Monday, November 23, 2015

How the Media Works Today - Frightening!

At one time in this country, journalism was an honorable profession.   Woodward and Bernstein investigating Watergate.  Today, journalism is all about capturing eyeballs to sell to advertisers.

Once in a while, Reddit is not just SPAM advertisements for Fallout 4 (which apparently turned out to be over-hyped - I hope the same is not true for Star Wars, but I fear it will be) or something called Rhonda Ramsey (which is a toothpaste, I think).   Every so often, they let something slip through the cracks - something that sort of illustrates how Reddit actually works.   This posting was in response to a question as to why "scientific breakthroughs" reported in the press are never followed up by real scientific progress:
"When I was a 'journo' I'd use sources like to find nice stories that I could rewrite so they were unique and then promote them on social media sites.  Eurekalert is already Buzzfeedy in its headlines, and you can tell when you read a little deeper into the article that the research was not as groundbreaking as the headline makes it appear. It might be a mouse model, it might be just a survey of 2000 people, it might be a study involving 20 people.
Then when I wrote it up, I would purposefully try to avoid anything that highlighted how meaningless the study was, and I'd try to write something even more Buzzfeedy than the actual article. AIDS cure 'around the corner', 'Study: AIDS can be cured by bananas'. If I put some of the headline in 'snatch quotes', i.e. apostrophes, or put a colon indicating that someone had said something, i.e. 'Cameron: Fuck Daesh', then I would have covered my ass from misrepresenting the topic, provided I didn't totally misrepresent it.
And I was churning out 5,000 words a day, often researching and spinning a 200-word article in 20 minutes. I would honestly just skimread the original source, I'd only actually read it to fully understand it if I was personally interested in the research. Furthermore, my understanding of complicated science is nowhere near good enough to be able to criticise a scientific study, all I'd do is 'spin' it. Churnalism, it's called.
Shockingly, one of my skills is being able to push things to the top of Google search results. Quite often, when writing something more meaty, my research would be reading whatever was at the top of Google search results, which I know full well is written by someone who's just as big a moron as me and who's just as pressed for time as me.
The internet is a tapestry of bullshit

Here's an example, in fact if I was spending 20 minutes on 200 words I would've spent 5 of them on Facebook.
See it's all full of confusing stuff but I might think 'this is the kind of thing people will read'. This doesn't comply with all the rules of news writing but it's pretty close:
Could e-cigarette users face a higher cancer risk than smokers?
Alternatives to tobacco, such as e-cigarettes, have become increasingly popular in recent years, and are much-touted for their health benefits.  However, a new study, which found that smokeless tobacco users have higher levels of carcinogens than smokers, could end any claims that alternatives to cigarettes are better for you than cigarettes themselves.
The research, which was published in Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention, a journal of the American Association for Cancer Research, found people who use smokeless tobacco have higher levels of tobacco constituents cotinine, NNAL and other deadly toxins than people who exclusively smoked cigarettes.
Brian Rostron, PhD, an epidemiologist in the Center for Tobacco Products at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, said that these biomarkers show that smokeless tobacco users face "adverse health effects, including cancer".
"Our findings demonstrate the need for continuing study of the toxic constituents of smokeless tobacco as well as their health effects on the individuals who use them," he added.
As well as e-cigarettes, other popular nicotine-replacement devices include snus, snuff and chewing tobacco.
PS it's all bullshit man, the study's about smokeless tobacco products, and I strongly assume that this means snuff and snus and chewing tobacco and that ecigs don't even count. But nobody's gonna sue me and it's the kinda thing people would share."
Scary stuff, no?   But it illustrates how "journalism" today works.  Say something catchy that captures eyeballs, generates click-through revenue, and whatnot.   You want an article that says something contrary or controversial, so that Joe Lunchbucket has something to talk about by the water cooler the next day.  "Say Bill, did you hear that those e-cigarettes are actually worse for you than regular ones?  I'm going back to filter-less Camels right away!"

In the health field, this is particularly scary, as it illustrates why most lay people will say things like, "Those scientists don't know nothing!  One day they tell us eggs are bad for you and the next day they are good for you!  Why don't they make up their minds???"

But of course, most "scientists" (nutritionists?) made up their minds a long time ago.  Too much of any one thing is bad for you.   But a lot of what gets reported gets twisted around.   Some say a high-fat diet is bad for your heart.  Somehow this gets translated into lay-speak as "low fat foods will help you lose weight"   They won't.  They can't.  Not now, not ever, and no, scientists aren't confused about this, lay people are.

Folks like to take tidbits of information - which are often distorted by the media for sensationalist purposes - and then twist them around even further.   I am sure it is a matter of time before people start to think that "gluten-free" foods are going to help them lose weight.  Just wait for it.  Oh, wait, we are already there.   Here's an article along the lines of the one written above.

And once again, we are given a headline with a question in it, and the answer is "No."   A fellow named Betteridge noted this trend and today it is called Betteridge's law:  If a title to an article has a question in it, the answer is usually "No".   As a corollary, you can save a lot of time by simply not reading such articles as they contain no useful information.

And another corollary is that articles that are titled, "You are never going to believe...." are about things that you likely will have no trouble believing.   Or titles about "incredible" things will turn out to be fairly ordinary.

