Sunday, July 17, 2011

TAM talk and links

This morning I gave my talk at the TAM 9 science conference in Las Vegas. It came out great, and if the organizers decide to put it on YouTube I will include a link. After the break, I've included a version of my paper, along with some expanded answers from the Q&A, but first here are some skeptic-friendly links:

My niche is economic skepticism, with a focus on the economic claims of the "Buy Local" movement. This is my intro post to the general public, and this is my intro post for skeptics.

I covered TAM 7 as a news story when I first started this blog two years ago.

I often write about the economics of video games. This is a social science perspective, such as why console fanboyism is rational, the upcoming moral hazard in Gears of War 3 and my defense of charging to use content already on the disc. It is not the fixed exchange rate of 100 coins for an extra life.

Here are two news stories I've written. There's a ghost hunt that got mentioned on the SGU podcast and piece on a chelation clinic.

I have some classic posts that involve politics that skeptics will find interesting, such as Idiot Hunting and why it's crass to say political opponents often are stupid, evil or insincere. I also have some not-very-nice things to say about modern Marxists.

The media isn't calling your skeptics group, and it's your fault

There's an old expression that says, "Build a better mousetrap, and the world will beat a path to your door."

As both a skeptic and a reporter in the mainstream media reporter, I say, forget that. That's terrible advice, and I think it explains why the media is awash with woo stories and the skeptical angle is rarely included.

The good news here is that your local skeptics group has a role to play in getting skepticism in the media. While the national media may prefer to interview someone from the JREF or New England Skeptical Society, your state and local media will want to talk to a local group like yours.

So then why aren't skeptics in the media more?

The popular view of skeptics is that members of 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.

Being a reporter isn't much different from being a blogger. I have a computer with the Internet, a telephone, a phone book and my car keys. That's it. The only database or files news teams typically have is the archive of past news stories.

We miss important stories all the time because we don't have a perfect way to find out what's going on in the world. There's a lot of luck involved, and we write a lot of stories because someone in the community approached us and told us what's going on.

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

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. We don't write, "Mr. Trudeau is a fraud." We write, "investigators say Mr. Trudeau is a fraud.

A news report is more like Wikipedia than Encyclopedia Britannica. 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.

Now imagine a Wikipedia article on alternative medicine with no input from skeptical editors. What would that look like? Would you blame Wikipedia, or the skeptical community for not getting involved?

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.

But that's not how we see it. We want to keep our readers interested in the story by focusing on the most interesting details, and no reporter I've talked to has said they'd be willing to get a few details wrong in order to make the story more exciting. We really do care about accuracy.

As for the charge that we just want to sell more papers, that doesn't add up. There's something called a "principal-agent problem," where the publisher (the prinicipal) has an incentive to make more profits, but the reporter he hires to perform the work for him (the agent) has different motivations and incentives. The average reporter won't see a single extra dime as a result of a popular story.

People don't become reporters just to make money. 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.

Skeptics sometimes say reporters are too lazy to dig into stories, read scientific reports or find a skeptic. I say, we're busy. As a reporter at daily newspaper I'm expected to turn in 11 stories each 40-hour week. With all the downsizing and decreased revenue the media has endured, you can't expect us to spend too much time on every story. It's awful and I wish it could be different, but that is reality.

There are a also 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. You have a thriving Internet community and blog culture, but the average reporter doesn't know to seek you out when they come across woo.

Try thinking of a reporter as someones grandparent. If the subject of a story appears able to break the laws of nature, why would you expect the reporter to seek out a magician, a neurologist or a funk drummer to comment?

Another bias skeptics face is that reporters are more likely to include sources they can get ahold of on short notice. From my own experience, it's hard to find a skeptic. Local sources are preferred for local news stories, and it's difficult to find local skeptics even when looking for them. And keep in mind most reporters don't know you exist, so they aren't looking for you.

Scientists are also difficult to contact. We mostly talk to academic scientists, and they're always busy with classes, or on break and impossible to track down.

As skeptics, 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. We write blog entries hoping reports will stumble across them by chance. 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.

With all these factors working against skeptics, why would you ever expect the outcome to be any different?

Think of Public Relations as the art of getting the media to spread your message to the public for you, and the other side has a lot more experience with it. You 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, you 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. Tell them you live in the area and your group exists to help protect the public from misinformation. Skeptics who are experts should fax news organizations a concise blog article monthly and include a phone number to position themselves as a future source.


The moment a skepticism story breaks, you can contact the media as a potential source to offer a contrasting view, or to explain it in a way viewers will understand. You have to get in fast, so phone calls or faxes work best. It's difficult to nail the timing, so don't expect this to come up very often.


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." You 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 local schools that bought dowsing rods as drug detectors.

Some young technophiles may think that traditional media is dead, and skeptics should focus on web-based news and forget TV, radio and print.

Perhaps that will be the case one day, but a Pew Research poll from last September suggests for now traditional media is still important. When asked what technologies they observed news from the previous day, 58 percent said television. Results for online, radio and newspapers were each a third. Emergent media like podcasts and social media only added 10 percent. Traditional media is still important, and those same media companies are the ones that produce most online news.

Skeptics spend too much time sitting on the couch, wearing their prom outfit hoping someone will call and invite them. You have the knowledge, You know how to convey it to the public and You need to be the one to make that phone call.

If your skeptics group puts some real work into contacting the media, pitching stories, letting reporters know how to reach you and what sort of issues you can comment on, your message will eventually get in the media. If instead you only write the occasional letter to the editor, don't expect your message to get any further than the letters page.

We've got a better mousetrap, so let's get out there and tell the world.


Now for the questions.

Someone made the claim that journalists are incompetent, because he's talked to the media and the stories didn't come out the way he wanted them to most of the time. He wanted to know what he should do.

I don't know enough about the situation, but here are some thoughts. Were his expectations too high? Did he expect the other side to only get a token paragraph and have the rest focus on him? Maybe the reporter was confused, did he do a good job of explaining his side, and did he check to make sure the reporter understood? Had he ever made contact with this reporter in the past, or was this a one-phone call relationship?

There are a lot of potential variables here, and I don't know enough about the situation to make that call.

The second was the claim that news agencies exist only to make a profit. The implication is that they will do whatever it takes to draw readers or viewers.

This is ironic because the questioner was asking at a conference that serves as the biggest annual fundraiser for the James Randi Foundation. The same thing could be said about the conference, but the way the conference attracts people is by putting out a great product. That's how the newspaper I work for looks at it. Tabloids do exist, but there's a big range in news companies out there and plenty of them care about.

You could say all companies exist to make money, but that doesn't say anything about the quality of their products.

One final note here. After listening to DJ Grothe speak on the diversity panel, I support the direction he's taking the movement, which includes stopping it from getting involved with political issues that involve value judgments, or that deviate too far from the core criteria of skepticism. He also opposes the push to make skepticism an atheist movement. I am confident the JREF is in good hands.

1 comment:

  1. Michael,

    I enjoyed your talk and appreciate you sharing tips on how to work with media. I thought I'd pass along a link to the reporter query site I mentioned. People can sign up to get the queries and respond to reporters looking for information/experts and reporters can sign up to post queries.