Lazy journalism.

Modern media has adopted the curious practice of reporting claims, rather than facts. (I say “modern” not because I know that it wasn’t always like this, but because I have no idea.) I don’t mean to pick on either this guy or this outlet, but AP writer Anthony McCartney’s story about Jackson Browne’s lawsuit against John McCain is a good example of this.

As perhaps you’ve heard, the Ohio Republican Party ran a TV ad attacking Obama using Browne’s “Running on Empty” as the background music. Browne has filed suit against the party (as well as McCain and the RNC), charging them with copyright infringement and misappropriation of his likeness in a manner implying an endorsement. McCartney writes:

The suit says Browne is a lifelong liberal who is as well-known for his music as for being “an advocate for social and environmental justice.”

Only the suit says that? That may well be so, but why wouldn’t McCartney just do the legwork to determine if a) Browne is a lifelong liberal and b) if he’s well-known as an advocate for social and environmental justice? The author continues:

According to the suit, “Running on Empty” plays in the background of the ad criticizing the remarks.

“According to the suit?” Really? McCartney couldn’t have just watched the ad and told us whether or not the song is playing? Because if it’s not, that would really change this whole story. And if it is, we ought to know that. Abdicating that to the text of the lawsuit is pretty weak.

The suit notes that other musicians, including ABBA and John Cougar Mellencamp, have asked McCain to stop using their work.

Well? Have they? This is the height of laziness. Surely the author has access to the AP’s own database — a query for “McCain ABBA” and “McCain Mellencamp” would have immediately revealed the answer. I conducted the same searches on Google and found that Mellencamp did ask McCain to stop using his work, while McCain was simply unwilling to pay licensing fees to ABBA. So bringing up ABBA here doesn’t make sense—that was a matter of finance, not politics. Had the author relied on something other than the text of a lawsuit, he’d know that. (Incidentally, I despise ABBA’s music. The notion that anybody likes their music is totally incomprehensible to me.)

Browne released “Running on Empty” – the song and an album by the same name – in 1977. According to the lawsuit, the album has sold more than 7 million copies.

Oh, come on. It took me 45 seconds to verify this (and, yes, it’s true) on the RIAA’s website.

This AP story has been picked up by media outlets around the world, surely read by many thousands of people. McCartney’s failure to do his job as a reporter—to verify facts, rather than just parrot them—is a disservice to those readers and to the AP. Again, my goal isn’t actually to pick on this guy. I read stories like this every day, from every media outlet, on every topic. Heck, I don’t even particularly care about this story.

It’s when this sort of reporting shows up in important matters that I get frustrated. Stories on global climate change, for instance, will quote two people: a climatologist who says “the planet is heating up,” and a spokesman for a right-wing think-tank who says “no it’s not.” Reporters will seldom acknowledge that the climatologist is speaking for science, who is unified in their understanding of climate trends, and that the spokesman is saying what the energy industry pays him to say. They likewise seldom acknowledge that the topic is settled science, and simply present the two sides as if they’re even, leaving the reader to sort out which is true. That might just be lazy journalism (and no doubt underfunded, resource-starved journalism), but the inadvertent result is totally dishonest coverage that does nobody any favors.

16 thoughts on “Lazy journalism.”

  1. I’ve long felt that convictions are newsworthy while accusations have virtually no newsworthy qualities other than to titillate the interests of the public. But then again, that is what most media is oriented around. Sponsorship is content for commercial media.

  2. Using ABBA would have been bad enough, but “Take a Chance on Me?” Seriously? The first line of that song is “If you change your mind, I’m the first in line.” Did the McCain camp really feel the need to constantly remind everyone that McCain was the Republicans’ first choice after they decided they didn’t like Huckabee, Romney, or Giuliani after all?

  3. Waldo,

    We agree almost entirely on this one. Since we should all know that anyone can file suit against anyone for any reason whatsoever, relying on “facts” alleged in an initial lawsuit are actually even more foolhardy than you might think. Maybe if the case was already played out in court so the “facts” had a chance to be vetted reliance upon them might make this type of reporting a little bit easier to take.

    You are absolutely right. Why not fact check some of these claims when they would obviously be so simple to verify from some other source? Doesn’t it make you wonder what bigger “facts” just get accepted and reported? Scary.

