#2. University Press Offices Spread Sciencey Crap
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There are well-publicized problems with science reporting: Getting the balance right between interesting and accurate can prove tricky, and for some publications, belching out sensationalized press releases is far easier and more engaging for the reader than getting a qualified physicist on the phone. Sadly, this leads to small breakthroughs being misreported as stuff like "OREOS: THE ULTIMATE HIV AND CANCER CURE." Or otherwise geeky and inaccessible algorithms used by law enforcement being the "real Minority Report."
The real Minority Report angle is used a lot. I'd cautiously say about once a year. In reality, it's almost always a story about predicting crime "hotspots" using advanced algorithms and then searching everyone standing near those hotspots. You might recognize this as "exactly what the police have always done," only using computers to pick the location. It's kind of neat and a little disturbing, but it isn't exactly the same as keeping psychic teenagers in secret police kiddie pools.
So why did every news site choose to compare this technology to Minority Report? My guess would be that it had something to do with the PR people at Santa Clara University, where the algorithm was developed. And here we are again, trusting a PR firm's word for it:
Another frequent offender is the "invisibility cloak." Some university press office will send out a release like this ...
... and roughly two minutes of reading will inform you that these scientists haven't developed some way to Predator-cloak stuff. They've just found a new way to render objects invisible on radar, which isn't even close to the same goddamn thing and why must you taunt our nerd-glands?! But story-hungry journalists see that release, and suddenly your Facebook feed fills with this:
So that's how Rowling spent her fortune.
Now look: We are as guilty of this as anyone else (but then, not even in our drunkest and most unfounded arrogance have we billed ourselves as "journalists"). And there really is nothing wrong with nerding out about cool new developments in the world of science. It's just so transparently obvious that the PR folks working for these schools know our weakness for sci-fi technology, and they take ridiculous advantage of that to drum up publicity.
#1. Respected Journalists Are Often Shills
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Journalists have to cope with a lot: dwindling budgets, shrinking salaries, the defenestration of fact checking, agenda-driven reports from think tanks, corporate "crisis" teams deliberately making their lives harder -- no problem. The need for a bullshit filter is right there in the job description, just under "cool hat." But some writers end up bypassing their own filter for political point-scoring or cash. Even lauded New York Times best-seller Malcolm Gladwell got his start suckling at the teat of big business.
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Aaaand now you'll be imagining that for the rest of the day.
The Fourth Estate's answer to Michael Jordan started out his career shilling for Big Tobacco. His magnum opus was a warning that any decrease in American smoking habits might "put serious strain on the nation's Social Security and Medicare programs." Gladwell was such a hit with Big Tobacco in the '90s that Phillip Morris even included him on a list of media assets. This isn't to say that the man hasn't written some fine books, but if you're looking for someone who places pride in objectivity, Gladwell probably isn't your man.
Blurring the lines between ad content, PR, and actual reporting is appealing to corporations, lobbyists, and politicians because it allows them to slip "key messages" through alongside actual news. Like when the Atlantic let the Church of Scientology run an ad cleverly disguised as an editorial article. That pissed a lot of people off, but only because the Internet has a raging hate-on for Scientology.
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Let he who has not taken stacks of money for unsavory things cast the first stone.
You probably didn't hear much of an uproar about this Huffington Post column by Tom Squitieri, defending the government of Bahrain for violently cracking down on protesters. There's got to be two sides to every issue, right? And HuffPo listed ol' Tom as an expert on the region, as well as a "journalist." Only Squitieri hasn't been a journalist since 2005, when he resigned from USA Today for plagiarism. He's also an employee of Qorvis, a public relations firm that rehabilitates the images of dictatorships ... including Bahrain. Somehow, no one looked into that.
It's not exactly a case of a corporation leveraging its ad dollars in an immoral way, but it's definitely a case of that line between paid advocacy and journalism being erased.
And now, more than ever, we need that line.
MTM is still working in journalism today. Robert Evans used to be a journalist, but now he writes articles like this for Cracked. If you'd like to tell him a story, he can be reached here.
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