Filed under: Fraud and Deception, Hype, Propaganda and Disinformation, Spin
In this week’s eSkeptic, Steve Salerno discusses the fundamental flaws of broadcast journalism as a tool for informing viewers.
by Steve Salerno
February 13, 2008
How broadcast journalism is flawed in such a fundamental way that its utility as a tool for informing viewers is almost nil.
It is the measure of the media’s obsession with its “pedophiles run amok!” story line that so many of us are on a first-name basis with the victims: Polly, Amber, JonBenet, Danielle, Elizabeth, Samantha. And now there is Madeleine. Clearly these crimes were and are horrific, and nothing here is intended to diminish the parents’ loss. But something else has been lost in the bargain as journalists tirelessly stoke fear of strangers, segueing from nightly-news segments about cyber-stalkers and “the rapist in your neighborhood” to prime-time reality series like Dateline’s “To Catch a Predator.” That “something else” is reality.
According to the U.S. Department of Justice, in a given year there are about 88,000 documented cases of sexual abuse among juveniles. In the roughly 17,500 cases involving children between ages 6 and 11, strangers are the perpetrators just 5 percent of the time — and just 3 percentof the time when the victim is under age 6. (Further, more than a third of such molesters are themselves juveniles, who may not be true “predators” so much as confused or unruly teens.) Overall, the odds that one of America’s 48 million children under age 12 will encounter an adult pedophile at the local park are startlingly remote. The Child Molestation Research & Prevention Institute puts it like so: “Right now, 90 percent of our efforts go toward protecting our children from strangers, when what we need to do is to focus 90 percent of our efforts toward protecting children from the abusers who are not strangers.” That’s a diplomatic way of phrasing the uncomfortable but factually supported truth: that if your child is not molested in your own home — by you, your significant other, or someone else you invited in — chances are your child will never be molested anywhere. Media coverage has precisely inverted both the reality and the risk of child sexual assault. Along the way, it has also inverted the gender of the most tragic victims: Despite the unending parade of young female faces on TV, boys are more likely than girls to be killed in the course of such abuse.
We think we know Big Journalism’s faults by its much ballyhooed lapses — its scandals, gaffes, and breakdowns — as well as by a recent spate of insider tell-alls. When Dan Rather goes public with a sensational expose based on bogus documents; when the Atlanta Journal Constitution wrongly labels Richard Jewell the Olympic Park bomber; when Dateline resorts to rigging explosive charges to the gas tanks of “unsafe” trucks that, in Dateline’s prior tests, stubbornly refused to explode on their own; when the New York Times’ Jayson Blair scoops other reporters working the same story by quoting sources who don’t exist … We see these incidents as atypical, the exceptions that prove the rule.
Sadly, we’re mistaken. To argue that a decided sloppiness has crept into journalism or that the media have been “hijacked by [insert least favorite political agenda]” badly misses the real point; it suggests that all we need to do to fix things is filter out the gratuitous political spin or rig the ship to run a bit tighter. In truth, today’s system of news delivery is an enterprise whose procedures, protocols, and underlying assumptions all but guarantee that it cannot succeed at its self described mission. Broadcast journalism in particular is flawed in such a fundamental way that its utility as a tool for illuminating life, let alone interpreting it, is almost nil.
“You give us 22 minutes, and we’ll give you … what, exactly?”
We watch the news to “see what’s going on in the world.” But there’s a hitch right off the bat. In its classic conception, newsworthiness is built on a foundation of anomaly: man-bites-dog, to use the hackneyed j school example. The significance of this cannot be overstated. It means that, by definition, journalism in its most basic form deals with what life is not.
Today’s star journalist, however, goes to great lengths to distance himself from his trade’s man bites dog heritage. To admit that what he’s presenting is largely marginalia (or at best “background music”) deflates the journalist’s relevance in an environment where members of Major Media have come to regard themselves as latter day shamans and oracles. In a memorable 2002 piece, “The Weight of the Anchor,” columnist Frank Rich put it this way, regarding the then-Big 3 of Brokaw, Jennings, and Rather: “Not quite movie stars, not quite officialdom, they are more famous than most movie stars and more powerful than most politicians.”
