What Happened to the News Media?

The question I heard being asked most often during the recent election was; what the hell happened to the media? The almost universal opinion of most people seems to be that just when we needed the media the most to keep us informed, discover the truth, to keep things rational, it failed us totally.

The media blithely rolled along, repeating all of the lies, the innuendo, the misinformation, deliberately pumped up phony scandals. It gleefully turned casual comments and jokes into derogatory and misleading memes. It pounced on every conspiracy it could find. It magnified the silly and the ridiculous into clickbait headlines. It leapt upon phony stories from satirical websites or fraudulent sources gleefully and unapologetically.

Instead of helping to solve problems, the media became the problem.

But did it didn’t. Not really.

We have this impression that the news media is supposed to be some kind of watchdog, that it’s supposed to only publish the truth, that it’s supposed to call our attention to corruption, lies, misleading information, to cast light into the dark places inhabited by politicians and corporations. It is this concept that some call the fourth estate, the idea that the news media is some kind of watchdog, a guardian..

But the news media has never been that. The news media has a long and sordid history of manipulating information, spreading misinformation, taking things out of context, and doing it deliberately. The media has helped to foster conflicts and even wars, destroy reputations of innocent people, manipulating public opinion… And if you don’t believe that, just start doing some research. A few minutes running searches on Google is all it takes to discover that what is going on today is nothing new.

I know a lot of people who are laying the blame for Trump’s rise to power on the media and its failure to accurately report the facts. And there are certainly valid reasons to criticize modern media. But it isn’t anything new. The media has always done this. Either for profit, to push some political agenda by the owners of the media outlet, to pander to politicians…

But the fake news stories, quotes taken out of context, attempts by biased owners to manipulate public opinion? That’s been going on for as long as there has been a media.

And as for who is to blame, well, it’s us, really. The media is in business for one reason, for the most part: to make money. And they’ve learned that the easiest, least expensive and most profitable thing to do is publish the garbage they publish. Because we buy it. We click on the clickbait headlines, we gulp down millions of words written about ridiculous celebrities who don’t matter in the slightest. We’d rather read about who got who pregnant or who got a breast enlargement or who is divorcing who, then about things that really matter.

So if you’re looking for someone to blame, it’s not the media. It’s us.

Where The Hell Are The Editors????

That’s the question I’d like to ask a lot of on-line publications. And a lot of print publications as well.

Where the hell are the editors? What are they doing to earn their money? All it takes is a quick glance at most modern publications, both online and in print, and you’ll see that the answer to that question is, well, not a hell of a lot. Certainly they aren’t actually doing anything that could be considered actual ‘editing’.

Take a look at this article over at Mother Jones and you’ll see what I mean…

http://www.motherjones.com/environment/2016/04/heart-disease-coffee-inquiring-minds

The headline reads “Science Has Some Awesome News for Coffee Drinkers”, with the tag line “It (probably) won’t kill you.” beneath it. But that’s not what the article is about.

Okay, sure, the first four paragraphs do talk about caffeine consumption and the fact that studies have failed to show any link between moderate coffee consumption and heart problems. But that’s old news. Very old news. We’ve known that for years now. While the Marcus study is new, it certainly doesn’t warrant more than a paragraph or two because it’s conclusions were already pretty well known.

But that’s not what the article is really about. The stuff about caffeine is really little more than an introduction to the real story, which is an attempt to put together a massive study of heart rhythms and other data using more than a million people wearing smart watches or other electronic health monitoring devices that can send data to the scientists. 

The goal of the study is to not only gather massive amounts of data which might eventually lead to the discovery of what triggers heart rhythm events, but to also gather all kinds of other data ‘in the wild’ so to speak.

One of the major problems with gathering data from people in studies like this, is that the data almost always has to be gathered when the people are in unnatural environments which can have a dramatic effect on the data. When you put a person in a hospital or clinic environment, they experience levels of stress that can significantly alter their physiology, resulting in higher blood pressure readings, faster pulse rates, etc. Scientists would really, really like to be able gather data ‘live’, so to speak, while the person is going about their normal day, doing it as unobtrusively as possible.

So using things like smart watches to gather this data ‘in the wild’, so to speak, could be an extremely important advance in the use of these devices to gather genuinely useful health information that could lead to the ability to predict when heart events might occur, what triggers them, etc

One of the main points of the study is to try to see just how useful devices like smart watches can be in doing serious studies about health.

So, what’s wrong with the story? Well, just about everything, really. The editor who came up with the headline obviously never actually read it the whole article. He or she saw the first couple of paragraphs about coffee, and never bothered to read the rest of it, hence the misleading headline.

And the article itself is at fault.

One thing they drilled into us in journalism classes in college and later when I was actually working as an editor, was that every story has to have one, and only one, major topic. Your story can’t be about this and that. It’s about this. Period. Everything in that article has to be directly related in some way to the main topic.

This story is about two entirely different things. First is the ‘beats’ study that found caffeine did not effect heart rhythm. That took up about four paragraphs.

But more than half of the article is about the Health eHeart study, involving smart devices and how important it could be for medical research, and it has nothing to do with the first four paragraphs dealing with the caffeine study. 

So we have a wildly misleading headline, we have a story that can’t make up it’s mind what it’s actually talking about. We have writing chock full of cliche phrases like ‘what they learned might surprise you’ that should never, ever make their way into print…

So I’ll repeat the question: Where the hell are the editors???

Yo, MJ editors? I’m extending a personal invitation to all of you. Come on up to Wisconsin for a visit sometime. My neighbor said I can use his woodshed…