Author Archives: Ben Lyons

Viewers ‘second screen’ debates

The presidential primary debates have been big business this election cycle. Viewership records have been set for Fox News (24 million viewers), CNN (23 million), CNBC (14 million) and Fox Business (13.5 million), destroying old marks across the board. Viewers also have begun live-tweeting the broadcasts in record numbers, a practice sometimes called second screening.

This seems inevitable, and may be innocuous. So voters are scrolling through their Twitter timelines as politicians recite practiced lines. Is this just extra fluff on top of a largely low-substance diet of political news and entertainment? Communication technology researchers are trying to find out.

First, the good news. Second screening may prompt viewers to more closely analyze the information candidates present by way of what’s known as central route processing, according to J. Brian Houston of the University of Missouri. Because they are more actively engaged, these plugged-in voters often apply greater scrutiny to the claims being bandied about by presidential hopefuls and also-rans.

Second screeners, who are by definition already online, are also more likely to proceed with donations, petitions and other forms of engagement with the democratic process, to the relief of every civics teacher. According to a study led by Homero Gil de Zuniga of the University of Vienna’s Media Innovation Lab, the second screen can act as a bridge from television viewing to concrete involvement.

As with any technology, second screening can also play to people’s baser instincts. According the University of Tennessee’s Jaclyn Cameron, those following simultaneous reactions to live events are more likely to see performances, and their “winner,” in the same terms as the hivemind. Exposure to an echo chamber may prevent second screeners from speaking out about their opinion even if they are not swept up in the tide.

Following the live-stream of Twitter reactions also draws people’s attention to nonverbal communication rather than the verbal combat on the less-small screen, according to a study by the University of Wisconsin’s Dhavan Shah. Shah’s team merged a shot-by-shot analysis of the 2012 first presidential debate, in terms of President Obama and Mitt Romney’s body language and oratory, with real-time measures of the reaction on Twitter. The findings show second screening may put the public in the un-evolved position of choosing their leaders on pre-verbal indicators of ability.

The phenomenon can be seen as amplifying the big shift from radio to TV. The first televised presidential debate in 1960 pitted a tan, well-rested Kennedy against a sickly Nixon, and the influence of image in campaigns has been growing ever since. Color, HD and other broadcast advances have made optics more of a king-maker than ever.

When following online, Shah’s research suggests viewers may be even more likely to be swept up in physical performances.

Twitter may also exacerbate the problems commonly associated with mainstream news’ campaign coverage. While traditional news is more likely to cover the issues raised in the debate, Kyle Heim of Seton Hall found that the Twitter stream is dominated by meta-coverage — comments about the moderators, the staging and other superficial details.

Second screeners may come away even more cynical, especially if they employ Twitter as their first screen in lieu of witnessing an event. The 140-character limit of tweets makes substantive coverage more difficult, a fact that Heim says strengthens the need for traditional editorial gatekeeping.

Still, there’s hope the critical tone that pervades viewers’ Twitter commentary may be heard, and used to improve a debate format with which few are satisfied.

Will human nature drag down science journalism?

Jesse Singal is a senior editor at New York Magazine, where he runs The Science of Us, a website about the science of human behavior. He wrote a series of articles about the Michael LaCour scandal as it unfolded.

A former science writer, Sharon Dunwoody is Evjue-Bascom Professor Emerita in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She has taught science journalism and science communication in the school for more than 30 years.

Alex Berezow is the founding editor of RealClearScience. A member of the USA Today Board of Contributors, his work also regularly appears in the Economist. He holds a Ph.D. in microbiology.

Former GJR managing editor Ben Lyons recently asked each about their outlook on social science reporting today. What follows are his questions and their responses.


Q: I’m interested in where you see the state of social science reporting in general. What about its future?

JS: The future is bright, I hope! The good news is that people do seem to have an appetite for distillations of this sort of research, which can only be a good thing for society. The bad news is that a lot of that journalism isn’t fantastic, and that university press shops often distribute misleading press releases that overstate studies’ findings. All we can do is hope is that social-science journalism continue to replenish itself with talented young people who are fascinated by human nature and willing to report on it with nuance — and not fall for splashy findings that don’t hold up.

SD: A growing number of communicators/journalists see the social sciences as fertile ground for reporting, so I believe this arena will continue to expand over time.  Some reasons for that:

  • Managing the major issues of the day calls for a deep understanding of human nature and behavior. For example, doing something about a warming globe is a human problem, not a technological one.  So increasing numbers of people, policy makers among them, express a need for information about behavior.  That makes social science research newsworthy.  As a result, some social scientists — such as Dan Kahan and Anthony Leiserowitz at Yale or Daniel Kahneman at Princeton — are approaching “visible scientist” status.
  • Editors and others who make news decisions have, for decades, privileged stories about social science research. Studies that examine coverage of science in the media typically find that the most popular “genre” is social science.  Systematic study of human beings is compelling to, well, other human beings.
  • There are always a few highly visible social science journalists and other types of communicators who keep this kind of research on the public agenda. Among the current crop are Radio Lab and NPR’s Shankar Vedantam. Even columns like the NYT’s “The Upshot” delve regularly into social science topics.

