Posts Tagged “bad journalism”

Free vector graphic: Ghost, Spooky, Cheeky, Ghostly - Free Image on Pixabay - 156969, via PixabayIt’s been quite awhile since I blogged about the inane journalistic phenomenon of “hauntings as news.” That’s when some otherwise-reputable journalist pens a story telling the world that some place is haunted. I just saw another example of this in a nearby newspaper, the (Torrington, CT) Register-Citizen, reporting on an astonishing “revelation” (Archive.Is cached article):

The Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, Colorado is believed by many to be haunted by ghosts, and one family’s photo is the latest to attempt to give credence to the ghostly claims.

The Mausling family of Aurora, Colorado was on a “spirit tour” of the 108-year-old hotel on Sept. 16 when John “Jay” Mausling claims to have snapped a photo of what he says appears to be two ghosts.

It’s really funny that anyone would be astonished at seeing a “ghost” while on a “spirit tour” of a supposedly-haunted building. Why, of course they did! Why, of course the people running this “spirit tour” set up that illusion! I can’t handle relaying any more of this laughable dreck.

Let me be perfectly clear: There are no ghosts. Buildings cannot be haunted. No one can speak with the dead. This is outrageous fucking bullshit … period, end of story.

The reason newspapers resort to “hauntings as news” should be obvious, and that’s because it’s easy reporting. Either people come to reporters with their “tips” directly, or they post them online, but either way, they basically package the story for the reporter, making it simple, easy, and quick. In an age of shrinking newsrooms, hauntings are a fast and ready way to fill up the newshole. In this case, there was the added plus of an association between the place of this claimed “haunting” and the famous movie The Shining. That makes it “catchy” and will help collect eyeballs.

But none of that grants this story — or any other like it — merit. It doesn’t mean the Stanley Hotel is haunted. It doesn’t mean anyone photographed an actual “ghost.” Stories like this one are massive journalistic “fails.”

Photo credit: Pixabay.

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“Then I will declare to them solemnly, ‘I never knew you. Depart from me, you evildoers.’” (Matthew 7:23, New American Bible)I’ve blogged before about Bishop Robert Finn of Kansas City, who some 2½ years ago had been convicted of failing to report the abuse of a minor (WebCite cached article). In the real world most of us live in, being convicted of criminal wrongdoing while on the job usually results in an automatic firing from that job.

But in the strange, surreal, alternate universe of the Roman Catholic hierarchy, that doesn’t hold true. The bishops don’t generally like to have to pay too much attention to insignificant little things like criminal courts. They’re above all that, you see. So Finn was able to keep his post.

Until today. As Religion News Service reports, at long last — 2½ years after his conviction — the Vatican deigned to allow Finn, finally, to resign (cached):

Pope Francis has accepted the resignation of an American bishop who was found guilty of failing to tell police about a suspected pedophile priest.

The Vatican on Tuesday (April 21) said the pope accepted the resignation of Bishop Robert Finn, who led the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph in Missouri.

The resignation was offered under the code of canon law that allows a bishop “who has become less able to fulfill his office because of ill health or some other grave cause” to resign.

What’s remarkable about this is not that it took so long for the Vatican to act, or for Finn to quit. The Church had long resisted admitting Finn had done anything wrong in the first place — even after his conviction. But what’s remarkable is that he was let go after 2½ years. That amount of time strongly suggests there had originally been no intention of having him leave. Something changed — maybe 1½ to 2 years later — that made this happen … but what was it? I have no idea.

The other thing I’ve noticed, in reporting on this, is that media outlets (including the RNS article I cited, plus many others) make little or no mention of the 2½ year delay between Finn’s conviction and his resignation. I can’t imagine why that’s the case. This delay is certainly noteworthy, and anyone reporting on it ought to have mentioned it … even if only to concede there’s no known reason for it. Religion reporters appear to have taken a pass on that part of the story. It’s hard to imagine why, but they have. For this reason, I’m marking this as an example of a “journalism FAIL.” The delay should have been reported, if not thoroughly investigated — but it wasn’t.

Photo credit: PsiCop original graphic, based on Mt 7:23, NAB.

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Ebola Facts - v by SouthernBreeze, on FlickrIt’s old news by now that Ebola virus has been on a tear through three different west African countries. It’s also not news that a man came to Texas from Liberia carrying Ebola and eventually died of it in a Dallas, TX hospital. What’s more, it’s also not news that two nurses who’d cared for him have contracted it (cached). All of that is bad enough. But the reaction to these stories has been … well, the phrase “fucking insane” may not quite do it justice.