Thus, journalism as currently practiced delivers two contradictory messages: that what it puts before you (a) is newsworthy (under the old man bites dog standard), but also (b) captures the zeitgeist. (“You give us 22 minutes, we’ll give you the world,” gloat all news radio stations across the country.) The news media cannot simultaneously deliver both. In practice, they fail at both. By painting life in terms of its oddities, journalism yields not a snapshot of your world, but something closer to a photographic negative.
Even when journalism isn’t plainly capsizing reality, it’s furnishing information that varies between immaterial and misleading. For all its cinema-verité panache, embedded reporting, as exemplified in Iraq and in Nightline’s recent series on “the forgotten war” in Afghanistan, shows only what’s going on in the immediate vicinity of the embedded journalist. It’s not all that useful for yielding an overarching sense of the progress of a war, and might easily be counterproductive: To interpret such field reporting as a valid microcosm is the equivalent of standing in a spot where it’s raining and assuming it’s raining everywhere.
Journalism’s paradoxes and problems come to a head in the concept of newsmagazination, pioneered on 60 Minutes and later the staple tactic of such popular clones as Dateline, 48 Hours, and 20/20. One of the more intellectually dishonest phenomena of recent vintage, newsmagazination presents the viewer with a circumstantial stew whipped up from:
Case in point: On Nov. 5, 2004, NBC’s Dateline built a show around the dangers of gastric bypass surgery. The topic was a natural for Dateline, inasmuch as The Today Show’s own Al Roker, who did much of the reporting, had undergone the surgery and achieved a stunning weight loss. In setting the scene, anchor Storm Phillips noted that the expected mortality rate for gastric bypass is 1 in 200. (Translation: The survival rate is 199 in 200, or 99.5 percent.) Phillips then handed off to Roker; the affable weatherman spent a few cheery moments on his own success, then found his somber face in segueing to the tragic saga of Mike Butler, who died following surgery. The Butler story consumed the next 30 minutes of the hour long broadcast, punctuated by the obligatory wistful soliloquy from Butler’s young widow. So, in covering a procedure that helps (or at least doesn’t kill) roughly 99.5 percent of patients, Dateline elects to tell the story in terms of the .5 percent with tragic outcomes. Had NBC sought to equitably represent the upside and downside of gastric bypass, it would’ve devoted 1/200th of the show — a mere 18 seconds — to Butler. Further, wouldn’t it have been journalistically responsible for Dateline to devote a good portion of the broadcast to the risks of morbid obesity itself, which far outweigh the risks of surgical bypass?
Do the math … please
One underlying factor here is that journalists either don’t understand the difference between random data and genuine statistical proof, or they find that distinction inconvenient for their larger purpose: to make news dramatic and accessible. The media need a story line — a coherent narrative, ideally with an identifiable hero and villain. As Tom Brokaw once put it, perhaps revealing more than he intended, “It’s all storytelling, you know. That’s what journalism is about.” The mainstream news business is so unaccustomed to dealing with issues at any level of complexity and nuance that they’re wont to oversimplify their story to the point of caricature.
The best contemporary example is the Red State/Blue State dichotomy, invoked as an easy metaphor to express the philosophical schism that supposedly divides “the two Americas.” Watching CNN’s Bill Schneider hover over his maps on Election Night 2004, drawing stark lines between colors, one would’ve thought there were no Republicans in California, or that a Democrat arriving at the Texas border would be turned back at gunpoint. Well, guess what: The dichotomy doesn’t exist — certainly not in the way journalists use the term. It’s just a handy, sexy media fiction. Although California did wind up in the Kerry column in 2004, some 5.5 million Californians voted for George W. Bush. They represented about 45 percent of the state’s total electorate and a much larger constituency in raw numbers than Bush enjoyed in any state he won, including Texas. Speaking of Texas: That unreconstituted Yankee, John Kerry, collected 2.8 million votes there. Two-point-eight million. Yet to hear the media tell it, California is deep, cool Blue, while Texas is a glaring, monolithic Red. Such fabrications aren’t just silly. They become institutionalized in the culture, and they color — in this case literally — the way Americans view the nation in which they live.
