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How the Media Works

For some folks, Dan Rather’s apology will always be the picture in the dictionary next to the definition of “schadenfreude.” My pleasure in the events of Memogate has a different source. I’m hoping it will help take the romance out of the news business. And that’s good.

I think a lot of folks think newspapers and news programs report on the news of the day. The editors and producers sit around and look at what has happened or they dig around to find stuff that no one has noticed (investigative reporting) and they decide what is important and what is not. Yes, bad news gets a lot of play because people like to read about it and ratings and sales matter. Yes, there may be bias. But in this essentially romantic view of the media, the media sorts through events and decides what’s to print or put on the air.

It doesn’t really work that way. It misses a central element of the drama. We think the media goes out and finds the news. Sometimes it does. But a lot of the times, it’s the news trying to find the media. There are a lot of people out there who try and influence what gets in the paper. You could call them PR flaks or spin doctors, but it’s best to think of them as lobbyists. They lobby the media for attention, for ink, for space for coverage. They email, they fax, they stop by. They buttonhole, phone and cajole in hopes of getting attention for their idea, their product, their candidate, their cause.

If you call someone in the media, you might think them rude. They’re not. They’re just coping with a thousand calls a day and a thousand emails and you’re one of them. They have a very short attention span. It has to be that way. They are under constant bombardment from people trying to get their attention.

Newspapers and news programs are filters for this torrent of information. Yes, there is investigative reporting. But much or most of what the media reports comes to them. Virtually every scientific study, every health study, every economics study that you read about in the paper is the result of a press release that someone from the university, think tank or institute wrote and sent to a media outlet. The good reporters try and parse those press releases for bias and exaggeration. They are likely to be both biased and exaggerated becuase the writer of the press release knows that the press release is one of a hundred or a thousand arriving that day. You have to stand out.

A while back I wrote about the CBO study that examined the burden of recent tax cuts. Every newspaper covered that story. Every wire service. All on the same day. How did that happen? Did the economics reporters at those places just happen to notice that the CBO had released the study? No, the Democratic Joint Economic Committee sent out a press release. As I wrote when the study came out, the media didn’t quite get the findings of the study right. I suspect this happens all the time. It has nothing to do with bias. It’s the way the business works. Too much information and too little time to deal with it carefully.

Consider this delightful health scare from this past summer. The headline: “Pollutants Cause Huge Rise in Brain Diseases.” The story opens:

The numbers of sufferers of brain diseases, including Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and motor neurone disease, have soared across the West in less than 20 years, scientists have discovered.

The alarming rise, which includes figures showing rates of dementia have trebled in men, has been linked to rises in levels of pesticides, industrial effluents, domestic waste, car exhausts and other pollutants, says a report in the journal Public Health.

Pretty scary, huh? After all, Public Health is a real science journal. I wrote the author and got a copy of the study. The study doesn’t control for the fact that 20 years ago, people were less aware of Alzheimer’s and lots of conditions and deaths 20 years ago may have been misattributed to other causes. So brain diseases may actually be unchanged. (The press coverage suggests that the study avoids problems of diagnosis by only looking at death rates, but alas, deaths 20 years ago are much less likely to be attributed to Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s because people doctors were less aware of them. If you go to the actual study, the authors admit as much.)

But forget that. The really depressing point about the media coverage of this non-story (google: brain disease pollution) is that the study didn’t examine the link between pollutants and brain disease. At the end of the paper, the author hypothesized that the measured rise in disease might be attributable to environmental pollutants. There was no scientific link, no statistical analysis showing how these might be correlated. It was just a guess. Here’s one version of this “finding”:

As to the cause of this disturbing rise, Pritchard said genetic causes could be ruled out because any changes to DNA would take hundreds of years to take effect. ‘It must be the environment,’ he said.

The causes were most likely to be chemicals, from car pollution to pesticides on crops and industrial chemicals used in almost every aspect of modern life, from processed food to packaging, from electrical goods to sofa covers, Pritchard said.

Or the cause is simply a change in measurement due to greater awareness. That does not get you in the newspaper. I suspect the press release that the University of Bournemouth put out didn’t mention this possibility. (Sofa covers? They’re actually in decline. Wouldn’t that reduce brain disease? Never mind.)

Memogate and Dan Rather’s troubles should remind us that what you read in the newspaper and see on the news is not simply the events of the day. Much of what we read and what we see comes from an intense effort to influence us. Some of it is surely true. Some of it is untrue but accurate. Some of it is untrue and inaccurate. The lesson? Read widely and have lots of grains of salt at the ready.


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