AB: Science journalism, in general, isn’t sufficiently skeptical. (And by “skeptical,” I don’t mean a connotation as in “climate skeptic,” but as in proper scientific skepticism.) We need to see more questions being asked like, “Are the appropriate methods being used to address the questions the researchers are seeking to answer?” “Do the conclusions go beyond what the data says?” “What does the rest of the literature say on this topic?” I think if journalists took the time to investigate these questions, we would see far less hype and far less inaccurate science reporting.

Social science (particularly psychology) gets a lot of coverage by journalists because it’s click-baity and easy to write about. Toss in the problems I mentioned above, and you’ve got a recipe for substandard reportage. I think it’s fair to say there’s a lot of room for improvement in social science reporting.

The future for science journalism appears bright because many practicing scientists and researchers (or at least people who were trained in science) choose to write. They can apply their expertise and analyze new research in ways that many journalists simply cannot. One of the things on which RealClearScience prides itself is a staff that is entirely trained in the hard sciences.


Q: Do you think the Michael LaCour scandal reflected anything about the public climate surrounding social science research today? Or alternately, what might the LaCour scandal say about the relationships among social science, the media and the public?

JS: It’s all really, really complicated. There are countless problems in social science right now in terms of statistical trickery on the part of researchers, the proliferation of not-amazing journals, and so on. These are conversations that need to occur within the social science.

One interesting aspect is the ease with which notable findings quickly filter down to the media, and therefore to everyone else. So many major publications covered the LaCour findings. On paper, this is a good thing — more people should know about the social sciences. But it also compounds the damage when something like this occurs.

SD: I think the LaCour scandal blew right over the heads of most Americans.  The incident certainly fits within the larger arena of scientific fraud — a topic that does get an increasing amount of public attention — but I suspect that it will have little influence on public perceptions of social science research.  Those perceptions are not all that positive, by the way.

AB: There’s always a temptation to make a name for oneself, be it in the hard sciences or soft sciences. I think this is particularly true for fields that receive a lot of press coverage — usually fields that are trendy, politically sensitive, or competitive. Stem cell research, for instance, is all three, and it has had a lot of high-profile problems with fraud. Psychology also has quite a bit of fraud. I think the LaCour scandal simply reminds us of the fallibility of mankind. Researchers are people too, and they face the same temptations as everybody else.


Q: Outing scientific fraud obviously strengthens science. But outright fraud is, to our knowledge, extremely rare. Do you feel any tension in the media amplifying public skepticism of all scientific findings in doing so?

JS: Nope. I edit a website about social science — clearly I think there’s value in the enterprise overall, and that the world would be a better place if people took a more “scientific approach” — basically just shorthand for evidence-based approaches — to various problems. I think the LaCour scandal is a fascinating one and a pretty amazing story so far, and that there’s value in uncovering the details. The only people who are going to come away from this thinking that the proper response is to distrust science qua science were already predisposed to that position anyway.

SD: There is always a risk in highlighting the aberrant.  I do worry that audiences will use anecdotal information to make inferences about scientists in general. I think someone needs to write about this in “The Upshot”!

AB: Yes, there is some tension. On the one hand, we need to report instances of fraud, but on the other hand, there is the possibility that over-reporting will cause the public to think that fraud is rampant in science — which then undermines hot-button discussions on vaccines, GMOs, nuclear power, climate change, evolution, etc. Those issues are hard enough to talk about without also having to address overblown concerns over fraud.

Media surge to cover Trump’s media surge

The media have turned their attention to Donald Trump in recent weeks, and now columnists are in turn opining on Trump coverage itself.

On the Washington Post’s Monkey Cage blog, political scientist John Sides wrote in his article “Why is Trump surging? Blame the media,” that “the answer is simple: Trump is surging in the polls because the news media has consistently focused on him since he announced his candidacy on June 16.” This attention alone has propped up his poll numbers, Sides says, but the “discovery phase” won’t last. The next phase will be “scrutiny from the news media, aided and abetted by the competing candidates.”

Last week, the Huffington Post announced it would cease covering Trump’s sideshow as politics, instead filing it under entertainment. “We won’t take the bait,” they said. Then Trump took a swipe at John McCain’s war hero status. The media cacophony became louder. In response, Huffington Post compiled a list of 162 people asked to comment on Trump’s latest bait.