The mythical Red State/Blue State paradigm is just one of the more telling indications of a general disability the media exhibit in working with data. A cluster of random events does not a “disturbing new trend!” make — but that doesn’t stop journalists from finding patterns in happenstance. Take lightning. It kills with an eerie predictability: about 66 Americans every year. Now, lightning could kill those 66 people more or less evenly all spring and summer, or it could, in theory, kill the lot of them on one really scary Sunday in May. But the scary Sunday in May wouldn’t necessarily mean we’re going to have a year in which lightning kills 79,000 people. (No more than if it killed a half-dozen people named Johanssen on that Sunday would it mean that lightning is suddenly targeting Swedes.) Yet you can bet that if any half-dozen people are killed by lightning one Sunday, you’ll soon see a special report along the lines of, LIGHTNING: IS IT OUT TO GET US? We’ve seen this propensity on display with shark attacks, meningitis, last year’s rash of amusement-park fatalities, and any number of other “random event clusters” that occur for no reason anyone can explain.
Journalists overreact to events that fall well within the laws of probability. They treat the fact that something happened as if we never before had any reason to think it could happen — as if it were a brand-new risk with previously unforeseen causation. Did America become more vulnerable on 9/11? Or had it been vulnerable all along? Indeed, it could be argued that America today is far less vulnerable, precisely because of the added vigilance inspired by 9/11. Is that how the media play it? Similarly, a bridge collapse is no reason for journalists to assume in knee-jerk fashion that bridges overall are any less safe than they’ve been for decades. Certainly it’s no reason to jump to the conclusion that the nation’s infrastructure is crumbling, which is how several major news outlets framed the collapse of the Interstate 35W Bridge this past summer. As Freud might put it, sometimes a bridge collapse is just a bridge collapse. Alas, journalism needs its story line.
For a textbook example of the intellectual barrenness of so much of what’s presented even as “headline” news, consider the Consumer Confidence Index and media coverage of same. For decades, such indices have been telling America how it feels about its economic prospects. The best known index has been compiled each month since 1967 by the Conference Board, a nonprofit organization dating to 1916. The Board’s index is an arbitrary composite of indicators rooted in five equally arbitrary questions mailed to 5000 households. (“Do you see jobs as being easier or harder to get next year?”) On Tuesday, October 30, 2007, the Board reported that its latest CCI had dipped to a two-year low. The media jumped on the story, as is ever the case when the CCI dips. (CCI upticks are seldom reported with the same fervor.) Like many of its counterparts nationally, no doubt, a Philadelphia network affiliate sent its consumer affairs reporter trudging out to find consumers who lacked confidence. She succeeded.
Few reporters bother to mention that, customarily, there has been only a tenuous connection between CCI numbers and actual consumer spending or the overall health of the economy as objectively measured. In fact, just days after the release of the downbeat CCI, the Labor Department reported that the economy had generated 166,000 new jobs in October — twice the forecast. That statistic, which measures reality, got nowhere near the same play as the CCI, which measures perception.
So let’s recap. We have a fanciful metric that’s just a compilation of opinion, which is layered with further opinion from passersby, and then subjected to in-studio analysis (still more opinion). All of which is presented to viewers as … news. The problem for society is that giving headline prominence to meaningless or marginal events exalts those events to the status of conventional wisdom. “Reporting confers legitimacy and relevance,” writes Russell Frank, Professor of Journalism Ethics at Penn State University. “When a newspaper puts a certain story on page one or a newscast puts it at or near the top of a 22 minute program, it is saying to its audience, in no uncertain terms, that ‘this story is important.’” The self-fulfilling nature of all this should be clear: News organizations decide what’s important, spin it to their liking, cover it ad nauseam, then describe it — without irony — as “the 800-pound gorilla” or “the issue that just won’t go away.” This is not unlike network commercials promoting sit-coms and dramas that “everyone is talking about” in the hopes of getting people to watch shows that apparently no one is talking about.
Tonight at 11 … the Apocalypse!
Far worse than hyping a story that represents just .5 percent reality, is covering “news” that’s zero percent reality: There literally is no story. Even so, if the non-story satisfies other requirements, it will be reported anyway. This truism was not lost on the late David Brinkley, who, towards the end of his life, observed, “The one function that TV news performs very well is that when there is no news, we give it to you with the same emphasis as if there were.”