    OK, so you had me up until this line, “Reporters will seldom acknowledge that the climatologist is speaking for science, who is unified in their understanding of climate trends, and that the spokesman is saying what the energy industry pays him to say.”

    You let your own laziness and bias slip in here.

    Are you telling me that there is absolutely no possible way that a scientist can express doubts about the significance of global warming without being a shill for the oil industry? “Science” is absolutely not unified in this regard. Even in terms of climate trends, as you claim, science is not entirely clear on short-term vs. long-term trends vs. climate cycles and how our current snapshot of what is happening fits into a larger, long-range climate picture. In fact, many scientists are now reporting that global temperature has been relatively flat since 2002 and has actually fallen in the past year.

    I challenge you to do a little fact checking of your own on this topic. If you do it fairly I cannot believe you will come to any other conclusion than many scientists come to very different conclusions and beliefs on the topic of global warming, man’s effect on it and what it all means for the long-term future. Step outside your belief system and worldview for just a couple hours or so to see if legitimate scientists might have differences of opinion on the topic.

    To claim that science is settled and any opposing view “is in the pocket of big oil” is just plain lazy.

    But you can be forgiven, you write opinion, not news like our aforementioned journalist.

  4. You’re really trotting out that tired old line, Watts? Really? Come on, you can do better than that. I’m sure if you look hard enough you can find scientists that disagree with evolution and gravity too.

  5. Dan,

    Is it too much to ask people to actually respond to the substance of a statement rather than respond entirely emotionally with some ad hominem attack? Chill, bro.

    Maybe you *can’t* do any better.

  6. Watts, don’t you agree that it’s dishonest to present the opinion of 0.01% as being on equal footing as the opinion of the remaining 99.99%? And don’t you believe it’s likewise dishonest to present the opinions of non-scientists has being on equal footing with those of scientists in matters scientific?

  7. Ah, there you go again.

    Where are you getting your 99.99% number? It simply is not true. That’s all I’m saying. Just pretend what you don’t believe is a 0.01% fringe. Nice tactic. Easy too.

    I’m not saying the opposing opinions are equal and opposite, but to say that 99.99% of the science is settled is a gross distortion…and dishonest and lazy. That’s what you ranted against in your original post. To imply that because I point out that the science is not settled that might I also disbelieve gravity is intellectually dishonest and lazy. You are otherwise smart people. Why are you not open to honest, independent thought and doing your own research instead of just accepting others premises?

    There are many scientists who differ on this matter. Don’t tell me I’m quoting non-scientists as a way to discredit me. I say that highly credible and trustworthy scientists comes to different opinions on this and they are much large than 0.01% of the scientific population. THE SCIENCE IS NOT SETTLED.

    If you believe that any science is ever 99.9% settled to the point where you don’t think debate is even a worthy endeavor, then I have to question why you are not open to honest debate and examination. Even if it was “settled”, why would anyone who is truly interested in the integrity of science wish to cut off debate? Obviously it must be for other reasons. Science is all about constantly trying to disprove a theory.

    You distort science to justify your worldview and beliefs. Fine. I have no problem if you choose to do that. Just don’t make claims about the scientific community that aren’t true.

    I can see there are lazy among, use this as a jumping off point:

    http://wattsupwiththat.wordpress.com

    Written by a smart and dashing man who once believed as you, opened his mind to the possibility of honest exploration and has changed some of his thinking.

  8. You’re still not answering my question, Watts. Pretend I’m not talking about global climate change. Pretend I’m talking about the earth being flat. Don’t you agree that it’s dishonest to present the opinion of 0.01% as being on equal footing as the opinion of the remaining 99.99%? And don’t you believe it’s likewise dishonest to present the opinions of non-scientists has being on equal footing with those of scientists in matters scientific?

    Even if it was “settled”, why would anyone who is truly interested in the integrity of science wish to cut off debate?

    Who wants to cut off debate? I didn’t say anything about that. I’m talking about how the media presents facts, not about the scientific process.

    Written by a smart and dashing man who once believed as you, opened his mind to the possibility of honest exploration and has changed some of his thinking.

    Watts, I thought global climate change was bullshit until about ten years ago. Finally there was enough evidence that I couldn’t help but change my mind. You are mistaken in assuming that I hold this position out of laziness or convenience; I fought it every step of the way.

  9. “Don’t you agree that it’s dishonest to present the opinion of 0.01% as being on equal footing as the opinion of the remaining 99.99%? And don’t you believe it’s likewise dishonest to present the opinions of non-scientists has being on equal footing with those of scientists in matters scientific?”