Media Matters’ Eric Boehlert took a different tack, explaining “How the media missed the Donald Trump surge.” Boehlert says Trump’s ascension should surprise no one who’s paid attention to the radicalization of the right in recent years. “Yet during most of that span, the D.C. media stoically pretended the GOP hadn’t taken an ugly, radical turn. And that’s why so many seem baffled by Trump’s rise.”

Hollywood shines its spotlight on journalism

There’s a long history of journalists on the silver screen, from classics “Citizen Kane,” and “All the King’s Men,” to satires such as “Network,” to broader comedies such as “Groundhog Day,” and “Bruce Almighty.” Rarer are depictions of newshounds as neither heroes nor empty suits.

In the past year, three films have offered takes on the profession that alternately recreate or subvert these archetypes, or do away with them entirely: critic’s darling “Birdman,” edgy “Nightcrawler” and the farcical “Interview.” How does each cast the media of today? 

A journalist abroad

The goofiest and most simplistic of the crop, “The Interview,” holds journalism in the highest esteem. True, stars Seth Rogen and James Franco play a lowly entertainment news team that makes its nut on celebrity gossip. In two early cameos, Eminem and Rob Lowe come out as gay and bald, respectively, on their talk show. But show-runner Aaron Rapoport (Rogen)’s dissatisfaction with this state of affairs is what pushes him, and his host, Dave Skylark (Franco), to take on an interview with Kim Jung-un.

Early on, Rapoport runs into an old Columbia Journalism School peer, now a “60 Minutes” employee, who jokes that he could never make it in the world of real news. His pride is wounded. Skylark also desires professional esteem. So this respect for legitimate journalism is actually the impetus for the film’s absurd events.

Late in the plot, when the bumbling stars are deep in North Korea and have ditched the CIA’s assassination plan, they instead decide to use Skylark’s emotional manipulation skills – those same that bring celebs to tears in one-on-ones – to make Kim Jung-un cry in front of his nation. They believe the media broadcast would have a truly revolutionary power. It would pull back the curtain on the supposed superhuman leader, instead of merely leading to another succession, as his assassination would.

This is faith in journalism as world-shaker, as mightier than the sword (and of course, the film had serious real-world repercussions in the Sony email hack and subsequent pull from theaters). While “The Interview” might seem to mock today’s vapid media, there is actually a kind of golden-age reverence below the surface.

Critically panned, “The Interview” actually bears some similarities to the lauded “Birdman.” Both feature popular stars low on credibility who seek legitimacy by impressing prestige media.

A journalist on Broadway

This year’s Academy Award winner for Best Picture, “Birdman,” looks at the conflicted, symbiotic relationship between the entertainment industry and the press. At the center of it, Michael Keaton’s Riggan Thompson, a former comic book movie star, attempts to stage a career revival. He stars in, directs and produces his own Broadway adaption of a Raymond Carver work. His fate lies with one reviewer, the New York Times’ prickly theater critic, who reviles what he represents. He doesn’t care much for critics, either.

In a telling detail, his dressing room mirror bears a notecard with the quote, “A thing is a thing not what is said of that thing [sic].”

But Thompson is in search of validation, and thinks it must come from the old-guard media. He checks the paper (the print version, no less) for reviews after each preview and ultimately, opening night. He gets in a fistfight with his preening co-star Mike Shiner (Edward Norton) who usurps his front page early in the film.

The media do not come off too well here. The Times critic threatens to kill his play before she’s even seen it. Likewise, at an early press conference held in Thompson’s dressing room, one scribe inquires if a ludicrous rumor – that he injects pig semen in his face – is true. They care little about the content of his production or its performances.

There are other sources of hollow validation, though, as the film reveals. Thompson’s daughter/assistant Sam, played by Emma Stone, gives the actors a younger outsider’s view. In one notable scene, Thompson gets locked out of the theater in his underwear during a performance and has to hightail back to the front entrance though throngs of New York pedestrians. Later, his daughter tells him his jaunt is trending on Twitter, gaining 350,000 views in under an hour. “Believe it or not, this is power,” she tells him. She realizes new media can undercut the gatekeeping role of old.

But the very next scene? Thompson has a nasty confrontation with the Times critic in a bar. “I’m gonna destroy your play,” she growls. “This is the theater. You don’t get to come in here and write, direct and star in your own propaganda piece without coming through me first.” She might as well have roared, “I am the gatekeeper.”

Reading her notepad, he says her criticisms are “just labels” – there’s nothing about technique or intention, no substance at all. “Just a bunch of crappy opinions.”

Thompson and his co-stars are wrapped up in the public’s adoration, though. While their future may hinge on the old, new media can instantly gratify them. In reference to a sort of excitement-induced wardrobe malfunction, Shiner shoots back at Thompson, mid-fight: “I’m a nobody? My massive hard-on got 50,000 views.”

