Posts Tagged “mass media”

you probably don't wanna knowIt’s another “you’ve gotta be fucking kidding me” moment in the mass media’s shambolic hypercoverage of Malaysia Airlines flight 370. This time, CNN’s HLN network brought a psychic — of all things — on national television to “find” the missing airplane. Mediaite reports on this sad debacle (WebCite cached article):

On Thursday night, HLN invited a psychic to discuss what she think [sic] may have been the fate of the lost airliner and the 239 souls that were on board that plane.…

“Naturally, I don’t have hard, concrete evidence,” Lisa Williams confessed. “I think any psychic who has hard, concrete evidence can’t do their job correctly.”

“They’ll just work off what they know,” she continued. “I tend to work off what I don’t know.”

Considering that a lot of psychics make claims that are so vague as to fit with nearly anything, and which therefore ultimately are non-informative, Williams actually said a few fairly specific things:

Williams said that her powers are telling her that some of the passengers are still alive and are being held in an undisclosed location. She added that she knew this because she was attempting to contact MH370?s lost passengers for their living relatives.

“I do believe that it actually crashed, and I see a lot of trees,” Williams revealed. “I think there is a larger organization behind this that is leading us off track with this debris.”

“Do you think we’re going to get an absolute resolution?” Hutt asked Williams.

Williams said that she was just informed by the voices in her “witchy woo land” that the mystery behind the plane’s disappearance will be finally resolved “within the next three weeks.”

Once more is learned about MH370′s fate, at least some of these claims can be confirmed or refuted. But the problem here is that she made several claims which are independent of one another, and if just one of them turns out to be correct, Williams can claim she was “right” about it all along and that her powers have been verified. In other words, while her individual claims are specific and most are (potentially) testable, that she “shotgunned” them out introduces the sort of vagueness that psychics tend to rely on in order to appear as though they have ESP.

It won’t matter that any of the rest of her claims turn out to be wrong: So long as just one of her statements can be construed as verified, the whole package will be widely viewed as “confirmed.” For example, if it’s discovered that the plane fell somewhere in the ocean, her statement that “it actually crashed” will have been “confirmed” and people will say her magical powers have been verified. That she mentioned trees and survivors being held somewhere, will be conveniently forgotten.

I wasn’t able to embed Mediaite’s video of HLN’s laughable absurdity, but did find it on Youtube, which you can view here:

By now we should all realize how ridiculous this wall-to-wall coverage has been. This bullshit needs to just fucking stop. If media outlets don’t have any news to report about flight 370, they should just not report anything … and then move on to other material. Making up bullshit like appeals to the supernatural, black holes, and trotting out “psychics” is just asinine beyond words and there is no excuse for it. Not one.

Finally, I note that the HLN host who introduced this segment states, at the start of it, “In the past, governments have used psychics to help with searches.” While this may be true on its face, it does nothing to support the effectiveness of psychic powers or psychics’ ability to find things. Yes, some governments, including the US and USSR, have dabbled in things like remote viewing. However, all those projects died out decades ago, due to the lack of useful results from any of these psi-ops, and the reality that psychic powers have never been demonstrated to work. And while some folks claim to be “psychic detectives,” not one crime has ever been shown to have been solved by a psychic. Not once. Ever. The HLN host’s appeal is a misleading one, and a journalist ought never to have attempted granting psychics credibility by using it.

Photo credit: Flood G, via Flickr.

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Paris Tuileries Garden Facepalm statueI’ve blogged previously about the foibles of journalism and the mass media. Mostly I’ve complained that they take things like pseudoscience and pseudomedicine too seriously; follow a “duellistic” approach to reporting (i.e. telling two opposing, and usually wrong, sides of something, expecting the truth will magically pop out of them — somehow); think regurgitating press releases actually helps readers understand things; and treat anyone with a book to sell or documentary to promote like a credentialed expert on a topic, even if they’ve got their heads up their asses.

