A Quick Rant on Mainstream Media

My old roommate and best friend sent me this disturbing link today.  Now the title claims “Satellite Photographs ‘Black Hole’ on Earth.  Now as an astronomer this requires no red flags, no further reading, nothing.  This is total BS.  Period.  Of course when you read the article it admits that the title is dishonest because it admits that nothing imaged a black hole of any kind!  Rather a satellite imaged a deep hole on an island that appeared black and was given the name “Holbox” which they claim in Mayan means black hole.  Now I don’t know why the Mayans even had a word for black hole but I assume it is a thrown together collection of Mayan words to produce the same effect.  Journalists write these kind of sensationalist headlines to grab attention.  They know we can’t read everything we come across so they need a catchy headline.  I’m ok with catchy headlines.  What I need to know is this.  If journalists know that all we are doing is skimming headlines why do they deliberately write wrong and deceptive headlines?  Is it because they are not interested in the real news?

I caution my observational astronomy classes that the media will report stories claiming amazing events in astronomy regularly.  The recent astrology fiasco is a great example.  Even more recently was the reporting of the “supermoon”.  In this case it wasn’t so much that what they said was wrong, they just reported it without knowing anything about it.  Then they pulled images off the internet to show a “big moon” and posted pictures that had nothing to do with perigee (the Moon’s closest approach to the Earth), and instead demonstrated the “Moon Illusion“.  It was deceptive out of ignorance and for the media, the people we trust to give us reliable information, that is not acceptable.

Now journalists will defend themselves by saying that things like the astrology mess, the supermoon, and even the “black hole” image are just “fluff pieces” anyways.  My first response is, why is a science piece more often fluff than not?  My second question would be, shouldn’t fluff still be news and hence reported correctly?  My third observation would be that they don’t even get it right when it is a non-fluff story!  Fox News recently reported a Japanese night club as a nuclear reactor!  Notice however that the very article I just linked to cites “googling” as their method of fact checking and when that didn’t serve them well they got their information from “other sources” which they never identify.  They could be their own source as far as I know since I know little about Japanese nightclubs.  Fox News also sponsors a man who claims that we can’t explain why the “Sun goes up and the Sun goes down” right in between their normal news programs.  (Bill O’Reilly, YouTube it if you don’t believe; he is very proud of that argument and uses it often.)  These are the people we trust for information?

Despite my rant (because that is all that this is), I do understand that mainstream media are just big businesses fighting to beat out the competition and post “news” faster than the other guys but don’t they have the responsibility of thorough and efficient fact checking first?  Of honesty before profit?  I would like to end with a reflection from personal experience and observation.  In science, thousands upon thousands of journal articles are published monthly, our news outlet if you will.  Everyday ~40-60 articles are posted on Cornell University Library’s “astro-ph” and astronomers look.  We look then at journals as they come out.  We travel to conferences, both national and worldwide, to watch people tell us about their papers, to give us the news.  This is true in all sciences and in other disciplines as well.  No catchy titles, no deceptive titles.  Just what you need to know to decide if you are going to read the paper.  These papers are a major time investment as well.  Reading one good paper could take you several hours if you are well versed in that particular subset of the field.  Yet without all the gimmicks, the glitter, and dressing up that mainstream media does, we still read them.  We still look daily.  Why?  Because the papers are interesting without glitter, they are relevant, and important to us.  Maybe the media outlets should focus on presenting news that is important and relevant instead of finding new and creative ways into tricking us into reading their article.

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April 2011

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