“Birdman” is fascinated with the real-time interaction, or distraction, of social media in the characters’ lives. While its actors-playing-actors are somewhat self-aware of their adulation seeking – Shiner tells Thompson “popularity is the slutty little cousin of prestige, my friend” – here validation is crunched down to numbers. Obsessed with enumeration, “Birdman” seems to be critiquing both the media’s and the public’s infatuation with views, shares and likes.

A broadside against journalists?

“Nightcrawler” is the most sustained look at the news media of the three, taking “If it bleeds, it leads” to an insane length. It’s a reflection on the sometimes ghoulish focus of local news – that is, its devotion to crime, accidents and fires. The audience’s desire for disaster is met by a perfect sociopath, Jake Gyllenhaal’s Louis Bloom.

Rather than seeking prestige, as is the case with Skylark and Thompson, he just wants a few dollars in his pocket. Nightcrawling, or stringing after police scanner incidents with camera in tow, is his means to that end.

Not only is he focused on the grisly aspects of news – where, after all, he’s just responding to the wants of the system, and his news director – he is entirely amoral about attaining sensational video.

Bloom enters crime scene homes, moves injured bodies for better framing and withholds critical information from police to stage a shot of the murderers’ apprehension-turned-shootout and car chase. He literally has blood on his hands.

He is responding to the advice of his news director, Nina Romina (Renee Russo). “Think of our newscast as a screaming woman running down the street with her throat cut,” she tells him. “I’m a very quick learner,” he says at one point. So Bloom is quickly able to turn in the highest shock-value video in all of L.A. Romina in turn is responding to the marketplace. Her news station is last in ratings, and carnage, particularly brown-on-white crime, is a hit with the suburban audience.

There are only two characters with scruples in the film. One is a member of the news team, token producer Frank Kruse (Kevin Rahm) who repeatedly raises ethical objections to running Bloom’s footage. The other is Rick (Riz Ahmed), the poor young man Bloom recruits to be his “intern.” Rick eventually confronts Bloom about his inhumane practices.

But Bloom is nothing but successful. His determined, affectless approach yields ever-greater results. In the end, he introduces several new “interns” to his expanded news-gathering production company.

Spouting aphorisms about hard work to anyone who will listen, Bloom’s deeds are at times soundtracked by a subtly upbeat, inspirational score. The film is perhaps the darkest of comedies, then, if the viewer so chooses. It is also a compelling but sickening portrait of gratuitously graphic broadcast news, a satire mixing elements of “Wolf of Wall Street” and “Network.”

There’s little more to the film’s statement. We know tabloid journalism is grotesque, and that for-profit news leads to a perversion of the product. But “Nightcrawler” delves the depths of rubbernecking and ladder climbing to a new extreme. And when you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.


Hollywood still casts the media in powerful roles, even while satirizing their tabloidization. Journalists in film are capable of bringing down regimes and crushing Broadway shows single-handedly. But changes to the news environment have not gone unnoticed. Social media competes side-by-side with the New York Times. It’s no coincidence sensationalism has seeped back on-screen, where celebrity gossip and gory crime often displace serious issues and ethics are seen as quaint.

While still incorporating our classic images of journalists, both heroes and fools, scriptwriters have updated Hollywood’s mirror to more accurately reflect today’s fragmented and sometimes troubling media landscape.

Facebook v. Science

Social media have helped us cocoon ourselves into comfortable ignorance of “the other side” — so goes the prevailing notion of the last few years, since Facebook has been king.

A team of researchers at Facebook published an article Thursday that claimed to detail how much the site contributes to political echo chambers or filter-bubbles. Published in the journal Science, their report claimed Facebook’s blackbox newsfeed algorithm weeded out some disagreeable content from readers’ feeds, but not as much as did their personal behavior.

A flurry of criticism came from other social scientists, with one, University of Michigan’s Christian Sandvig, calling it Facebook’s “it’s not our fault” study.

Sample frame

Perhaps the most important limitation to the findings is the small, and unique, subset of users examined. Although the total number was huge (10 million), these were users who voluntarily label their political leanings on their profile, and also log on regularly — only about 4 percent of the total Facebook population, who differ from general users in obvious and subtle ways. Critics have pointed out this crucial detail is relegated to an appendix.

Despite the sample problem, the authors framed their findings by saying they “conclusively establish [them] on average in the context of Facebook […]” [emphasis added].

As University of North Carolina’s Zeynep Tufekci and University of Maryland’s Nathan Jurgenson pointed out, that’s simply inaccurate. The context the Facebook researchers examined was highly skewed, and cannot be generalized.