Most of these horrible trends have come about because of the long decline of journalism in the advent of the Internet; it’s hard for them to make money in an era where most news is free to anyone with an Internet-connected device (which have become ubiquitous). This means newsrooms have very little staff any more, and those who remain in them have little time for serious investigation of anything. Everyone connected with the media have offered endless excuses for this, but the bottom line is, journalism is now pretty fucking bad and only getting worse.

But lo! Chris Powell, managing editor of the Journal Inquirer in Manchester, CT has got it all figured out. The problem, he claims, is not with the economics of journalism in the World Wide Web age, but rather, because there are too many single-parent households (locally-cached article):

Even in a supposedly prosperous and well-educated state like Connecticut, how strong can demand for those things be now that half the children are being raised without two parents at home and thus acquiring developmental handicaps; 70 percent of community college and state university freshmen have not mastered what used to be considered basic high school skills; poverty has risen steadily even as government appropriations in the name of remediating poverty have risen steadily; and democracy has sunk so much that half the eligible population isn’t voting in presidential elections, 65 percent isn’t voting in state elections, and 85 percent isn’t voting in municipal elections?

This social disintegration and decline in civic engagement coincide with the decline of traditional journalism just as much as the rise of the Internet does.

If you thought Powell blaming the demise of journalism on the existence of single-parent households, and accusing single parents of giving their children “developmental handicaps” isn’t bad enough, hold on to your seats, because he digs in even harder and insults single-parent households even more:

Indeed, newspapers still can sell themselves to traditional households — two-parent families involved with their children, schools, churches, sports, civic groups, and such. But newspapers cannot sell themselves to households headed by single women who have several children by different fathers, survive on welfare stipends, can hardly speak or read English, move every few months to cheat their landlords, barely know what town they’re living in, and couldn’t afford a newspaper subscription even if they could read. And such households constitute a rising share of the population.

This is such a vile verbal assault, I hardly know where to begin critiquing it. I’m truly astonished that anyone in 21st century Connecticut can be saying that single mothers all live on welfare, are illiterate, move often in order “to cheat their landlords,” are ignorant of their whereabouts, and can’t afford newspapers. Where did he get these ideas? I suspect he would answer that by saying he knows of a single mother or two that have done these things, which (in the cavernous, echoing void which is his brain) constitutes irrefutable “proof” that all of them are like that. His complaint is probably more appropriate to the 1980s and early 90s, before welfare reform, because welfare benefits have an expiration date, now; no one can viably “live on” them. I wonder if he’d planned to mention Ronald Reagan’s legendary “welfare queen” but, for some reason, left it out.

I know folks raised by single mothers who are very educated (including several who’ve graduated from college, one a CPA, another a lawyer even), very literate, and who read and buy newspapers. So I can’t really imagine what Mr Powell’s problem is with these folks.

Moreover, Powell’s historiography is off. Single-parent households have been on a long rise since the 50s, yet the decline of journalism was more precipitous, and didn’t begin until the late 90s and early 00s. That alone shows he’s blaming the wrong bogeyman.

I suggest that, instead of childishly and petulantly railing against and outright insulting single mothers and their children, Mr Powell should grow the hell up, pull on his “big boy” pants, and actually work as the managing editor of his paper. It may be difficult to do, and I imagine he’d much rather blame his industry’s problems on someone or something else … but too fucking bad. It’s his job. He picked it. He needs to fucking do it … or resign.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Hat tip: Hypervocal.

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Pay no attention to headlines ... they lie! (PsiCop original)It’s not news that the numbers of “Nones,” or the religiously-unaffiliated, are growing in the US. It’s been documented for several years now, particularly after Trinity College’s ARIS 2008 project generated a report in 2009 about what they called “the Nones,” or the religiously-unaffiliated. This week, the Pew Forum released the results of their own survey on the matter. They find that “the Nones” are growing in number (WebCite cached version):

The number of Americans who do not identify with any religion continues to grow at a rapid pace. One-fifth of the U.S. public — and a third of adults under 30 — are religiously unaffiliated today, the highest percentages ever in Pew Research Center polling.

