A Skeptical Look at the News
by Craig Good
A skeptical look at the news.
One of my favorite things about Skeptoid is how it makes us better, more informed consumers of food and medicine, and more discriminating about claims for products of all types. Applying scientific literacy and critical thinking skills really does keep us safer and healthier. Today I want to talk about being smart consumers of information. In other words, how we look at the news may be even more important than where we get it.
Two of the most useful Skeptoid episodes ever were Brian's excellent How To Spot a Crap Website and How to Spot Pseudoscience, each with a checklist of warning signs. So let's dive in and see if we can't come up with a similar list of things to keep in mind when evaluating any story in the news media.
Now, don't worry. This isn't going to be one long whine about the "mainstream media" and the sorry state of science reporting. And I'm going to do my best to keep from being mired in any kind of political quagmire. I've been fortunate to have had over thirty years experience in media, and using it to tell stories. I hope my perspective helps provide tools you can use to evaluate the news.
First, pause to remember what business they're in. The vast majority work on an advertising model, meaning they are paid to get eyeballs and/or ears on ads. Never forget: If you use a service for free you aren't the customer, you're the product.
Note that while all media have some things in common, the "mainstream media" isn't some monolithic cabal that works all one way. That idea is conspiracy theory thinking. Different media have different ways of conveying information. Some are better at one kind, and some at others. A printed article, for example, may succinctly convey the words that were said, but a video interview conveys emotional content like facial expressions and tone of voice.
Back in 1974, or shortly after the earth cooled according to my daughter, I had a really wonderful high school history teacher. Mr. Tarter was so good that he got high school students to actually sign up for an elective history class. Back in those days cable existed only to help you get the local stations. Mr Tarter pointed out that the local news had only half an hour to give us all the information we needed to be responsible, informed citizens. Maybe half that, in fact, after you subtract time for commercials and sports. And so, he asked us, why do they show us footage of a house on fire?
This forever changed the way I saw not only TV news, but all kinds of news media. A house on fire just isn't news unless maybe it's your house, or a friend's. Just asking yourself if this story is something you need to know to be an informed citizen is a great filter.
Remember that "news" often means "very unusual". I often say that if you see something horrible, like a plane crash, covered on the news it's practically a guarantee that it won't happen to you. In any kind of entertainment we are not compelled by the ordinary. That's why models are freakishly pretty and why burning buildings show up on the news. The frequency with which a kind of story appears in the media is almost guaranteed to have an inverse relationship with how often it happens in real life.
If you just pay attention to the news you might think that plane crashes, school shootings, sexual predation, and wars are all on the rise. The truth is that air travel is incredibly safe and getting safer, school shootings are vanishingly rare, and forcible sexual assaults (in America, at least) are on the decline, and there is less war now than at any time in recorded human history. What's changed is our ability to get bad news from nearly anywhere on the planet in almost real time.
Any storyteller worth his salt knows that people are compelled by emotions, not data. News stories are, therefore, usually selected and presented to get a response from you. That could mean fear, disgust, outrage, pity, or even delight. So the first thing to watch for is the emotional reaction you're having. If you're moved or aroused by a news story that's the first, giant red flag that it's time to call upon the rational, skeptical part of your brain.
A common logical fallacy is argumentum in terrorem, the appeal to fear. When any news story is making you feel afraid, that's an excellent opportunity to stop, step back, and ask yourself why. Why would they want you to be afraid? There might be many reasons, such as ideology, tribalism, or just getting a rise out of you so you'll turn the page or stick around through the commercial break. It's not that there aren't things to be afraid of in the world, but ask yourself is this really one of them? Is it really likely to affect you? Know what every single annoying clickbait headline you've ever read has in common? Emotional content.
Another latin phrase comes in handy when asking "why" questions about news stories: cui bono? It means "who benefits?". Take a moment and ask yourself who wins if you continue to feel this way about the story. Does it make you more or less likely to vote a certain way, support or oppose an issue or candidate, buy or avoid a certain product?