First, we have the inevitable political reaction from Republicans using this as another way of tearing into Barack Obama’s hide. Their reactions range from the calm yet still irrational, demand that the CDC’s director resign (cached), which will accomplish nothing whatsoever, as well as demanding travel bans from the affected countries (cached), which also isn’t likely to do much good, to the extreme and ridiculous, such as bundling several crises into one big, neat package of hate, sanctimony, and paranoia by claiming ISIS/ISIL/IS fighters have contracted Ebola and are (cached) trying to get over the country’s southern border to infect Americans en masse (cached) — there is, of course, no evidence of any such conspiracy. And then there’s the garden-variety wingnut Religious Right wackiness of claiming Obama caused (cached) the Ebola crisis as a way of “taking over” or something (cached) — as though that makes any sense at all.

But on top of all this, we have a number of other asinine reactions (cached):

That’s not the limit of the insanity, but it’s enough to illustrate what I’m talking about. It really needs to fucking stop already.

I’m with Shepard Smith of Fox News. Please watch as he decimates the (largely media-driven) insanity:

Smith cites influenza, which annually kills thousands of Americans, as a much greater danger than Ebola, but I can think of another, that being Enterovirus D68, which currently is something of a problem in the US. Although Ebola is more deadly than either of these, Americans are incredibly less likely to contract it. Which means it’s not something they have any reason to be terrified about. The panicking lunacy is enough to make me tag this post “you’ve gotta be fucking kidding me.”

OK, people, I get it. You don’t want Ebola. Really, I understand. I don’t want it either. But this blind panic isn’t going to help you avoid it. I’ll tell you what will: Calm down, grow up, and get over it, fercryinoutloud!

Photo credit: SouthernBreeze, via Flickr.

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Scary Ghost / naoshika, via Open Clip Art LibraryIt’s been a while since I last blogged about the phenomenon of “hauntings as news.” Of course, that’s not because media outlets have stopped reporting on “hauntings” and other “paranormal” events as though they were legitimate news stories. Oh no. In this age of so-called “reality” shows featuring ghost hunters, mediums, etc., it’s obviously something the media have decided they’re not going to let go of.

And frankly, why should they? “Haunting” stories are the sorts of things that literally drop themselves into reporters’ laps. Either people tip reporters off to “hauntings,” or else they overhear a “haunting” story and decide to relay it. They might have to talk with a couple of people familiar with the supposedly-haunted location, but most of those folks are willing interviews who have a lot of information to give (or so they think). It’s quick and easy to write a “haunting” story … whereas, by comparison, most other types of real news are much harder to develop. In this age of pared-down newsrooms, one can see the appeal of such stories.

As for “reality” shows, supposed ghost hunters (cached) and “paranormal investigators” are very good at ginning up drama and staging things to appear however they wish them to. The shows’ producers don’t have to work too hard at their jobs. It’s easy money!

The latest example of “paranormal journalism” caught my eye — and engendered this blog post — because the venerable Hartford Courant reported flat-out that a building is haunted. As though it were definite and confirmed. There are no caveats, qualifiers, “reportedlys” or anything of the kind. Reporter Dan Haar lays it out unequivocally and unreservedly (WebCite cached article):

In Canton, near the town green, the contrast between The Junk Shop and The Blue House a few doors away is striking.

Both sell antiques and vintage furnishings but The Junk Shop, owned and run by Eric Hathaway, has the feel of a chaotic workshop and is open to noise from Route 44. The Blue House, owned and run by Eric’s wife, Kimberly Hathaway, is quiet, orderly, filled with linens and lace, artwork and clothing.

Oh, and The Blue House is haunted.

Did you catch that? It’s a simple, clear, unqualified statement: “… The Blue House is haunted.” Nothing else.

This is not the first time Connecticut’s newspaper of record has declared a building definitively “haunted”; I caught them at it right around 5 years ago. The Courant is also part of the same group (within the larger Tribune media conglomerate) which thought exorcisms were genuine “news” a couple years ago and told us all about how a “spiritual battle” is underway, and that “in recent years, it has intensified” … as though they’d somehow managed to verify that claim.

Anyone with a brain — and who can use it — knows there’s no such thing as a verified haunting. Lots of places are supposedly “haunted,” but that’s a far cry from being definitely known as “haunted.”

If Canton’s “The Blue House” has, in fact, been confirmed haunted, it ought to be trivial for its owners (or for reporter Haar or anyone else connected with the place) to provide verification of it. So let’s have it! Upon what objective evidence can anyone know this building is “haunted”? I dare someone to demonstrate it. (Oh, and when they’ve done so, they may as well turn around and apply for the million-dollar grant that the Randi Foundation will no doubt provide them.)

