5 Disturbing Reasons Not to Trust the News (From a Reporter)
Growing up, I remember wondering why major catastrophes were relegated to just inches of column space somewhere in the middle of the newspaper, while knocked-up celebrities farting into a maternity gown would crack the front pages. Then I started working as the editor of a U.K. tech news site at the dawn of citizen reporting, social media, and the Web, and I realized that the gulf between the newsworthy and the filler has been widened on an enormous scale. Here are just some of the reasons journalism has gone (and continues to go) to shit:
The Money Is in PR
You can spot a press-sourced news article miles away. A cheap and easy way to push coverage into a publication is to commission a survey. You know the type: "New Study Shows Women Most Attracted to Morbidly Obese Men." The great thing about them is that they're a cinch to game until you get the result you want -- that hypothetical example was probably funded by Rascal Scooters and Hot Pockets, then given to the press so they could pick out the key talking points, without going into any detail about how they arrived there. You'll usually find the source in the last paragraph, if at all.
What, journalism can't take a day off every now and always?
This same story wound up in my inbox before Sky News ever covered it. To be fair, we all got the email at the same time. Travel insurance firm LV= commissioned a study finding that (surprise) our luggage is really valuable. Some PR hack typed up a press release, emailed it to a mile-long list of media contacts, and waited for lazy journalists to gobble up the low-hanging story.
Crisis specialists, meanwhile, are former journalists who help corporations and governments do PR damage control in the wake of some colossal cock-up. They're experts on what is, or isn't, a story -- provided it's about their client. If you've accidentally sold poisoned Tylenol to children or gassed a teeny-weeny factory full of 3,800 workers, Burson-Marsteller has a team of Dark Side journalists ready to rehabilitate your ass.
"It turns out lightsaber pens were a bad idea. And also desks don't stop lightsabers."
Think that's pessimistic?
I was at a conference just a couple of weeks ago, and one journalist asked a PR rep if he was allowed to write a story. Edward R. Murrow didn't just spin in his grave at that query; he catapulted out of it like a jack-in-the-box and started choking bitches.
His choke-a-bitch face and his journalism face are the same.
Think Tanks Invent Credible-Sounding B.S.
Your typical think tank has a long, impressive-sounding, and dull name that's hard -- or tedious -- to argue with. Something like "The Center for Expert Economic Excellence," a title that manages to convey trustworthiness and absolutely no other relevant information. Put crudely, think tanks are a way to push an agenda into public discourse, often representing some specific business or political interest. Think tanks are officially "independent," which only means that the shady figure in the trench coat waits until you're out of the room to hand over the comically large bag of money.
"We have standards."
The first time I really looked into think tanks was after hearing a radio report that said the U.K. should sell off its best welfare housing. At a time when there's a severe housing crisis and government-imposed austerity, they proposed that selling public housing would help matters. And what do you know: The trustees of the Policy Exchange are major conservative donors. Trustee Theodore Agnew has given 144,000 pounds to the Conservative Party since 2007. George Robinson, another trustee, has donated 389,000 pounds since 2004. Trustee Richard Ehrman just happens to have run a British property company for the last 23 years. No way he's biased about the housing market.
This happens in your country, too: In the United States, there's a man named Richard Berman. He's a former executive from Steak and Ale and currently does PR for much of the restaurant industry. He also owns the Employment Policies Institute, a think tank that, gee whiz, found evidence that raising the minimum wage was bad. Salon.com found that 83 percent of news stories that cited the Employment Policies Institute failed to mention that it was owned by an advocate of Big Hamburglar.
Journalists used to be able to keep up with the PR guys. In the past, there was closer to a 1:1 ratio of reporters to industry shills. Now there are four PR agents for every one reporter. It used to be a carefully balanced game of investigation versus obfuscation. Now it's more like investigation occasionally wanders onto the field where obfuscation plays and winds up getting sacked by 20 giant dudes with names like "T-Bone" and "The Compactor."
No One Fact Checks Anymore
Newspapers are content farms. They have to be. The ad men's moneyrections only poke through their gilded loincloths when they're leering at spreadsheets full of cold, hard traffic stats. Even respected outlets, like the Guardian and the New York Times, have to give the occasional hat tip to whatever's going to replace planking next. We're just lucky it didn't come in the form of a 9,000-entry slideshow.
"Quit crying. This is how journalism works now."
There are legitimate attempts to maintain a certain standard, but with the unrelenting 24-hour rolling news cycle we've all grown accustomed to, every update to the most mundane story spawns a new article to hit Google's SEO G-spot. With that much noise out there, it's not at all surprising that running post-publication corrections is easier than thorough fact checking.
Fact checking cuts into valuable drinking time.
Maybe you remember this article Newsweek published in 2012 titled "Why Barack Obama Needs to Go." It was slammed immediately for being filled with more bullshit than a steer's colon. There were so many basic factual errors that a writer with the Atlantic dedicated an entire article just to correcting them all. Politico reached out to Newsweek to ask "What gives?" and Newsweek replied with some classic buck-passing: "We, like other news organizations today, rely on our writers to submit factually accurate material ..."
Nobody make fun, they've had a rough time of it lately.
See, Newsweek doesn't have a fact-checking department. But at least they're not outright lying, like some British papers. We don't hate the Daily Mail just for plagiarizing us and bullshitting up your Facebook feed. They (and their fellows) have gotten so out of hand lately that the European Union set up a service specifically committed to fact checking British tabloids. It's the journalism version of the guy who breaks up the poop clogs in the sewers. It's a terrible job, but what are you gonna do? The poop won't stop coming.
University Press Offices Spread Sciencey Crap
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.
Respected Journalists Are Often Shills
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.
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.
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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