lawsuit — the Hartford Courant reports on yet another example of this “historical problem” that won’t seem to go away (WebCite cached article):

An East Windsor priest has been placed on leave by the Catholic Church after being accused of sexually abusing a minor, the Hartford Archdiocese said Monday.

The Rev. Paul Gotta had earlier come to public attention in June when he told police about an 18-year-old who had told him he was planning a memorable prank for his graduation ceremonies. Police later charged the teenager with attempting to make a bomb, possession of explosives and other charges.

The state Department of Children and Families has received a complaint of sexual abuse of a minor involving Gotta, who is administrator of St. Philip and St. Catherine churches in East Windsor, said Maria Zone, spokeswoman for the archdiocese. Police are investigating the allegation, she said in a written statement.

Note, this revelation didn’t reach police attention because of anything the archdiocese did. It appears — somehow — to have been a side-effect of Gotta having reported a teen’s threat of violence against his school. The Courant article itself is strange reading, since it doesn’t connect the child-abuse allegation with the bomb threat. The article, as written, is basically a single report of two different incidents. A pretty substantial amount of information is completely missing from the story. Given the decline of journalism, this isn’t really surprising … sorry to say.

At any rate, the bishops’ contention that child abuse by its clergy is merely “historical,” is a lie. And they know it.

Update: Things just got a whole helluva lot worse for the Rev. Gotta. The Courant reports he was just arrested on federal charges (cached). The ATF and East Windsor police accuse him of helping a juvenile get firearms. It also seems the Reverend may have helped him make a gun:

The warrant also states that Bass said he and Gotta had discussed making a shotgun, which he tested in the backyard in the presence of the priest.

This is one seriously bad situation for a priest — of all people! — to have gotten himself into.

Photo credit: Archdiocese of Hartford.

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Hartford Courant / Photo page / CNN Breaking News tweets 'Supreme Court strikes down individual mandate portion of health care law'Folks, I’ve said it before and will say it again: It pays to be skeptical. Of everything. This morning offered a great example of why caution is in order. As the Hartford Courant explains, two major media outlets — CNN and Fox News — both published erroneous information on the Supreme Court decision released this morning (WebCite cached article):

For CNN and Fox News, among other news organizations, the twitter frenzy proved to be a source of embarrassment. Both news organizations falsely reported that the bill had been struck down, as did those who repeated the error.

A tweet by CNN Breaking News (@cnnbrk) containing the incorrect report was retweeted over 1,100 times. For example, Huffington Post tweeted “We jumped the gun in following them (Fox and CNN). Apologies for the confusion.” …

CNN originally tweeted that the Supreme Court struck down the individual mandate for health care and displayed the information prominently on their website. Their blunder also unfolded on television, where Wolf Blitzer said the network had received conflicting reports. The network was forced to publicly issue a retraction.

Fox News also displayed incorrect information, as they displayed a television banner reading, “Supreme Court Finds Individual Mandate Unconstitutional.” The network changed it’s message soon after re-reading the court’s decision.

Note that this is eerily similar to something that played out, nearly as famously, some 6 months ago, when former Penn State head football coach Joe Paterno was prematurely reported dead. The same impulse, it seems, was at play here … CNN and Fox News were so eager to release a story — any story! — on the highly-watched case, that they didn’t take a few moments to check and see if what they were spewing was factual. They may well have had a story “pre-written” and launched it, without even taking the time to be sure it had any relation to the decision itself.

It’s nice that the Courant reported this error, but I note — with chagrin — that they did so within the framework of a different faulty journalistic trope, that is, “news-that’s-not-really-news.” The article’s lede is:

Twitter activity around today’s Supreme Court decision on the Affordable Care Act peaked at more than 13,000 tweets per minute at 10:17 a.m., significantly more than the 900 TPM that was tracked during the oral arguments in March, reports Rachael Horwitz, a representative from Twitter.com.

The article adds that lots of Google searches were made for the story, too. Listen, reporters, I don’t need to be told that “people use Twitter” or that “people use Google.” Nor do I need to be told that Twitter use and Google searches spike when a big story breaks. Those are both things I already knew, without having to be told. What on earth made you think that’s “news”? It’s not. You guys really need to stop already with that trope. OK?

