Sunday, April 19, 2009

Bad editing, sensational reporting, hypocrisy and inattention to irony may lead to Armageddon

Language can be very powerful. Well, duh. We are moved by words every day of our life, governments have risen and fallen because of good writing, and people have died for their belief in one set of words over another.

Why, then, do we put up with such bad language from those we pay (sometimes indirectly) to be our filters?

An excellent article from Ars Technica details how the media take scientific results/reports, and make them, well... wrong... in order to generate better entertainment value. That news should be entertaining is no longer even questioned, apparently. I, personally, don't mind an enjoyable news show... as long as the entertainment value is suborniate to the information, and (perhaps more importantly) explicitly maintained. By this I mean, for example, The Daily Show... yes, it is intended as entertainment (primarily so, some would say), but that value is explicit. It is entirely up-front, and you are free to laugh, knowing that you are intended to laugh by writers who are using language appropriately.

One example from the Ars' piece struck me as particularly noteworthy. Short version... A study in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Science tested how people responded to various moral/ethical situations, both positive and negative; eg, watching people being hurt physically and emotionally, or doing good deeds. The speed of the response was measured, and they said:

If replicated, this finding could have import and implications for the role of culture and education in the development and operation of social and moral systems; in order for emotions about the psychological situations of others to be induced and experienced, additional time may be needed for the introspective processing of culturally shaped social knowledge. The rapidity and parallel processing of attention-requiring information, which hallmark the digital age, might reduce the frequency of full experience of such emotions, with potentially negative consequences.

Emphasis mine. Now... not having read the details of the study, I'm not sure I'd even agree with the last sentence. The "rapidity and parallel processing of attention-requiring information" is not new to the digital age, though our tools certainly provide more chances for us to indulge. But I'll take it as a given at this point for the purposes of my displeasure at the press. That bolded sentence above got picked up by the media under the following headline:

"Twitter can make you immoral, claim scientists."

That was Britain's Daily Mail. Fantastic. The irony just makes me itch. In taking a lengthy, heavily-qualified report, and dumbing/juicing it down/up to suit their needs, the paper did exactly what they are accusing Twitter of doing. Get it? Let me put it this way:

Short, rapidly processed, nanobytes of stimulus that don't provide enough context can leave us without enough psychological or situational information to make a reasoned, humane response.

But does that statement apply to Tweets? or to Daily Mail headlines?

That Daily Mail headline is, frankly, insane. Let's parse it a bit. Twitter (which wasn't mentioned specifically in the report) can make you (causality not just implied, but explicit) immoral (giant judgment call and hyperbole) claim scientists (straight out falsity; that claim isn't made anywhere). The path from the paper to the headline is clear... but it travels through a set of editorial intentions that leave all kinds of subtlty and truth by the wayside. If I take this string, and add my own angle, I could come up with the following:

"Daily Mail headlines can make you more ignorant, claim professional writers."

Now, I'm only one writer. But if I ask nicely, I'm sure one of the other twenty-or-so that I know would agree with me.

This rant of mine is not new. I know that. I'm just more and more amused and, at times, concerned that the very forces that opine against new media are so inextricably linked to the vices they ascribe to it. The financial news networks didn't see the global economic collapse coming because they were functioning as cheerleaders for Wall Street. Mainstream news didn't ride the Bush administration near hard enough about the Iraq war until it was too late. The AP sues a guy over the use of a photo in an Obama poster, while having hundreds of photos of artistic works in their own library, for sale.

You can't get to relevance through hypocricy. The hand you bite always ends up being your own.

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