On June 9, 2005, as part of its ongoing series of “Security Updates,” CNN airs a special report titled “Keeping Milk Safe.” Over shots of adorable first-graders sipping from their pint cartons, CNN tells viewers that the farm-to-shelf supply chain is vulnerable at every point, beginning with the cow; with great drama, the report emphasizes the terrifying consequences such tampering could have. Nowhere does CNN mention that in the history of the milk industry, no incident of supply-chain tampering has ever been confirmed, due to terrorism or anything else.
Similarly, after the Asian tsunamis struck over Christmas 2004, Dateline wasted no time casting about for an alarmist who could bring the tragedy closer to home: the familiar Could It Happen Here? motif. The show’s producers found Stephen Ward, Ph.D., of the University of California at Santa Cruz. In January, Dateline’s East Coast viewers heard Ward foretell a geological anomaly in their very own ocean that could generate the equivalent of “all the bombs on earth” detonating at once. The event Ward prophesied would unleash on New York City a wave containing “15 or 20 times the energy” of the Asian tsunamis. As a helpful backdrop, Dateline treated its viewers to spectacular visuals from The Day After Tomorrow, showing Manhattan’s heralded landmarks disappearing beneath an onrushing, foamy sea.
But for sheer overwrought absurdity, it’s hard to beat what took place in mid-September 1999. For six full days, journalists behaved as if there was one story and one story only: Hurricane Floyd. The TV tempest commenced as the actual tempest still lolled hundreds of miles offshore, with no one certain how much of a threat Floyd posed, or whether it might fizzle before it hit land (as so often happens — Katrina has changed the way we think about hurricanes, but Katrina was a once-in-a-generation event). This was Saturday. By Tuesday the hurricane-in-absentia had engulfed the nightly news. While residents of areas in Floyd’s projected path evacuated, the other side of the highway was clotted with news crews on their way in. By Wednesday all of the networks had their parka clad correspondents standing on some coastal beach, each correspondent bent on looking wetter and more windblown than the next. Sprinkled among all this were the requisite interviews with men (and women) on the street — as well as in insurance companies, emergency-services offices, local restaurants, and the like. Bereft of an actual hurricane to show during this feverish build-up, The Today Show aired old footage of Hurricane Hugo’s plunder of Charleston, in sledgehammer foreshadowing of the disaster to come.
Floyd caused a fair amount of damage when it finally hit on Thursday: 57 deaths and an estimated $6 billion in property loss. But here’s where things get curious. By the time Floyd blew in, media interest clearly had ebbed. On television at least, coverage of the aftermath was dispatched in a day or so, with occasional backward glances occupying a few moments of air time in subsequent newscasts. Bottom line, the coverage of Floyd before it was a real story dwarfed the coverage given the storm once it became a story. Evidently the conjured image of tidal waves crashing on shore was more titillating to news producers than film of real life homeowners swabbing brownish muck out of their basements.
Today’s newspeople have substantially improved on one of the timeless axioms of their craft: “If it bleeds, it leads.” They prefer the mere prospect of bad news to most other kinds of news that did occur. The result is journalism as Stephen King might do it: the dogged selling of the cataclysm ’round the corner, complete with stage lighting and scenes fictionalized for dramatic purposes. Sure, the camera loves suspense. But … is suspense news? Is it really news that someone thinks a hurricane might kill thousands? It might kill no one, either, which is historically closer to the truth. Honest journalism would wait to see what the storm does, then report it.
Granted, Floyd blew in during a slow week. Following, though, is a sampling of the events that were largely ignored while the assembled media were waiting for Floyd:
The advance billing given to Floyd bespeaks a gloomy trend in broadcast news’ continuing slide toward theater. We witnessed this same phenomenon during the run-up to Desert Storm, Y2K, and the Clinton impeachment, among others.
The Crusades — postmodern style
Nowhere are these foibles more noticeable — or more of a threat to journalistic integrity — than when they coalesce into a cause: so-called “advocacy” or “social” journalism. To begin with, there are legitimate questions about whether journalism should even have causes. Does the journalist alone know what’s objectively, abstractly good or evil? What deserves supporting or reforming? The moment journalists claim license to cover events sympathetically or cynically, we confront the problem of what to cover sympathetically or cynically, where to draw such lines and — above all — who gets to draw them. There are very few issues that unite the whole of mankind. Regardless, as Tom Rosenstiel of the Project for Excellence in Journalism told USA Today, “News outlets have found they can create more … identity by creating franchise brands around issues or around a point of view.”