Update: Media critic Howard Kurtz at the Daily Beast has pointed out that not only did some media outlets get the story factually wrong, initially, but they had also had made what turn out to have been inaccurate predictions of the results of the case (cached). Hindsight, as they say, is 20/20, so perhaps it’s not fair to condemn legal pundits like Jeffrey Toobin for not having gotten it right … but isn’t that a reason for them just to refrain from making predictions at all? The mass media are now jammed full of yammering, talking-head “pundits” who present themselves as prescient and all-knowing, and prattle endlessly about things they cannot necessarily know with as much certainty as they claim. Yet, they continually do it. Even after they’ve been proven wrong about things, on multiple occasions.

I would love for there to be a “pundit-prediction database” in which every prediction made by the talking heads is collected up and then evaluated to see if it came true. Then we might be able to hold these jabbering windbags accountable for their nonsense and gibberish. We already have something like this — informally anyway — for politicians, in the PolitiFact and FactCheck projects. There’s no reason this principle can’t be extended to media figures too.

Photo credit: Hartford Courant (cached).

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High resolution scan of engraving by Gustave Doré illustrating Canto XXXIV of Divine Comedy, Inferno, by Dante Alighieri. Caption: Lucifer, King of HellLike so many other media outlets, the folks at WTIC-TV in Hartford seem to have run out of material to fill their nightly news, to the point that they ran a story on exorcisms in my home state of Connecticut. I’ll grant the Nutmeg State has some history in that regard. It’s home to the famous ghost-hunters, the Warrens (Lorraine and her late husband Ed). The famous “demon murder trial” took place here in the 1980s. It was the setting of the 2009 movie The Haunting in Connecticut. Famously haunted places in Connecticut include the abandoned hamlet of Dudleytown, the defunct Norwich State Hospital, Union Cemetery in Easton, and Pettibone’s Tavern (now Abigail’s Grill) … just to name a few.

In their effort to pursue the “hauntings as news” motif I’ve blogged about so many times already, the folks at WTIC-TV ran this story on a paranormal-investigation group and one of their recent cases (WebCite cached version). Unfortunately this is a video report only, and there doesn’t seem to be any way for me to embed it here … so you’ll have to click on the link in order to see it.

They report — uncritically — that a “spiritual battle” is underway, and that “in recent years, it has intensified.” The group they follow is called Connecticut Spirit Investigators, and the reporter cites its claimed 40-year history as a way to grant the group credibility. The group’s high-tech equipment is also on display. What is never explained, is precisely how the group “knows” that a stray magnetic field or a cold spot in a room can only be caused by a ghost, spook, spirit, demon or devil, and can’t possibly have any mundane explanation. They also seem to think weird noises coming from their so-called “ghost box” are proof that supernatural entities lurk at a place; I think it’s proof only that these folks have deluded themselves.

The reporter also claims the group’s “investigation” (if one could call what they do “investigating”) led to an exorcism being performed by a “Bishop McKenna” who’d also exorcised demons in the famous Amityille Horror case. The reporter may have considered this impressive, but I don’t. The famous Amityville, NY haunting turned out to have been a hoax (cached)! Also, the “bishop” in question would have to be Robert McKenna, whose consecration as bishop is suspect, and who in any event is a schismatic (he claims the popes after Pius XII have all been illegitimate); it’s extremely unlikely that McKenna has ever received official approval to perform any exorcisms.

The reporter also brings in another evangelist for ghost-hunting, Fr Bob Bailey from Rhode Island (who’s also appeared on the show Paranormal State). Fr Bailey pontificates on the eternal “cosmic struggle” mentioned at the beginning of the piece, as though he’s an authority on the subject, and not a paid hack who makes money making such claims.

The reporter ends the piece by stating that none of the region’s diocesan offices would discuss the matter, and referred the station directly to the Vatican. That also didn’t go anywhere, apparently. And that’s no surprise … the Catholic Church doesn’t really talk about exorcism — at least, not officially.

At no time during this piece was there even the slightest hint that the interviewees’ claims were anything less than 100% true. At no time does the reporter point out that there is not one iota of objective evidence of the existence of ghosts, demons, poltergeists, devils, souls, Satan, haunted houses, possessions, or the slightest veracity for any of the “paranormal investigators’” antics. At no time does the viewer hear that there’s no objective evidence that any “spiritual battle” is going on at all, much less any evidence offered that it has “intensified in recent years.” At no time did the reporter ask any probing questions, such as “How does any of your equipment prove there’s a ghost or demon here?” There’s nothing about this story that suggests it’s anything other than a puff-piece on CT Spirit Investigators.