A very common fallacy is the Argument to moderation, which falsely concludes that the compromise between two positions is likely correct. Presenting "both sides of the story" appeals to our sense of fairness, but it's not always the right approach. The fringe likes to try this ploy to gain legitimacy, as creationists often do when opposing evolution. In reality, evolution is science and creationism isn't. Or, as Stephen Jay Gould said, "I suppose that apples might start to rise tomorrow, but the possibility does not merit equal time in physics classrooms." You wouldn't expect much, except maybe for comedy, to come of a debate between a pro-gravity scientist and an anti-gravity advocate. Giving time to the latter doesn't make the story any more useful or accurate. If you add cowpie to apple pie it doesn't make the apple pie better.
The other side of that coin is the false dilemma. Which would you rather be, an intelligent consumer of the news or a cretin who stomps on kittens? (Did you catch the subtle fallacy there?) Choices are often presented which have nothing to do with each other. Watch out for the false dilemma so you don't get cancer!
Even more common is the argumentum ad hominem, which is attacking the messenger instead of the message. It's all too easy to get caught up in who is right rather than what is right. Here's a fun game to play: Next time you see a story about a corrupt politician, check for where, or if, the miscreant's political party affiliation is mentioned. Leaving it out or burying it in the article is a dead giveaway for political bias. But so is featuring it in the headline or lede paragraph. Which one's right? The point is that it's not that simple. Bias is more subtle than that.
You might be telling yourself, "All I have to do is find an unbiased news source and it's all good." Except that, as long as you get your news from human beings, that's just not possible. As skeptics we should understand this better than anybody. Having cherished beliefs, ideologies, and beliefs in irrational things is not a marker for stupidity or dishonesty, it's a marker for a normally-functioning human brain. The whole point of skepticism is to learn critical thinking skills so that we can counter the errors we know creep into our thinking.
Know what I mean? The more I learn about confirmation bias the more I see it everywhere.
The very idea of an "unbiased news source" is actually a fairly recent marketing ploy. In the heyday of American newspapers each publication proudly trumpeted its bias. Don't believe me? Just do a web search for American newspapers with the words Democrat or Republican in their names. While the more responsible outlets today make an effort to separate their editorial bias from straight news, you'd be wise to suspect that the news itself often reflects that same slant.
The most powerful tool in storytelling is editing. Just deciding what's in and what's out completely shapes the story. It's both essential and unavoidable. Since a news source can't cover everything that happens everywhere, the choice of what story to run is already a big editorial choice.
Editing, which is always "selective", by the way, can distort information in at least two key ways. One is oversimplification. Beware the sound bite, especially about nuanced or scientific topics. Another is plain distortion. To illustrate my point, I edited Richard Nixon's famous "I am not a crook" press appearance.
Nixon Speaks (mp3)
Those are all words he said, just not in that order. An extreme example, but you get the idea.
Ever seen a TV interview being shot? I watched David Hartman interview Alvy Ray Smith at Lucasfilm long ago. During the interview the camera was on Alvy to get his angle. After he left, Hartman rewrote his questions to sound smoother, and then they shot his angles. As a filmmaker any time I see video I ask myself why the camera is running at this particular moment, who is operating the camera, and where they are standing. What's not on camera can be more important than what's in the frame.
Reward the good guys
The news about the news isn't all bad, and you don't have to be a passive consumer. There are reporters out there who take their jobs seriously and make a good effort to get the story right. When you find one, why not drop them a thank-you email? A little positive feedback can go a long way.
It's always simple to spot the other guy's problems. In the U.S. it's pretty easy to predict your political affiliation based on which news network, if any, you watch. That "other" network is a bunch of liars! I can see right through their deceit! People who watch that network are a bunch of morons! Chances are that you agree with some of that, but about different networks. So my challenge to you is to see your favorite news source through the other guy's eyes every now and then. Apply the critical thinking skills you're learning as a skeptic, and don't take anything at face value.
I hope you're listening, Mr. Tarter. Thanks to you I've always looked at the news with a skeptical eye.
By Craig Good
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