The Page Views Ate My Homework
In September, Jay Rosen woke to NPR's Morning Edition, which was reporting on regulations affecting abortion clinics in Kansas. One side argued that the regulations, involving things like the size of operating rooms and their temperature, are common sense and need to be in place to ensure patient safety, while the opposition said that the regulations, which would result in the closing of two of Kansas' three abortion clinics, are a form of harassment. Rosen waited for a conclusion. There was none.
Rosen, a professor of journalism at New York University, has a name for this type of reporting, he calls it "he-said-she-said" journalism. He-said-she-said breaks down like this: a public debate surrounds an issue and an outlet reports on it -- but it makes no attempt to assess the validity of either claim.
As a result of this form of "unbiased" journalism, the reader is left with an idea of the problem, but no further information with which to make an educated opinion. Yes, the reader's job is to decide what they believe, but how can they decide with no information and no access to expert sources that most outlets have? Is it not a media outlet's responsibility to find credible sources to provide background and information about topics that capture the public interest?
"Opponents of abortion in Kansas say the regulations are just common sense," writes Rosen in his PressThink blog. "NPR could compare the proposed regulations for abortion to other procedures that are performed at clinics in that state: do the regulations for, say, colonoscopies specify that storage areas for 'janitorial supplies and equipment' must be at least 50 square feet per procedure room? Or is that kind of requirement unique to the state's proposed rules for abortion? I don't know the answer, but NPR could try to find out. And if it's not NPR's job to find out, whose job is it?"
Photo by Nic.
I agree with Rosen: this story would greatly benefit from more information, the gathering of which is not beyond the scope of a newsroom. But where do bloggers fit into all of this? Living in a world where everyone can share their knowledge has been an incredible blessing, but it is not without liability. As bloggers, we link back a lot more than traditional media outlets, enabling readers to read the original sources for themselves, but we don't enjoy the same access to fact checkers and sources that conventional newsrooms do. For bloggers who write for a living, there is the added pressure to churn out "clicky" content fast -- two things that conspire against good, reliable coverage.
The result has been a startling amount of churnalism, the lazy paraphrasing and snarkifying of press materials to give a story the tone readers have come to expect from a blog -- without asking or answering any questions about accuracy or validity.
Case in point: the giant, super-intelligent squid that took over the web last week. In case you missed it, according to a paleontologist who has not yet published a paper in any sort of peer-reviewed journal, there is evidence that a creature bigger than ichthyosaurs ruled the seas during the Triassic. Yes, the mythical kraken! But it wasn't just a giant squid: it was a super-intelligent, artistic squid that arranged the carcasses of its prey to form the first ever self-portrait in the history of this planet! (And afterward, it uploaded an image to Etsy, so please click here to purchase! Just kidding, that's a link to the report on ScienceDaily. Sorry, I couldn't help myself.)
This story is clicky as all get out, but even a cursory look over the "evidence" would suggest that the story is a little far-fetched. Yet in the impulse to publish, tons of big blogs ran with it, thrilled at the finding.
Of course, there was no "finding." As Brian Switek, author of Written in Stone: Evolution, the Fossil Record, and Our Place in Nature commented on Wired's Laelaps blog (one of the handful of well-known online destinations that didn't just run with the press release):
There is no direct evidence for the existence of the animal [Mark McMenamin and Dianna Schulte-McMenamin of Mount Holyoke College] call "the kraken." No exceptionally preserved body, no fossilized tentacle hooks, no beak -- nothing. The McMenamins' entire case is based on peculiar inferences about the [fossil] site. It is a case of reading the scattered bones as if they were tea leaves able to tell someone's fortune. Rather than being distributed through the bonebed by natural processes related to decay and preservation, the McMenamins argue that the Shonisaurus bones were intentionally arrayed in a "midden" by a huge cephalopod nearly 100 feet long. (How the length of the imaginary animal was estimated is anyone's guess.) But that's not all -- the McMenamins speculate that this "kraken" played with its food ... I guess a giant, ichthyosaur-eating "kraken" wasn't enough. A squid with a stroke of artistic genius was clearly the simplest explanation for the formation of the bonebeds. *facepalm*
As Switek rightly points out, the feeding frenzy this story generated is absurd, but what's even more absurd is the lack of initiative on the part of those covering it to seek out even one opinion beyond what was presented in a press release. In today's hyper-connected social media world, even if you couldn't locate somebody with the knowledge to comment on the story, there is always HARO, also known as Help A Reporter Out, which offers about 102,829 sources across a variety of topics to journalists and bloggers. All it takes is a little time.