Worse, for our purposes, the data on which journalists premise their crusades are drawn from the same marginalia discussed above. When Francisco Serrano was discovered to be living in the Minnesota high school he once attended, the media covered the 2005 story as if every American high school had a half-dozen homeless people living in it. The actual episode, though exceedingly rare if not one-of-a-kind, became a window to the nation’s social failings.
In his thinking and methodology, today’s journalist resembles the homicide cop who, having settled on a suspect, begins collecting evidence specifically against that suspect, dismissing information that counters his newfound theory of the crime. Too many journalists think in terms of buttressing a preconceived argument or fleshing out a sense of narrative gained very early in their research. This mindset is formalized in journalism’s highest award: the Pulitzer Prize. Traditionally, stories deemed worthy of Pulitzer consideration have revealed the dark (and, often as not, statistically insignificant) underbelly of American life. In 2007 the Pulitzer for “public-service journalism” went to The Wall Street Journal, for its “creative and comprehensive probe into backdated stock options for business executives…” The Journal reported on “possible” violations then under investigation at 120 companies. There are 2764 listed companies on the New York Stock Exchange; NASDAQ adds another 3200. Not to dismiss the sincerity and diligence of the Journal’s work, but what’s the final takeaway here? That 120 companies (0.02) “possibly” cheated? Or that — so far as anyone knows — at least 5844 others didn’t?
Food for thought: Every time I fly, I’m amazed that these huge, winged machines get off the ground, stay off the ground, and don’t return to ground until they’re supposed to. Think about the failure rate of commonplace products: Light bulbs burn out. Fan belts snap. Refrigerators stop refrigerating. But planes don’t crash. Actuarially speaking, they simply don’t. The entire process of commercial flight and the systems that support it is remarkable. Do you fully understand it? I don’t. I’m sure lots of people don’t. Still, you won’t win a Pulitzer for a piece that sheds light on the myriad “little miracles” that conspire to produce aviation’s normalcy, stability and success. You’d be laughed out of today’s newsrooms for even proposing such a piece (unless you were doing it as the kind of feel-good feature that editors like to give audiences as gifts for the holidays). Have a flight go down, however — one flight, one time — and have a reporter find some overworked ATC operator or other aberration that may have caused the disaster, and voila! You’re in Pulitzer territory for writing about something that — essentially — never happens.
Just as journalists who run out of news may create it, journalists who run out of real causes may invent them. It’s not hard to do. All you need is a fact or two, which you then “contextualize” with more so-called expert opinion. December 10, 2004 was a banner night for exposing those well-known dens of iniquity that masquerade as Amish settlements. Stories about rape and incest among the Amish appeared on both Dateline and 20/20. The Dateline story even made reference to the principal character in the story that aired an hour later on 20/20 — which gives you some idea how common the abuse may be, if seasoned journalists must choreograph their exposés around the same incident. That brings us to Elizabeth Vargas and her question for 20/20’s expert on Amish affairs: Just how widespread is this abuse? Amid stock footage of adorable children strolling down a dusky road in suspenders and bonnets, the expert tells America that it’s “not a gross exception.”
What kind of reporting is that? Does it indicate that 1 percent of Amish children are abused? Ten percent? Forty percent? Who knows?
This is what passes for investigative journalism nowadays.
Their world … and they’re welcome to it
The world we’re “given” has an indisputable impact on how Americans see and live their lives. (How many other events are set in motion by the “truths” people infer from the news?) Here we enter the realm of iatrogenic reporting: provable harms that didn’t exist until journalism itself got involved.