    I just don’t see where your hypothetical question has any bearing on the discussion at hand. And now you are implying that I’m being dishonest about something.

    I am not presenting any side of any argument that represents a mere 0.01% of total scientific opinion. In fact, I am not putting forth any non-scientific opinion at all. Your question implies that I am.

    What the hell does 99.99% have to do with anything and where are you getting that number? Your throwing out some arbitrary 0.01% figure is merely a smokescreen to try to minimize an opposing viewpoint.

    As best I can discern, the percentage of the scientific community who question man’s role and influence in global warming is at least around 17%. Here (among some other places)is where I support my number.

    http://www.jamstec.go.jp/frsgc/research/d5/jdannan/survey.pdf

    This does not substantiate any “absolute” percentage since the sample is so small, but it is a reasonable indication that the size of the scientific community who at least question the significance of man’s role on global warming is at least, conservatively, greater than even 10% and that’s already 1000x greater than you seem to be implying it is. There are some who say the actual number is actually much greater but many will not speak out about it due to social and professional pressures and fear of being attacked and have to defend themselves in a media environment where the deck seems stacked and all logic, reason and willingness to engage in honest and open debate have long since left the building. (If you want to have some real fun, read the history of the report above. If you want even more fun to substantiate the above assertion, read the responses to this post that will assuredly follow.)

    Why is it so hard to accept that there is significant scientific opinion that questions man’s role in global warming? Did you catch that? Yes, I used *significant* and *scientific* in the same sentence. Oh my!

    I suppose it is just easier to say that opposition must be 0.01% and they must be in big oil’s back pocket. Political rhetoric, not science this is. It is also lazy.

    The fact that we are having this debate proves this is an emotional issue to some, not a scientific one.

    I can play your game too. Pretend we are talking about water flowing downhill. Wouldn’t you agree that if 99.99% of people believe that water runs uphill that their opinion would far outweigh 0.01% who say it runs downhill? Wouldn’t that make the consensus opinion fact? Poppycock, right? False implications in the question force you to accept a premise that is false. This all leads to a bogus conclusion that has nothing at all to do with the facts.

    Let me be clear here.

    We are talking about coming to conclusions that shape public policy. We are also talking about laziness that allows us to simply regurgitate things we’ve heard over and over again without critically examining them or questioning where they came from.

    *** Why are we in such a rush to quiet a significant portion of scientific opinion that says we can’t be so sure that most of global warming can be directly attributed to man’s activities?

    Why is it that if you read the latest reports and data on global temperatures that most everyone is at a loss to be able to explain how the recent drop in global temperatures fits within the paradigm of man’s activities having the greatest impact on global warming? If man has the greatest impact on it (and man’s activities haven’t changed a whole lot lately) then how can we explain a drop in global temperatures? How? There shouldn’t even be any “anomalies” that can explain even a slight dip in average global temperature if man-made greenhouse gas theory holds absolutely. If there are such anomalies, then we better take a pretty hard look at them because maybe they are pieces of the puzzle that haven’t largely been factored in yet. What is the mechanism of this cooling? Do we even recognize or understand it?

    Why do we think we know what the optimal earth temperature is or should be? Why do we commonly believe that earth once emerged from an ice age and then once again experienced a mini ice age…and now we seem ready to reject climate cycle theory?

    How much do you think it will cost from a public policy perspective to reverse or negate global warming? Do you think this amount of money is large enough that we ought to be really sure of what we’re talking about and understand exactly how our spending will lead to a stop in global warming before we do anything? Where is this money going to come from? If we spend this money on anti-global warming measures, then what other things might we otherwise do with that money that will not be possible?

    The debate must go beyond rote talking points.

    If we squelch open debate and honest dialog then we must question why those who wish to shape public policy are so eager to “close” the issue and move on to prescribing cure. Your positioning as “0.01%, non-scientific, big oil” represents such squelching.

    Let the games begin.

    Call me a wacko non-scientist who represents a fringe 0.01% opinion and start proving me right.

  10. …so, as I was saying, the science is not settled and for you to imply that media somehow distorts “the facts” because they present a minority or opposing opinion is not dishonest. Sure, state it is a small or minority opinion, but don’t imply it is equal and opposite. We agree here. But surely don’t claim that one side represents 99.99% of expert thought on the matter unless you can absolutely quantify that 99.99% somehow otherwise you are just makin’ stuff up too. Your ‘settled science’ argument is just as bad.