In the last five years alone, the unaffiliated have increased from just over 15% to just under 20% of all U.S. adults. Their ranks now include more than 13 million self-described atheists and agnostics (nearly 6% of the U.S. public), as well as nearly 33 million people who say they have no particular religious affiliation (14%).

This part of the report has generated any number of mass-media stories trumpeting the growth of “atheists”; for example, this one from Canada’s National Post, whose headline reads as follows (cached):

Rise of the atheists: U.S. Protestants lose majority status as church attendance falls

The NP article itself fails to mention atheists or atheism very much, only noting that they’re merely a subset of the “religiously unaffiliated.” So where does this headline come from?

The truth is that this survey doesn’t really tell us a whole lot about atheists or atheism specifically. The folks at Pew are, themselves, quite clear on this:

This large and growing group of Americans is less religious than the public at large on many conventional measures, including frequency of attendance at religious services and the degree of importance they attach to religion in their lives.

However, a new survey by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life, conducted jointly with the PBS television program Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly, finds that many of the country’s 46 million unaffiliated adults are religious or spiritual in some way. Two-thirds of them say they believe in God (68%). More than half say they often feel a deep connection with nature and the earth (58%), while more than a third classify themselves as “spiritual” but not “religious” (37%), and one-in-five (21%) say they pray every day.

The fact is, the majority of the religiously unaffiliated as identified in polls such as Pew’s and the earlier ARIS survey, are believers. They simply don’t belong to any religious organization and don’t attend services regularly. But they remain religious people.

The Pew data itself shows that those designated as “Atheist” has grown only 0.8% since 2007, and “Agnostic” has grown only 1.2% in that time. These results can hardly justify any of the media headlines (such as the above) declaring that “Atheism” is growing astronomically. It isn’t. Non-believers are assuredly a minority in the US, and they’re likely to remain so, for quite some time to come. Only paranoid religionists would fear they’re going to be outnumbered and have their beliefs outlawed.

P.S. The full report is available on Pew’s Web site (cached).

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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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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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Smallpox vaccineStrangely, after the antivax movement has been demonstrated to be pseudomedicine, and after a number of outlets have formally retracted their prior involvement in it, CBS News has decided to weigh in on the putative link between childhood vaccinations and autism, and has gone over to the side of the quacks, cranks, pseudoscientists and sanctimonious mommies (WebCite cached article):

For all those who’ve declared the autism-vaccine debate over – a new scientific review begs to differ. It considers a host of peer-reviewed, published theories that show possible connections between vaccines and autism.

The article in the Journal of Immunotoxicology is entitled “Theoretical aspects of autism: Causes–A review.”

CBS News’ Sharyl Attkisson, this article’s author, uses a fallacious appeal to authority in order to grant this study greater weight and credibility:

The author is Helen Ratajczak, surprisingly herself a former senior scientist at a pharmaceutical firm.

Here, Atkisson implies that, since the author worked for a pharma company — thus, one would she’d support the use of vaccines — then if she’s decided otherwise, why, the evidence must be incredibly compelling, no? Unfortunately that’s not how these things work.

Attkisson further implies that no one has been scientifically reviewing the supposed link between vaccines and autism (“Ratajczak did what nobody else apparently has bothered to do …”) but that is absolutely not true. Of course other people have reviewed the matter! Atkisson also mischaracterizes the study as Ratajczak’s own original work, but it’s not … it’s merely her review of other people’s studies. (That, of course, does not in itself invalidate what she says, but it does mean that Atkisson is making the study seem to be something other than it truly is.)

Another way Atkisson tried to grant greater authority to this study, is by implying that the CDC … which has consistently said there is no connection between vaccines and autism … was stunned speechless by it:

We wanted to see if the CDC wished to challenge Ratajczak’s review, since many government officials and scientists have implied that theories linking vaccines to autism have been disproven, and Ratajczak states that research shows otherwise. CDC officials told us that “comprehensive review by CDC…would take quite a bit of time.”

All in all, I must give CBS News and Sharyl Attkisson credit. They certainly crafted a marvelous piece of yellow journalism. They must be so proud!