While the ideal random sample is not always available and convenient samples can tell us much about subpopulations of interest, the sampling selection here confounded the results. Those who are willing to include their political preferences in their Facebook bio are likely to deal with ideologically challenging information in fundamentally different ways than everyone else does.

In spite of this criticism, though, we now know more about that type of user than we did yesterday.

Algorithm vs. personal choice (what they really found, and didn’t)

Another troubling aspect of the study has to do with the way the main finding is presented. The authors write that Facebook’s newsfeed algorithm reduces exposure to cross-cutting material by 8 percent (1 in 13 of such hard-news stories) for self-identified liberals and 5 percent (1 in 20) for conservatives. The researchers also report that these individuals themselves further reduce diverse content exposure by 6 percent among liberals and 17 percent among conservatives.

The comparison of these — algorithm and personal choice — is what caused Sandvig to call this Facebook’s “it’s not our fault” study.

Tufekci and Jurgenson say the authors failed to mention the two effects are additive and cumulative. That individuals make reading choices that contribute to their personal filter-bubble is pretty much unchallenged. Yesterday’s study confirmed that Facebook’s algorithm adds to that, above the psychological baseline. This was not the emphasis of the comparison they made, nor of many headlines covering the study.

For instance:

Screen Shot 2015-05-08 at 3.11.44 PM

Tufecki and Jurgenson also point out the authors apparently have botched the statement of this main finding by claiming “that on average in the context of Facebook individual choices more than algorithms limit exposure to attitude-challenging content.” The findings they report are actually mixed: Self-identified liberals’ exposure was more strongly suppressed by the algorithm than by personal choice (8 percent v. 6 percent), while for conservatives the reverse was true (5 percent v. 17 percent).

Science is iterative

Amid all the blowback in the academic world, especially over the inflated claims of the conclusion, some called for a more dispassionate appraisal. Dartmouth’s Brendan Nyhan, who regularly contributes to New York Times’ Upshot, asked for social scientists to “show we can hold two (somewhat) opposed ideas in our heads at the same on the [Facebook] study.” Translated, the study is important, if flawed.

“Science is iterative!” Nyhan tweeted. “Let’s encourage [Facebook] to help us learn more, not attack them every time they publish research. Risk is they just stop.”

But there are rejoinders to that call as well. As University of Maryland law professor James Grimmelmann pointed out, “‘Conclusively’ doesn’t leave a lot of room for iteration.”

Nyhan’s point, that Facebook could stop publishing its findings given enough criticism also highlights that the study, conducted with their proprietary data, is not replicable, a key ingredient in scientific research.

Journals and journalists

Given the overstated (or misstated) findings, many have called out Science, the journal that published the article. Not only is Science peer-reviewed, but along with Nature is one of the foremost academic journals in the world.

While many of yesterday’s news articles noted the controversy around the publication, others repeated the debated conclusion verbatim. Jurgenson had harsh words for the journal: “Reporters are simply repeating Facebook’s poor work because it was published in Science. [Th]e fault here centrally lies with Science, [which] has decided to trade its own credibility for attention. [K]inda undermines why they exist.”

In the Summer 2014 GJR article, “Should journalists take responsibility for reporting bad science?” I wrote about the responsible parties in such cases. Although social media habits are not as high-stakes as health and medicine, journals, public relations departments and scientists themselves must be more accountable for the information they pass on to journalists and ultimately readers.

Although “post-publication review” is here to stay, the initial gatekeepers should always be the first line of defense against bad science  — especially when the journal in question carries the mantle of the entire Scientific enterprise.

Periscope’s promise and peril

Live streaming is pushing further toward the mainstream, but hurdles remain.

With Twitter’s March acquisition of the mobile application Periscope (launched a few weeks after its main competitor, Meerkat), live streaming is now more accessible to both streamers and viewers.

The riots in Baltimore apparently have offered Periscope a journalistic coming out. The Guardian’s Washington correspondent, Paul Lewis, has been lauded for his powerful interviews conducted over the streaming app. Other journalists — Baltimore Sun reporter Colin Campbell , Telegraph’s Raf Sanchez, ABC7’s Jay Korff and  D.C. Fox News 5’s Alexandra Limon have also covered Baltimore using Periscope.

Why now?

Live streaming is not new. But what’s behind its late surge? Writing for TechCrunch, Sarah Perez credits both recent technological advances and cultural shifts.

“Our cultural mindset has changed to the point where we’re ready to embrace this sort of public performance. Meanwhile, as viewers, the smartphone’s ubiquity means we all have an easy way to tap into these ongoing streams from anywhere,” she wrote on March 27.

It can’t hurt that Periscope has been integrated with Twitter, which boasts more than 300 million active users.