I guess this is what passes for 21st century journalism. Unfortunately.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons.

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Cartoon ghost / lemmlingA man right here in Connecticut claims he’s invented a ghost detector. And at least one newspaper has published an article about him which conveys his claim and leaves it unchallenged. This is all part of the “hauntings as news” motif I’ve noticed over the last couple of years and have blogged about on numerous occasions. At any rate, here’s the venerable Hartford Courant‘s puff-piece on this “engineer” who now claims to be able to detect ghosts (WebCite cached article):

In 2004, 17-year-old Melissa Galka, a senior at Granby Memorial High School, died after the car she was driving hit a tree in town.

Within days of her death, her father said, she begin communicating with her family.

“She started doing things like ringing the doorbell, changing TV channels, turning lights on and off,” Gary Galka said Monday. “Then one time she came into my room and I felt her sit on the edge of the bed.”

Now Galka has a thriving trade in paranormal detection devices, launched as a result of those eery events.

Note the obviously-sentimental and sympathetic lede in this story. The reader is supposed to believe what this guy tells us, because as a bereaved father, he somehow “knows” more about ghosts than any of the rest of us. While I sympathize with his plight — I really, truly, honestly do; I have lost relatives myself, after all — and while it makes for a dramatic story that reporters and editors are sure will “sell,” none of this grants Galka’s invention any veracity, and it doesn’t make what he’s doing “news.” It just doesn’t.

I also honestly doubt there’s anything new here. After all, “paranormal investigators” have been using EMF detectors to chase after ghosts, for decades. I’m not sure how Galka’s device is appreciably different from any of the myriad other EMF detectors that have been used this way … except that he seems to be marketing them specifically to ghost-hunters.

I suggest Galka and/or fans of this device — if they’re so convinced it does what they claim it does — put this device to the test, and collect a huge payday, while they’re at it. They should immediately submit an application to James “the Amazing” Randi’s Million Dollar Paranormal Challenge. I’m not sure why they would not want to do so; a million dollars is, after all, a lot of money to just leave there, waiting to be claimed.

It’s inevitable that grieving people will come up with things like Mel-Meter and the SB7 Spirit Box. It’s quite natural. And as I said, I really do sympathize with Galka. What I find unacceptable here is the Courant‘s lazy and uncritical reporting on Galka’s devices. The story clearly implies they do precisely what Galka says they do — i.e. detect ghosts — however, they in fact do nothing of the sort. In truth, ghosts do not exist; they cannot be detected; they don’t haunt buildings or graveyards; psychics do not talk to them; and science has never demonstrated that they exist. The Courant doesn’t even include a brief comment from a “token skeptic” — but it does add Galka’s own childish swipe at skeptics, expecting them “to ‘take a better position’” (as if it’s up to him, personally, to decide what “positions” are “better” than others). The nation’s oldest newspaper can do better than this … and it should. What a waste.

Photo credit: lemmling, via Open Clip Art Library.

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Stop-SignThis post has been updated; please see below.

If you need a lesson in the value of skepticism, here’s a great example. First, the media widely reported that the beloved former Penn State football coach Joe Paterno was in the hospital at death’s door, with the added dramatic detail that his family had been summoned to his side (WebCite cached article). This news was rapidly propagated to all the mass media outlets.

Then, another more alarming report hit the wires and flashed across all outlets even quicker: “Joe Pa has died.” Unfortunately, that part of the story turns out not to have been true. Paterno’s family had to get the word out that the college football patriarch had not passed on. CNN reports on this debacle of idiotic hypereager journalism (cached):

The race to report started at 8:45 p.m. Saturday.

The Penn State student news website Onward State posted an item saying legendary former football coach Joe Paterno had died.

Within minutes, the misinformation pinged from one major news outlet to another, like a metal ball in a pinball machine.

CNN goes on to explain how this false story pinged around various venues — including the CBS Sports Web site and @breakingnews on Twitter — until Joe Pa’s family took measures to contradict it.