To a young person today, of course, this may all seem quite normal, as this sort of "click-bait" behavior has been around for more than a decade.   But I would like to think that in the past, it wasn't as common.   And I can point to almost an exact point in my lifetime, where the change occurred.

Back in the 1960's, we had television news.   It was a 22-minute format, and all three networks (there was no Fox) put the news on at the same time, about 6:00 PM every evening and 11:00 every night.  There was no 24-hour news "cycle" or endless news reporting.  There was no Fox News.

Newspapers like the Wall Street Journal (which is now owned by Murdoch) were pretty staid and stuffy.  While conservative, they did not rely on sensationalist headlines to sell copy.   Today, the Murdoch empire owns National Geographic and this is the sort of headline they use:

The Murdoch-ization of the news.

This is not to say that Rupert Murdoch is to blame for this trend.  I saw the start of it in the late 1970's, when television started advertising television.   The first time this happened it was like, whoa, did that just really happen?   Television stations started using "teasers" to get people to watch programs later on.   And one way to get people to stay up until 11:00 for the "news" was to use a teaser like "Snow in the forecast?  Stay tuned for news at 11:00!"

But of course, they could have just said, "No snow forecast" or "30% chance of snow forecast" in the same amount of time.   But that would be responsible journalism.   They wanted to increase ratings, attract eyeballs, and then sell them to advertisers.  News departments became part of the entertainment divisions of their networks, and it all went downhill from there.

And then Fox appeared on the scene - willing to do just about any outrageous thing to get ratings.  Early television shows like "Married....with children" celebrated the breakdown of American family life.   Then Fox News would come on, and decry television shows which....celebrated the breakdown of American family life.  The irony was lost on most folks.

Somewhere along the way, from three channels and one fuzzy UHF, to 500 channels of crap, we went from providing entertainment with sponsors, to capturing and "selling eyeballs" to commercial interests (as was explained to me by a Cable TV executive).  The name of the game was to manipulate and confuse people and no matter what, get them to keep watching.   Coming up next!  Hitler's home movies!  In Color!   90 minutes later, you still haven't seen them.   That's how the History Channel works.

The Internet is just an extension of this.   Only now, we can sell people's eyeballs one click at a time.   No more relying on messy and inaccurate Nielsen ratings to see how many people bite on an ad.   You can count the suckers one at a time, and even divine their demographic information.

And this is how most people today get their '"information".   Much of it is outright faked-up data.   It makes a big splash in the press or online, but the retraction or refutation or clarification comes only days later and is never read - or read by few.   People say they are "informed" by being "plugged in" to the media, but in reality, the more they are plugged in, the less informed they are.

And this is not only sad - it is dangerous.   You need to be able to perceive reality as it really is in order to make rational decisions in life.  Act rationally in an irrational world, someone once said, and you'll end up wealthy.   But if all the data you receive in life is skewed - skewed to favor marketers and salesmen and companies trying to sell you things - how can you make rational decisions in life?

When it comes to more important national issues, how are we supposed to be able to parse out who to vote for, when sensationalism carries the day?   People put Trump at the top of the polls because he says outrageous things - things that people click on, or like to watch on television.   The media loves Trump, because love him or hate him, you'll watch - and watch the ads.   Meanwhile, the more "Presidential" candidates who are more reserved, languish in the polls, until they too, say something stupid to get in the limelight.  This is the system we have created for ourselves.

Oddly enough, as I was thinking about this, the folks at South Park created an episode (and story line) about the same thing.   Entitled "Sponsored Content", the episode explores how getting Internet news online can be a frustrating experience.  "It's as if I am chasing the news rather than reading it, clicking on one page after another...." - this struck me as particularly relevant.   The episode also illustrated how embedded content and product placement can be used to subtly influence people's perceptions, and how only a few people are able to see what is an ad and what is not.

We like to think we are sophisticated and astute.  We are not.   We like to think we have original ideas.   We don't.   We hear about things online, in the paper, on television, or from friends.   So we start to think, "Gee, maybe I need to be buying [fill in the blank]" and before we know it, we are.   Hey, there's a line around the block for the latest iPhone - better get yours now!  And be sure to obsessively use it, too!

Maybe our world was always thus.   Maybe not.   Because I remember a time when product placements were quite obvious.   The announce would say "brought to you by...." or Dinah Shore would step to one side the stage and sing the praises of the new Chevrolet.   You were aware that you were being marketed to.    When you watched Efrem Zimbalist, Jr. in "The FBI" you knew the presence of all those Ford cars was no accident, as it was plainly listed in the credits in large letters.   Today, you watch an episode of "Blue Bloods" and notice that for some reason, everyone is driving a new Nissan in this episode.   What's up with that?

There was a time when newspaper ads were clearly ads, and the word "advertisement" didn't have to appear on the pages of newspapers and magazines to let people know that the cleverly formatted "article" is just a paid ad.    But those days are long gone.  Newspapers and Magazines are dying off in droves.   Many have morphed to the Internet - taking on Internet journalism values at the same time.   Something fundamental has changed in our society, and it is not a change for the better.

Advertising has become a lot more subtle.   And the way we are steered to it is to use sensationalist headlines and eye-grabbing graphics.   Because that's the name of the game - grabbing eyeballs, one pair at a time!