Sources of lag

Journalists have been accused of hyping the recent live stream boom, however. Selena Larson of the Daily Dot noted that while these tools have been used by a few members of the press in Baltimore, “[n]either Periscope or Meerkat seems to have caught on with regular citizens” and “haven’t quite lived up to the hype of being go-to sources of real-time news in conflict areas or protest zones.”

And while live streaming apps offer opportunities for immediacy and engagement, the media may need to be reminded that the content of streams are more often raw information than actual journalism.

“We need to start making a distinction between ‘news’ and ‘source material’ again,” wrote Mic Wright March 30 for technology news outlet the Next Web. “As odd as it may sound, live video of a fire, an explosion or a protest isn’t the story, it’s a catalyst for a story. We need analysis and thought to be introduced before something become[s] news. Just being present is not enough,”  Wright added.

Periscope and the PGA

In areas where journalism and the entertainment industry mix, apps such as Periscope may get media personnel in hot water.

The PGA Tour revoked the press credentials — for the remainder of the season — of Stephanie Wei on Thursday after she used Periscope during a practice round of a Pro-Am tournament earlier in the week, which was not broadcast.

Fans are free to use the app, however.

With the assumed connection of technology and youth, some fans said the Tour (whose viewership skews old) had shot itself in the foot. Paul Kapustka of Mobile Sports Report wrote on Thursday that pro golf “should embrace livestreaming apps […] to attract new fans and show ‘missing’ action.”

Wei claimed she was promoting their product. Testing Periscope on the range on Monday, Wei said she followed a group in their practice round because she was told it would be interesting, and thought she “was spreading fanfare for the Tour.”

Wei said she didn’t know the Tour’s rule. “It’s such new technology!” she tweeted. She also tweeted that there are “[l]ots of theoretical questions here. What constitutes ‘video’?” Periscope is a live streaming app, she said, “and ‘videos’ disappear after less than [a] day.”

Wei added that her punishment “[f]eels personal” and does not fit the crime. When asked by GJR if she thought other members of the media would have received the same ban, she said no. Wei’s timeline made multiple mentions of the “old boys club,” which has been a long-standing criticism of the Tour.

But regardless of any potential personal motivation behind her de-credentialing, it could set a precedent for Periscope’s place in professional golf and the sports media at large.

Michel Martin urges journalists to tell the uncomfortable truth

“Journalism matters because we have the responsibility to inform readers of the truth of their world, even when they don’t want us to.”

That was the message Michel Martin, host of NPR’s “Tell Me More,” and journalist of more than 25 years gave guests at Gateway Journalism Review’s First Amendment Celebration March 19.

Drawing journalists and friends of news from around the region, the event took place at the Edward Jones headquarters in Des Peres, Mo.

“We are following the story of ourselves as a nation,” Martin said of the media’s Ferguson coverage. Just as we as a people are imperfect, journalism should “hold a mirror to both flaws and beauty,” she said.

Martin said she didn’t want to give too many opinions on the shooting of Michael Brown, because she would be moderating a Ferguson community discussion again shortly and wanted to retain some neutrality.

She left the opinion to the follow-up panel. The panel consisted of Alvin A. Reid, a weekly panelist on KETC-PBS’s “Donnybrook,” and St. Louis Magazine contributor; Patrick Gauen, who has been the police and court editor at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch since 2000, and a weekly columnist since 1989; Tim Eby, who has been in public radio for three decades and is general manager of St. Louis Public Radio; and Craig Cheatham who has worked in broadcast journalism for 30 years. Cheatam filed numerous in-depth reports on Ferguson and led KMOV’s analysis of the Grand Jury documents.

Sorting out facts

GJR’s publisher, William Freivogel, introduced the panel discussion by asking two questions:

“How did we allow this mantra to get started — ‘Hands Up, Don’t Shoot’ — when the Justice Department has refuted that it happened?” he asked.  And “how have we allowed pervasive racism to exist so long right under our noses?”

While Gauen said the facts of the case contradicted “the narrative,” he thought Brown has become symbolic for pervasive – and real – victimization around the country.

Reid wasn’t so sure the Justice Department report fully refuted the narrative. “I am convinced we still don’t know what happened on that street in Ferguson.”

Gauen said there was “an inability to tell a balanced story on all sides.” In contrast to 50 years ago, when there were no protester accounts, now there were few police viewpoints. The police had less control of the information surrounding this case than they typically do, he said. Social media contributed to them losing the shape of the narrative.

Touching on citizen journalists’ role in Ferguson, Reid said their involvement has been “problematic.” Their contributions were marred through their antagonism of the police, he said.

“I felt very early there was a false narrative going on,” said Cheatham. “There is a difference between peaceful and non-violent protest. I reported on how some of the police went down and were scared by those protests. I was tagged as a ‘pro-cop’ reporter, and in that environment, you don’t want to get tagged as pro-anything.”