    “It’s when this sort of reporting shows up in important matters that I get frustrated. Stories on global climate change, for instance, will quote two people: a climatologist who says “the planet is heating up,” and a spokesman for a right-wing think-tank who says “no it’s not.” Reporters will seldom acknowledge that the climatologist is speaking for science, who is unified in their understanding of climate trends, and that the spokesman is saying what the energy industry pays him to say. They likewise seldom acknowledge that the topic is settled science, and simply present the two sides as if they’re even, leaving the reader to sort out which is true.”

  11. Uh. Whoa. Slow down there, Watts—you’re freaking out on me. Let me try this one more time before I give up on you here. Remember, here, we’re talking about whether or not the earth is round.

    If 99.99% of scientists in a given field state that a fact of that field is true, and 0.01% of scientists in that field state that it is false, do you believe that it would be dishonest for the media to present those two perspectives as being on equal footing?

    And do you likewise think that it would be dishonest for the media to present the perspectives of a non-scientist as being on equal footing with those of a scientist in a scientific matter?

  12. I’ll go s-l-o-w too.

    Yes, to present 99.99% and 0.01% as “equal” would be dishonest no matter who is doing it. Yes, there is a difference when comparing expert opinion with layman opinion. One should probably give more weight to expert opinion for that should represent well-researched opinion.

    However, here is my beef:

    You are making up out of thin air the arbitrary numbers of 99.99% and 0.01% and purposefully using these numbers to try to imply that 99.99% of all scientific opinion is settled on “global warming” (whatever that means to you. You just happened to choose this topic.)

    You also implied that the scientific community is 99.99% “unified in their understanding of climate trends” and that it is “settled science” and that if anyone disagrees they must therefore represent 0.01%, non-scientific opinion.

    Your implications are false, you are doing a disservice to your readers, and your error is more egregious than the original “journalist” who did not check facts on the ABBA story.

  13. Yes, to present 99.99% and 0.01% as “equal” would be dishonest no matter who is doing it. Yes, there is a difference when comparing expert opinion with layman opinion. One should probably give more weight to expert opinion for that should represent well-researched opinion.

    Great. So we’re agreed (so long as I figure that “probably.”)

    You are making up out of thin air the arbitrary numbers of 99.99% and 0.01% and purposefully using these numbers to try to imply that 99.99% of all scientific opinion is settled on “global warming” (whatever that means to you. You just happened to choose this topic.)

    Well, if 99.99% of so offensive to you, then do this for me: give me a percentage of your own. My source is Science magazine’s famous “The Scientific Consensus on Climate Change,” which found that 0% of the 928 papers on climate change published from 1993-2003 demonstrated, argued, or relied on any data showing any evidence to the contrary. So that’s 100%, minus Pat Michaels, who doesn’t have the balls to actually publish a paper to back up his claim. And, FWIW, he doesn’t say global climate change doesn’t exist, he just says it’s not going to be as bad as all of the other climate scientists do.

    So, if not 99.99%, you tell me: What’s the magic number, Watts, and where did you get it from?

  14. Waldo (and everyone else reading this),

    I’ll forgive you for not seeing my estimate of “the magic number” and my source in a previous post.

    Look.

    You said that 10 years ago you thought global warming was “bullshit” and you have since come to change your mind. I’m just asking that you don’t close your mind just yet and please evaluate new facts that come in over the next few years. The science is not settled. To think any science is absolutely “settled” is lazy.

    If you kept an open mind for the past 10 years, perhaps you’ll come a few more steps during the next few.

    http://www.worldnetdaily.com/index.php?fa=PAGE.view&pageId=64734

    http://www.petitionproject.org/gwdatabase/GW_Article/GWReview_OISM300.pdf

    http://epw.senate.gov/repwhitepapers/6345050%20Hot%20&%20Cold%20Media.pdf

    http://canadafreepress.com/2007/global-warming020507.htm

    http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-481613/Global-warming-Its-natural-say-experts.html

    http://newsbusters.org/blogs/noel-sheppard/2007/11/07/weather-channel-founder-global-warming-greatest-scam-history

    http://media.kusi.clickability.com/documents/Comments+on+Global+Warming02.pdf

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