Hat tip: Skeptic’s Dictionary.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons.

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Glenn Beck speaking at CPAC by Gage SkidmoreThe nation’s most famous paranoid schizophrenic continues to spew his batshit-insane conspiracy theories. I’ve blogged about Glenn Beck’s sanctimonious insanity, towering rage, colossal stupidity, vast ignorance, and fact-deprivation. His latest spew involves “the New World Order” being launched out of Egypt, where a relatively-peaceful revolution recently toppled president Hosni Mubarak. The Los Angeles Times reports on this latest round of lunatic drivel from the Beckster (WebCite cached article):

We saw all the character traits from one figure looming over the Egypt story: the massive shows of emotion, the sketchy command of others’ views, the megalomaniacal refusal to recognize facts on the ground. And, as always, the willingness to say and do anything to command the stage for one more day.

We speak not of Hosni Mubarak, but of that other master of manipulation and misdirection, Glenn Beck. …

In the case of Egypt and its democracy movement, the Fox News performer sees not the energetic amalgam of students, shopkeepers, bureaucrats, intellectuals and professionals who virtually every real journalist in Cairo has described in recent days. Beck’s evening chalkboard talks instead fulminate endlessly about the shadowy forces that will surely bring “the coming insurrection.”

Beckie-boy is worried about something he calls “the Caliphate,” which — somehow — will plunge the entire world into a new Dark Age:

The menace that he envisions far outstrips that described even by other conservative commentators. Beck forecasts a wave of Muslim extremism sweeping from Egypt to the rest of the Mideast. He says this “caliphate,” or at least its revolutionary soul, could well darken Europe, if not our own shores.

But much worse than this nefarious Islamic conspiracy to destroy humanity, Beckie-boy claims the mass media are actually part of the conspiracy, actively working to prevent anyone from knowing about it:

Beck rolled out a battalion of bogeymen who he said willfully refused to recognize his vision. The crazy lefties in the press stood first among the accused. He belittled the New York Times, for one, because it identified “liberals, socialists and members of the Muslim Brotherhood” among the protesters, but did not recognize them as a) a mortal threat and b) part of a worldwide cabal. “Notice they don’t say communist yet,” he intoned darkly of the Times report.

But the media couldn’t cover up the looming catastrophe all by themselves, he suggested. No, that would take the collusion of the people Beck on Thursday called “the Harvard know-it-alls that have no clue.” And then there’s the Fellow Traveler in Chief, whose name Beck doesn’t even need to say. Instead, he merely compares those wild-eyed Tahrir Square maniacs to “community organizers.” We get the message.

Indeed we do! In Beckie-boy’s twisted universe, “community organizers” = “Barack Obama” = “ACORN” = “George Soros” = “fascism” = “communism.” Beckie-boy is pathologically incapable of separating things he dislikes or has subjectively determined to be bad. Everything he hates is equivalent to, and marches in lock-step with, everything else he hates. Conflation is his stock-in-trade.

For the record, Glennie, the reason the New York Times hasn’t mentioned “communism” yet, in conjunction with the Egyptian revolution, is because there is zero evidence that the protestors who finally got Mubarak to quit, are communists, or directed by them! The Times can’t report something for which there is no support.

At the risk of pointing out the obvious, I must observe that the Beckster himself is part and parcel of the very same mass media he claims is orchestrating this horrific scenario; he has a nationally-syndicated radio show, he’s published several books, he’s on Fox News nightly, and formerly had been on CNN Headline News. One must wonder why he’s biting the hand that feeds him. When Beckie-boy talks about the mass media, he is, by definition, also talking about himself and the rest of his furiously sanctimonious Religious Right colleagues at Fox News! Talk about hypocrisy! (By the way, Glenn … hypocrisy is something your own Jesus clearly, explicitly, and unambiguously forbid you to engage in. Christians such as yourself cannot ever be hypocritical. Period. So please, for the sake of your eternal soul, stop kvetching and griping about how horrific the “mass media.” Every time you condemn them, you condemn yourself.)

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons/Gage Skidmore.

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