One of the cardinal rules of journalism — last I knew — is that you don’t report anything until you’ve confirmed it. Yet, it doesn’t appear that Onward State, CBS Sports, or @breakingnews made any effort to do so before writing or relaying this report.

CNN dutifully adds something of an apologia for this obvious breach of the rules of journalism:

The incident highlighted the crucial clash in today’s hyper-competitive news environment: getting it fast versus getting it right.

Even so, I’m not sure at what point, amid this “pressure to report as quickly as possible,” the journalistic duty to “confirm before reporting” was revoked. But who knows … maybe I missed the edict that disposed of it?

At any rate, this just goes to show, you can’t always believe what you read, hear, or see in the mass media. They can — and sometimes do — get things wrong. Monumentally wrong. And they do it more often now than they used to.

The cold hard fact is that the mass media are prone to run things they either do not check out at all, have only minimally reviewed, or don’t even understand in the first place (rendering them incapable of verifying it, even if they wished to). It’s not just “breaking news” items like this one that they get wrong; they’re frequently wrong where science, the metaphysical, or history is concerned.

I just can’t say it enough: Be skeptical, folks!

Update: It’s now being reported that Joe Paterno died this morning (Sunday, January 22, 2012), as it turns out (cached). So it might seem as though I’m accusing the media of having run an erroneous story, which actually was true. But that’s not the case: Paterno was not dead last night, when this story originally flashed around the media. That story was wrong. This one may or may not turn out to be wrong.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons.

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Jack O' Lantern - Witches' BrewHalloween seems to bring out the ridiculous in a lot of Americans. And the mass media have more than a little to do with it. A common mantra every year is that children are sickened and sometimes killed by trick-or-treat candy, every year, because they ingested a “treat” that had been poisoned. Unfortunately for this all-too-common myth, it simply is not true (WebCite cached article). This year, the concern voiced by local media here in Connecticut is not toxic treats, but sex offenders. For instance, WTIC-AM 1080 in Hartford offers this proud announcement that the state plans to head off this danger (cached):

Connecticut Department of Correction parole officers will be conducting unannounced home visits and surveillance of the roughly 250 sex offenders under their supervision, for Halloween.

Offenders have been advised to have no contact with minors, keep their outside lights off, and not answer the door for trick or treaters.

And the venerable Hartford Courant dutifully carries a virtually-identical story (cached):

Trick-or-treaters may not be the only ones showing up on Connecticut doorsteps this Halloween.

Parole officers will make unannounced visits to sex offenders’ homes, although the offenders may not know it, the Department of Correction announced Thursday.

They’ll be watching to make sure offenders are not having contact with minors — even those who show up at their homes. The sex offenders have been told to keep their outside lights off and refrain from answering their doors, the agency stated in a press release.

Right at the start, let me state that there is clearly a potential danger here, that some child might unknowingly knock on the door of a sex offender. Clearly that’s possible. I don’t deny it, not in the slightest.

But let’s put this in perspective. It’s exceedingly rare for any child to go trick-or-treating alone, not to mention unsupervised. (We used to go out by ourselves when I was a kid, but that never happens these days. More’s the pity.) The chances that any given sex offender might answer the door and be faced with a lone trick-or-treater he might be able to molest, are extremely remote.

Making this an even more improbable scenario, please note that we’re talking about 250 sex offenders. Yes, that’s 250 … in a state with a population in excess of 3.5 million! The average child in Connecticut will not even go near a sex offender’s home in the first place. A child trick-or-treating at 25 homes (for instance) has a 0.179% chance of encountering a sex offender. That’s right, not even .2 percent of a chance.

(Updated to add: My figures here are wrong. CT has an average household size of 2.52. This means the odds of a trick-or-treater encountering a sex offender while visiting 25 homes, is actually 0.45%. Higher than I cited, but still certainly not significant.)

Talk about a ridiculous non-story. Give me a fucking break!

P.S. In the world of Christian religionism, it turns out that some of them are more than a bit miffed that Halloween is too non-Christian a holiday. So they’ve launched a campaign to celebrate Jesus Ween instead (cached). Yes, you read that right: Jesus Ween (cached). The less said about that, the better, I think … !

Photo credit: De’Nick’nise.

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