He added that he thought the media did a poor job of covering the protesters’ side early on, when they were too busy instead staying on top of the story as it broke.

“People want their own facts,” Cheatam later said. Journalists shouldn’t feel pressure to cater to them.

Looking at the big picture, “the region has permanently changed,” according to Eby. “There are a lot of people who just want things to go back to the way they were before Aug. 9. I don’t think that’s possible,” he said. It is now journalists’ job to bring the conversation the case started to the forefront, he added.

‘Tell all stories’

Before moderating their panel, Martin talked about the Children’s Crusade, the 1963 civil rights demonstration by hundreds of Birmingham school students in Alabama. Local newspapers agreed not to put the confrontation on their front pages, even though the national papers did – it was “too explosive,” Martin said. There were also no quotes from the demonstrators.

The Birmingham papers said they didn’t know how to cover the story – and wouldn’t know who to call for quotes from the protestors’ side. “I’m very confident that we are doing better than that,” Martin said. “But are we doing the best we can do? How deep are our rolodexes?”

Martin used this question to pivot to underrepresented groups within journalism, pointing out large gender and race disparities in bylines nationwide. Even the New York Times, under then-editor Jill Abramson, had the fewest female bylines among the 10 biggest news outlets. On network television, most news shows’ guest analysts remain white males.

“Are women of color only capable of talking about what they are, not what they know?” Martin asked.

“We have to do our jobs,” she said – and do them better. Journalism should “tell all stories,” and depict “the world as it is, not as we want it to be. It is the media’s honor, its duty to learn this uncomfortable world as it is, not as it was.” This is important in world of polarized media where you can now “pick your own truth,” she said.

“It’s expensive education,” she concluded, quoting former GJR fundraiser speaker John Seigenthaler, for whom she had earlier asked a moment of silence. “But we’ve tried ignorance so many ways, and it doesn’t work.”



Ebola reminds us perception is reality

Editor’s note: This piece originally ran in the Fall print edition of GJR.


As with other noisy public health topics, covering the ongoing Ebola crisis has posed several challenges. Journalists must have the facts right, of course, or risk irreparable damage to public understanding of the disease. But they also must decide how to deal with the myths others have unleashed. Is it better to raise the ghosts of erroneous beliefs to dismiss them, or to shun them entirely for fear of feeding panic?

This nagging question leads to another: What should be emphasized about such a novel and vivid threat that nonetheless poses little risk to Americans?

Ebola “truthers” and best practices

Conservative media lined up last fall to hype the hazard Ebola poses in the U.S., from the Washington Free Beacon to the Wall Street Journal editorial page. Their refrain: that an incompetent federal government couldn’t be trusted to handle an outbreak. Fox News especially hammered the argument, with Gretchen Carlson, Mike Huckabee and Donald Trump as a guest provocateur all making the case.

Sen. Rand Paul, despite his medical background, raised fears of a pandemic on par with the Spanish flu and the Plague.

They were all criticized for fear mongering, but as always, the initial claims likely reached larger audiences. And those are just the mainstream alarmists. Predictably, Twitter has been a hive of panicky speculation and conspiracy theories.

How to deal with this sensationalism? Christine Russell, writing for Columbia Journalism Review in October stressed credibility and expertise. It should be — and has been – national medical leaders and specialist beat reporters turning back the tide, she wrote.

Russell praised Dr. Anthony Fauci, an immunologist with the National Institutes of Health, for his appearance opposite Fox News anchor Chris Wallace. Wallace asked Fauci if the U.S. should ban flights from West Africa; if illegal immigrants entering across the U.S.-Mexico border would likely import Ebola; and whether the virus could serve as “a good bioterrorism weapon.” Fauci rejected all three, and in Russell’s words “gently chided” the anchor for the last two, which he called “far-fetched.”

Others have given their take on the big picture of the media’s Ebola obsession. Brendan Nyhan, a contributor for New York Times’ Upshot, offered an analogy in his October 10 piece: Driving to the airport is more dangerous than the flight, but we fixate on the fresh risk for evolutionary reasons. Ebola could have similarly distracted from more commonplace threats, such as seasonal flu.

Writing for the Guardian back in August, James Ball took a similar stance against out-of-proportion coverage. Flu is far more contagious and will kill between 250,000 and 500,000 people worldwide over the next year, he said.

Alice Walton at Forbes says it’s a problem of volume. The media reported every fever patient that’s had contact with West Africa, which yielded a slew of false positives, she wrote in October. “The narrative becomes, ‘This Is Everywhere!’” Dr. Ashish Jha, Director of the Harvard Global Health Institute, told Walton.

Walton advises discretion and context – showing audiences that the “hoopla” of each suspected case is precautionary.

The reality of news is journalists don’t know the trajectory the Ebola story will take.  But by recalling examples of other health controversies and being mindful of reader psychology, journalists can hope to mitigate potential harm.