In science journalism in particular, the use of anecdotal information can have results that would be comical, were it not for the public alarm that often results in response. Pop quiz: How many Americans have died of Mad Cow Disease? Before you answer, let’s look to Britain, where the scare began in earnest around 1995 after a few herd of cattle were found to be infected. First of all, in the cows themselves, what we call “Mad Cow” is technically bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE. When BSE species-jumps to humans, it manifests itself as something called variant Creutzfeldt Jacob Disease, or vCJD. (“Non-variant” CJD occurs independently of cows and can even be inherited.) A link between BSE and vCJD was established in 1996. British reporters went scurrying to find epidemiologists who were alarmed by the discovery, some of whom obligingly put the death toll in the coming years above 500,000.
By late 2006, the end of Mad Cow’s first documented decade, the U.K. had confirmed a total of 162 human deaths — nothing to be glib about. But that’s a long way from 500,000. (Undaunted, enterprising British reporters have begun talking about “mad sheep.” No joke.) And here in the U.S.? The CDC describes two confirmed deaths, both involving people born and raised abroad. A third case involves a man from Saudi Arabia who remains alive at this writing.
Not what you might’ve expected, eh?
Nevertheless, when a New Jersey woman, Janet Skarbek, became convinced that an outbreak had killed off her neighbors, she found a warm welcome in newsrooms. Her dire pronouncements touched off a mini hysteria. Even after the CDC eliminated vCJD as a factor, the media kept fanning the fires of public concern, typically by quoting Dr. Michael Greger, a part time chef and full-time alarmist who labels Mad Cow “the plague of the 21st Century.” When journalists want a fatalistic sound bite on the disease, they dial Greger’s number.
However history may remember Mad Cow as an actual pathology, this much is sure: The media inflamed scare has been fatal to jobs — most directly in the meat packing industry, but in related enterprises as well. It has soured consumers on beef. It has caused volatile swings in livestock prices. It has mandated new protocols that add hundreds of thousands of dollars to the average cattle rancher’s cost of doing business. It has caused us to cut ourselves off from key beef suppliers, fomenting minor crises in diplomacy and commerce. A 2005 survey reckoned the total cost of Mad Cow to U.S. agricultural interests at between $3.2 billion and $4.7 billion. This, for something that has killed far fewer Americans in 10 years than the 200 who die each month from choking on food or food substances.
To hear the media tell it, we’re under perpetual siege from some Terrifying New Disease That Threatens to End Life as We Know It. It’s too soon to render verdicts on the ultimate impact of avian flu, but that pathogen would have to wipe out many millions in order to justify the hype. Lyme Disease? The Cleveland Clinic has this to say: “Although rarely fatal and seldom a serious illness, Lyme Disease has been widely publicized, frequently overdramatized, and sometimes linked to unproven conditions.” Is it coincidence that visits to national parks began tracking downward in 1999, amid media coverage that made it sound as if deer ticks and the rest of Mother Nature’s foot-soldiers had declared war on humankind? Maybe. Maybe not.
In science reporting and everywhere else, there’s no minimizing the psychic effects of regularly consuming a world-view rooted in peculiarity, much of which is pessimistic. In a 2003 Gallup poll, just 11 percent of respondents rated crime in their own neighborhoods as “very serious” or “extremely serious,” yet 54 percent of those same respondents deemed crime in America as a whole “very serious” or “extremely serious.” The catch-22 should be apparent: If crime were that pervasive, it would have to be occurring in a lot more than 11 percent of the respondents’ “own neighborhoods.” Such an enigmatic skew can only be explained in terms of the difference between what people personally experience — what they know firsthand — and the wider impressions they get from the news.
Figuratively speaking, we end up drowning in the tides of a hurricane that never makes shore.
I give you, herewith, a capsule summary your world, and in far less than 22 minutes:
It is not being a Pollyanna to state such facts, because they are facts. Next time you watch the news, keep in mind that what you’re most often seeing is trivia framed as Truth. Or as British humorist/philosopher G.K. Chesteron whimsically put it some decades ago, “Journalism consists in saying ‘Lord Jones is dead’ to people who never knew Lord Jones was alive.”
For over 25 years, Salerno has perpetrated investigative and feature journalism for major publications including Harper’s, New York Times magazine, Esquire, Playboy, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, Worth magazine and others. His 2005 book, SHAM: How the Self-Help Movement Made America Helpless, explored the $10 billion American self-help movement. He is now working on a book about vanity’s role in American life. He welcomes comments on his blog.