This isn't just true of press materials that come through our inboxes every day, but even the content we find from otherwise credible sources. Think about the op-ed that hit the New York Times last month suggesting that a brain imaging study had uncovered that iPhone users are "literally in love" with these Apple devices. Yeah, literally. Love-love. As in what you feel about your significant other. Only for your phone. Seriously.
"But most striking of all was the flurry of activation in the insular cortex of the brain, which is associated with feelings of love and compassion," Martin Lindstrom, author of the upcoming book Braindwashed: Tricks Companies Use to Manipulate Our Minds and Persuade Us to Buy wrote. "The subjects' brains responded to the sound of their phones as they would respond to the presence or proximity of a girlfriend, boyfriend or family member."
No way! The story spread like wildfire. Tal Yarkoni, a post-doctoral fellow in the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience at the University of Colorado at Boulder, would later explain the problems with the conclusions reached in the op-ed at length on his blog, among them the fact that the insula is one of the most highly activated parts of the brain, showing up in nearly one third of all imaging studies.
The insula is one of a few 'hotspots' where activation is reported very frequently in neuroimaging articles (the other major one being the dorsal medial frontal cortex). So, by definition, there can't be all that much specificity to what the insula is doing, since it pops up so often. To put it differently ... the fact that a given region activates when people are in a particular psychological state (e.g., love) doesn't give you license to conclude that that state is present just because you see activity in the region in question. If language, working memory, physical pain, anger, visual perception, motor sequencing, and memory retrieval all activate the insula, then knowing that the insula is active is of very little diagnostic value.
The difference between the reality of brain imaging and the op-ed is huge. Those familiar with newspapers know that an op-ed (the page opposite the editorial page) carries opinion pieces by people who are not part of the paper's editorial team; pieces, which, since the op-ed's inception, have been more about stirring discussion than providing a factual account. Of course, in a world where newspapers are going the way of the ichthyosaurs, few people are familiar with the function of an op-ed, and even though such pages are clearly marked "Opinion," most people associate the New York Times with credibility, expecting the opinions therein to be as legitimate as the rest of its content.
The same problem can be found in sites of other publications that launch blogs to keep content online fresh but don't see their bloggers as an extension of the newsroom, thereby not giving them access to resources or fact checkers in the same way that they do the "real" journalists. The pressure to put out a number of short, clicky articles a day invariably results in the speedy paraphrasing of press releases with little to no verification of the information presented.
Smaller bloggers, in turn, see these pieces and, trusting the banner under which they appear, run with them, slowly letting incomplete, useless, or erroneous information spread all over the web like chlamydia during spring break.
We all railed against Michele Bachmann when she insinuated that the vaccine against human papilloma virus causes mental disability, saying that as a policymaker she should know better than to perpetuate a story without verification. She has a responsibility to the people who listen to her, right?
Yes, she does. And so do those of us who put content online, no matter how small our audience.
Let's use Google to see what else is being said about a topic. Let's look up what words mean if we don't understand them. If there are papers involved, let's check them out before we take another source's interpretation as the final word. Let's use social media to connect with experts in the field and get a second opinion. Let's use HARO. Let's try to do better, even if it means taking a little more time. And if we don't have the time, let's at least include our questions in the post. Who knows, someone knowledgeable might just answer.
Because if there is one thing that sounds dumber than "I wasn't attesting to her accuracy. I wasn't attesting to anything," it’s "oh, but that's what it said on the press release!" It might be a giant squid every geek wishes were real today, but who knows what it might be next week? Bad habits die hard. Let's start cultivating good ones now.
Let's not allow the promise of page views eat our homework. Due diligence with a topic is the imperative of everyone with an audience, journalist or not.