Pandora’s anti-vax

The MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccine controversy stands as an important precedent for reporting with disastrous public health outcomes. In 1998, the U.K. medical journal Lancet published a study claiming autism disorders could be caused by the MMR vaccine. That article’s results, which were reported widely, were then discredited as fraudulent. The press was called out as credulous in the process.

As a result of the coverage, vaccination rates plummeted in the U.K. and Ireland. Outbreaks increased, resulting in injuries and death. Previously controlled diseases returned to “endemic” status – self-sustaining in the population.

Even after the Lancet study’s drubbing, false balance persisted in news stories, to the outrage of medical researchers.

The anti-vax movement caught in the U.S., too, where there were over 600 confirmed cases of measles in 2014, the most in 20 years. In 2004 there were 37. According to the Center for Disease Control, 90 percent of this past year’s afflicted were unvaccinated.

Famously, Jenny McCarthy used her celebrity to trumpet the Lancet study’s claims, standing by its author even after his discrediting. Many in the media deplored McCarthy for her irresponsible actions, but she’s an illuminating case study — Once misinformation is introduced, erasing it can be a Sisyphean task.

Don’t think of an elephant 

A glance at the return of childhood diseases shows one bogus study continues to impact beliefs about vaccines. Pro-vax crusaders may feel as though they’re fighting fire with gas. The psychology of information processing can help explain why. 

People aren’t as objective as they like to believe. When we encounter new information, our past experiences bias how we perceive and store it. One example of our motivated reasoning is disconfirmation bias: To save mental energy, we’re critical of incoming information contradicting our prior beliefs, but uncritical of that which agrees. This may be one reason Jenny McCarthy is such a stalwart holdout.

Anti-vaccine sentiment endures despite investigative journalism that uncovered the Lancet study as a sham, and despite efforts of journalists since then to shame prominent anti-vaxxers – Why? Another piece of the puzzle could be ironic process theory. This phenomenon can be summed up in the phrase “don’t think of an elephant:” Trying to suppress a thought makes it surface. Denying false claims could spread them to those not paying close enough attention.

Perhaps even more discouragingly, George Washington University’s Emily Thorson has shown false beliefs can “echo,” even when corrections are well received. In her study, political corrections that readers fully accepted only reduced misinformation’s effect on attitudes by half.

Since exposure to inaccurate information produces subconscious associations the same as accurate information, it can continue influencing attitudes beyond its correction on the conscious level. And Thorson found exposure to only the correction can alter attitudes, too.

How not to argue

The way public health is implicated in Ebola coverage matters, too. Neurobiology and psychology have taught us that people are more likely to be persuaded by arguments that focus on potential losses than gains. Unfortunately, then, explaining the benefits of herd immunity might be less impactful than the distress of injecting infants with autism.

But the most successful arguments also might be weaker ones. People aren’t likely to change the beliefs that are wrapped up in their identity (such as political preferences, environmental attitudes, and yes, anti-vaccine stances) when your take-down is too strong. Arguments that are less threatening to someone’s self-concept are more likely to get through.

Research conducted by Dartmouth’s Brendan Nyhan (who penned the Times’ Upshot piece mentioned previously) and Exeter’s Jason Reifler shows avowing someone’s self-worth “can make them more willing to acknowledge politically uncomfortable facts.” Their findings can be extended to other closely held beliefs.

When asked to recall a time they felt good about themselves, Republicans were more likely to agree climate change is real, and Iraq War opponents were more supportive of the troop surge.

So coverage that doesn’t implicate readers’ identities is more likely to get through their mental defenses. That means stripping out partisan language and other phrasing that involves cultural divides.

These lessons don’t add up to a single through line or universal path to educate readers. But they can help journalists be mindful of how powerful their choices are, and how much each word matters.

Picking sides

Journalists have good reasons to step in and referee competing claims. LSU Manship School of Communication’s Ray Pingree led an experiment that found journalists can influence factual beliefs in the right direction.

The researchers discovered readers across the ideological spectrum were consistently amenable to journalists’ adjudications of the claims made by a news story’s rival sources. Those interventions also improved readers’ views of overall news quality while making them more likely to seek out more news in the future – a win-win for the public and the reporter.

Perception is reality 

Overblown fear pieces – such as those calling for a West African flight ban – could have wound up prolonging the Ebola epidemic. But taking on a dangerous claim, perhaps too stubbornly, may have backfired. And as we learned from the MMR vaccine-autism hoax, covering medical news related to Ebola with artificial balance could have produced long-term consequences.

But contextual reporting and doing the work of weighing evidence can earn journalists respect of their readers, if not save lives. In this case and many others, journalists must be conscious of perception as much as reality.