This is the kind the bullshit a paper like the Courant ought never to stoop to. It’s beneath their dignity, and their editors ought to have known better. And it’s a cheap way of grabbing eyeballs. As I said above, I get why they want to churn out stories like this. It’s easy writing and it’s dramatic. People like hearing this crap. Unfortunately, it remains crap, no matter how much readers might like it. And reporting affirmatively that a building is “haunted” without any verification that it actually is, is dishonest at best and lying at worst. It needs to fucking stop. It just does. No one is served by overly-credulous reporters repeating bullshit and lies as though it’s all true — no matter what excuse they come up with for having done so.

Photo credit: Naoshika, via Open Clip Art Library.

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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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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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Never underestimate the power of a moral panic to turn a society upside down. One example of a kind of moral panic which often gets out of control and leads to violence and death, is the phenomenon of the witch hunt. Other kinds of moral panics are a little less disruptive, such as the craziness over Satanic ritual abuse (which never really happened anywhere on the scale that was claimed back in the 80s). Another moral panic in the 20th century a bit less disruptive and sillier than that, is the campaign against comic books.

We may think we’ve risen above irrational moral panics, but the fact is that human nature has not changed, and — even though we live in the Information Age, with the entire Internet available to us — we are still vulnerable to “the madness of crowds,” as much as we ever were.

The most recent example of this is the vilification of “sexting,” or the sending of erotic images via electronic means (usually by cell-phone picture message), usually by minors. For instance, the Hartford Courant filed this “scare-journalism” report on this insidious trend which threatens to destroy America’s moral fiber and subject teens to the whims of the criminal justice system (WebCite cached article):

Sexting’s Pervasiveness, Dangers Detailed As Police, Lawyers Offer Ways To Shield Students

As if booze, drugs and tell-all Facebook profiles weren’t sufficiently alarming, parents should now add “sexting” to their well of worries.

That was part of the message Wednesday night at a district-sponsored public forum on technology and teens that drew about 200 people to the Conard High School auditorium. They were mostly parents, some of whom brought their kids, but it was the police officers and attorneys in the crowd and onstage who underscored the topic’s gravity.

As if to hammer home the horrific nature of this unconscionable crime, the Courant goes on to report:

“Sexting” is sending or receiving text messages that include nude or sexual images, and as Lt. Donald Melanson, a West Hartford police spokesman, told the hushed crowd, such images can be criminal.

Sexually explicit images of a child under age 16 are considered child pornography, and law enforcement finds itself “in a very difficult place” when dealing with sexting cases, Melanson said.

This article dutifully adds polling data which — supposedly — demonstrates how pervasive and damaging “sexting” is:

A report on sexting last month from the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project, based on a survey of 800 minors, stated that 18 percent of youths aged 14-17 with cellphones reported receiving “sexually suggestive” nude or semi-nude images of someone they know. Moreover, 17 percent of teens who pay their own cellphone bills said they have sent provocative images via text messaging.

Unfortunately, polling data such as this … based as it is on self-reports … doesn’t actually prove anything. Teens have been known to make stuff up so they can brag about their behavior. (Really!)

To make this “scare” even worse, the Courant gratuitously adds that it’s not just a phenomenon of poverty … sexting is a plague that affects everyone:

State police spokesman Lt. J. Paul Vance said Wednesday afternoon that complaints about sexting have popped up across Connecticut, “across socioeconomic borders,” because young people don’t seem to realize that “a message can last for an eternity on cyberspace.”

“Once an image is sent, it cannot be retrieved,” Vance said. “You lose control over it. … Parents just don’t believe this goes on. But it does. It does.”

I could go on and relate the many scare tactics in this article. The facts of the matter, however, are two:

  1. Teens will be teens. They do occasionally trade erotic pictures. They once did this with snapshots. They now do it with camera phones. There’s nothing new here except the method they use. Figure it out, people.

  2. “Sexting” between minors is against the law in Connecticut (and I assume other states) solely because the laws against child pornography are absolute; there’s no reason an exception can’t be added for willing minors sending pictures of themselves to other people they know. Laws forbidding the sending of other children’s erotic pictures, even by other children, can be allowed to remain as is.

Really, there’s nothing to this except to encourage parents to be aware of what their kids are up to. Then again, it’s always been the case that parents should do this; nothing has changed in this regard!

Move along, folks. There’s nothing to see here.

P.S. Note that I am not in favor of kids sending erotic pictures to each other. It is a very stupid thing to do and they’re likely to regret having done it almost as soon as they hit “Send.” Nevertheless, there is no way I know of, to utterly prevent teens — or anyone of any age for that matter — from engaging in stupid behavior. The fact is that we need not frighten people or turn society upside down over it. It’s a problem that can easily be solved by proper parenting, but there is no reason why proper parenting should not be the norm, rather than the exception.

P.P.S. Memo to the Courant: I know circulation is off, but “scare journalism” is beneath Connecticut’s newspaper of record and the oldest paper in the country. Just stop already.

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