Friday, May 7, 2010

Why skepticism isn't in the media

One of my first stories when I became a newspaper reporter was on a small-town zoning battle. A local businessman bought some land for a rock quarry and the people who lived around it wanted it stopped. The quarry would bring rock blasting and dump trucks to their neighborhood, so they slowed down the approval process at the town council meetings. This went on for about a year.

I started writing about it a few months after it started, and eventually I got phone call from the leader of the neighbor group. She told me that her side was not getting enough attention in my reports, and that I was missing some elements of the story, so therefore no one from her group is willing to talk to me anymore.

I waited a few seconds, and asked, "So what you're saying is, your view isn't in the paper as much as you'd like, so your solution is to stop me from interviewing you?

As foolish as that sounds, that's exactly how skeptics treat the mainstream media.

The mainstream media is awash with woo stories and skeptical sources are rarely included, so the public gets an unbalanced view on reality. The popular view of skeptics is that the media are too lazy to get all of the facts right and journalists care more about presenting an attention-getting story than a factual one. While these explanations can be true, they are painfully incomplete. Skeptics do not understand how news stories are generated, overestimate the resources news teams work with and misunderstand what motivates reporters.

I will tell you how the news really works, how skeptics are using the wrong tactics to influence the media and what we can actually do to have our views included.

How are news stories written?

Back to the story about the citizens group leader. She criticized me for never using the official name of her neighborhood group; the preservation committee. I said I wasn't aware they had an official name and it had never come up. She said, "Don't you have files on this stuff?"

No, news teams don't. We have our own internal archive of back issues that we occasionally review, but most stories are written using interviews, the Internet, documents collected on the story and whatever information the editor feels like sharing.

A lot of media criticism comes from treating reporters as experts who should know better. But reporters are not experts. Instead of relying on their own knowledge of a topic, a reporter gathers information and presents it.

Read any news story closely. You will notice that the reporter does not present facts directly to the reader. Instead, they relay a statement from the source. For example, from a story in this week's New York Times about the American Cancer Society criticizing a government report:

Dr. Michael Thun, an epidemiologist from the cancer society, said in an online statement that the report was “unbalanced by its implication that pollution is the major cause of cancer,” and had presented an unproven theory — that environmentally caused cases are grossly underestimated — as if it were a fact.

The cancer society estimates that about 6 percent of all cancers in the United States — 34,000 cases a year — are related to environmental causes (4 percent from occupational exposures, 2 percent from the community or other settings).

In a sense, you can think of a news story as a collection of arguments from authority. Facts are facts because the speaker is an expert.

In a sense, a news report is more like a Wikipedia article than an Encyclopedia Britannica article. Britannica articles are planned and written by an expert, while Wikipedia articles emerge through the knowledge of a large group of people. "Original research" is discouraged. The reporter acts more like a moderator than an author.

Why are skeptics rarely used as sources?

There are a couple of biases working against skeptics that keeps us out of new stories.

One is that skepticism is reactive. Someone has to present woo before we have a chance to knock it down. It's very easy for a reporter to stumble upon a magic healer or a snake oil salesman. These people advertise and generate a lot of attention. They're visible.

But skeptics are invisible. We may have thriving Internet community and blog culture, but the average reporter doesn't know to seek us out when they come across woo.

Try thinking of a reporter as someones grandparent. If the subject of a story appears able to perform some supernatural feat, why on earth should we expect the reporter to seek out a magician, a neurologist or an astronomer to comment?

And from my own experience, it can be pretty hard to find a skeptic to comment. Local sources are preferred for local news stories, and it's difficult to find local skeptics. Reporters are biased to sources that they can get a hold of on short notice.

One criticism I often hear is that reporters care more about making a story exciting than they do about having the facts right. We're accused of sensationalizing to get more readers at the expense of our accountability.

I have never once heard someone in the media say they sensationalize. What we say is that we want to find an interesting angle in the story to keep the reader interested. In every media office I've worked in, there has not been a single person who said they'd be willing to get a few details wrong in order to make the story more exciting. Not once. The priority has always been on getting the facts out there, arranged in a way that won't bore the reader.

Why would we do this? It's not to make more money. The average reporter won't see a single extra dime as a result of a popular story. Editors either. People don't become reporters just to make money because the job pays too poorly. They care a lot more about presenting information to the world. It doesn't make any sense for someone to choose a career for fulfillment, and then compromise their integrity for zero profit.

Are reporters lazy?

There's a very simple hoax that pranksters like to play on the media. They make up a phony presentation, report, and website and send out press releases. The story gets picked, but then the pranksters reveal they faked it all. They'll do things like embed "this is all a hoax" in the middle of a long report for extra laughs.

Obviously, news teams that run these stories look like fools. They certainly should be scolded for falling for these pranks. But is the media vulnerable because reporters are too lazy to check all their facts?

You could certainly make that case a few decades ago, but with all of the media downsizing in the world today, most reporters are too busy to do a thorough job. Most reporters I know turn in at least six stories a week. Why would busy reporters read through a long report when they can just check the introduction and conclusion and the group any questions they have. Again, we should treat reporters as moderators, not experts.

Broadcast news has more mistakes than print, but that could be because broadcasters have tighter deadlines. They often have to complete stories the same day they happened, while print has the luxury of overnight production.

How skeptics can fix things

We skeptics want to be sources in the media, but we haven't made a real effort to get the media's attention. We assume the media knows we exist, what subjects we cover and how to get a hold of us. When we do try to contact the media, it's in the form of a letter to the editor.

But we don't want skepticism on the letters page. We want to be in the news stories themselves. Since reporters do not automatically think of skeptic groups when a woo story comes up, it's up to us to get their attention. This needs to take the form of public relations.

For our purposes here, public relations is informing the news about things they would want to cover. We need to let the media know that we exist, what subjects we cover and how they can reach us quickly. We can do this before a relevant story breaks, as it happens, and quickly after it happens.

  • Before a story breaks, we can contact the media through in-person visits, phone calls and brief faxes telling them what we do, and suggesting stories like chelation therapy and tax money going to woo businesses. Skeptics who are experts should fax news organizations a concise blog article monthly to position themselves as a future source.
  • The moment a skepticism story breaks, we can contact the media as a potential source to offer a contrasting view, or to explain it in a way viewers will understand. Phone calls or faxes work best. This is very difficult to time, so we should not expect many opportunities to help.
  • If a story is already out there, contact the media and offer a "new angle" on the story, one that everyone missed and the public will find interesting. News organizations will keep writing about a subject as long as the public is interested, and skepticism offers a perfect "second day lede." We can also expand and localize the story. When the Iraq government bought dowsing rods as bomb detectors, the media would have been very interested in learning about school that bought dowsing rods as drug detectors.

Balance is a tricky subject for skeptics. We see cranks in the news to balance real science, such as stories on the Large Hadron Collider stories that featured Walter L. Wagner to dredge up fears that it would create a black hole. But we also see a lack of balance in stories on alternative medicine, where even a single quote from a "token skeptic" would be appreciated.

With balance in mind, we need to ask ourselves what the best mainstream media news stories would look like for skeptics. Because of skepticism reactionary nature, it would have to include both skeptical sources and woo sources. We can't knock down logical fallacies and myths until someone sets them up.

As skeptics, we're used to seeing woo go unchallenged in the media. However, in a fair and properly refereed fight, we win. The facts are on our side and we've learned what tricks the enemies of reason use. In a perfect world, the media would be contacting us, but it's not a perfect world. It's up to us to put real effort into reaching the media so we can get our message to the public.

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