Your default position with the media should be skepticism

I’ll never forget my first experience with the media. When I was an undergrad, a reporter for the local newspaper came to our little university to cover a major event — our physics club was hosting a public lecture and Q&A event with an Apollo 13 engineer. I eagerly read the newspaper the next day to see how the reporter had covered the event, and was struck by how much he’d gotten wrong. The reporter had attended the event, taken pages of notes, and interviewed a few of us physics students, and he still managed to bungle many of the facts.

A few years later, I was interviewed by the Discovery Channel’s printed news outlet for an article about an extremely massive black hole. Unlike the newspaper reporter, this one managed to get all the scientific facts right; however, I was taken aback by the article. The quotes that were attributed to me were not verbatim. I realized the reporter had taken our 20-minute interview and condensed it into two quotes she had written herself that captured the essence of everything I’d said. Perhaps this is standard journalistic practice, but in my opinion, when you put quotation marks around something, it ought to represent exactly what someone said.

I’ve had other experiences with the media, ranging from mild to ludicrous, where I recognized that the media were either inept with the facts or deliberately misrepresenting them. After the first couple of times, I realized I was criticizing how the media were reporting events on which I had expertise, but was blithely accepting their reporting on events about which I knew little. The late popular author, Michael Crichton, described this as the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect:

Media carries with it a credibility that is totally undeserved. You have all experienced this, in what I call the Murray Gell-Mann Amnesia effect. (I refer to it by this name because I once discussed it with [Nobel laureate physicist] Murray Gell-Mann, and by dropping a famous name I imply greater importance to myself, and to the effect, than it would otherwise have.)

Briefly stated, the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect works as follows. You open the newspaper to an article on some subject you know well. In Murray’s case, physics. In mine, show business. You read the article and see the journalist has absolutely no understanding of either the facts or the issues. Often, the article is so wrong it actually presents the story backward–reversing cause and effect. I call these the “wet streets cause rain” stories. Paper’s full of them.

In any case, you read with exasperation or amusement the multiple errors in a story–and then turn the page to national or international affairs, and read with renewed interest as if the rest of the newspaper was somehow more accurate about far-off Palestine than it was about the story you just read. You turn the page, and forget what you know.

That is the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect. I’d point out it does not operate in other arenas of life. In ordinary life, if somebody consistently exaggerates or lies to you, you soon discount everything they say. In court, there is the legal doctrine offalsus in uno, falsus in omnibus, which means untruthful in one part, untruthful in all.

But when it comes to the media, we believe against evidence that it is probably worth our time to read other parts of the paper. When, in fact, it almost certainly isn’t. The only possible explanation for our behavior is amnesia.

Readers have a tendency to forget that the media are not coldly objective entities or benignly omniscient beings, but people. And to be blunt, people are crappy. What I mean is, people are rarely objective, because we all suffer from at least some of these things:

  • emotions and personal biases that color our views
  • limited knowledge
  • a tendency to make inadvertent mistakes
  • agendas
  • desire for money
  • desire for power
  • desire for attention.

While some of us are better at recognizing and minimizing these things than others, it’s impossible to eliminate them entirely. This means everything you consume from the media — including anything I write on this blog — has been run through one or more of these filters. This is why your default position with the media should be skepticism. It’s annoying and tiresome, but it means you can’t just be a passive consumer of media — you have to be diligent and judicious in deciding what’s truth and what isn’t.