War of the Worlds Strikes Again

Almost 71 years ago this Halloween, people cowered in their living rooms. They prayed and cried. The aliens were invading.

Given the fun Orson Welles undoubtedly had spooking the public that night, it might not be so far-fetched to think he is the culprit behind nearly every fright story reported on the news by cable TV. His being dead, however, quickly kills that hypothesis. This can only mean that the sensationalistic stories about the rise of teenage “Super-Predators” and “bio-underclass” crack babies are neither parody nor farce.

If we bought the alien story in 1938, on Halloween no less, who would bother to question stories like Newsweek’s “After Iran Gets the Bomb” issue last week, with its none-too-subtle photo of a mushroom cloud? After all, how many people even know that Iran has a “no strike first” doctrine?

Almost every article is susceptible to scaremongering these days. Just today, a gem of an article on CNN about online identity theft was one of the headlining stories:  “If you’re on Facebook, Twitter or any other social networking site, you could be the next victim,” it began.

But before I cower under my bed and delete my Facebook account, lest I become a victim of something called “phishing,” which sounds ominous and yet is left undefined, let’s do some quick math (something that journalists are averse to):

There are 300 million users on Facebook. Since 2006, the article said, there have been 3,200 cases of this social networking “cybercrime.” (Again with the scary words.) A few clicks on my calculator widget tell me that this averages out to less than 1 percent of users being hacked each year — even less if we were just including Facebook.

I think my Facebook account may just live to see another day.

Journalists are abandoning their purpose as they continue to turn and distort facts into dramatics. President Obama is spurning Fox News for its one-sided, skewed reporting. If he really wanted to make a statement for the public good and not just his administration, he could turn the other cheek, or at least rebuke, every news organization that does a disservice to the public by paralyzing them with hair-raising phrases and inaccurate statistics.

So what if the media is prone to spurious reporting, you might ask.  Shouldn’t the average news consumer shoulder the blame for being so darn gullible?

I concede that it might do us some good to approach what we read and hear more analytically, and take the time to fact check the likelihood of becoming the next target on a cyberthief’s to-do list. Still, we shouldn’t just chalk our gullibility up to stupidity or laziness.

As for the War of the Worlds incident, let’s give listeners the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps they were so hysterical that they missed the disclaimers that it was a hoax. (Please, humanity, let this be true.) Also, consider the time it was broadcast — shortly before War World II. People were especially on edge, the way we were after September 11. No one expected it to happen, and no one could anticipate what might come next. Things we never dreamed of happening really did turn our world upside down. That, with the onslaught of bleak news — some accurate and some not so much — leaves us vulnerable to the idea that we could be the next victims of something out of this world. And the news media capitalize on that.

That’s why we don’t always think to second guess reporters. The way we don’t expect someone who has spent every Sunday in services to steal, we also don’t expect a reporter who has been trained upon a code of ethics to create words out of thin air like “Super-Predators” and “crack babies.” Et tu, Nancy Grace?

So no, I don’t believe we can place too much blame on the consumer. To borrow a line from Spiderman’s Uncle Ben, I think that we’ve entrusted journalists with “great power and great responsibility.” We’ve bestowed them with the job of gatekeeper. We’ve put our trust in their hands. It is the journalist’s job to produce work that does not require hours on end of sifting through information to figure out where the cool logic and reasoning is hidden among vague and misreported facts.

The problem boils down to just plain careless reporting. There are two main reasons I see for this:

First, to throw in another superhero reference for good measure: A news company’s kryptonite is its profits. More than ever, the media are driven by the need to survive, and that means money. To be the first across the finish line with the story, decisions are made on the fly, instead of being painstakingly deliberated. (Now if only Clark Kent applied his superhero powers to ridding The Daily Planet of sensationalism.)

Second, journalists are paranoid freaks like the rest of us. (Guilty.) Maybe they are writing about the rise of Super-Predators because they truly believe they’re out there lurking in the dark, waiting. Despite what journalists say about being unbiased watchdogs, reporters do not just throw away their identities, morals, personalities and beliefs when they sit down to write. The words they write and say are the best window into their cognition. It’s likely that if reporters are spewing out jitter-inducing phrases, they are allowing their own paranoia to blind them from reality. They too are vulnerable to the frightful ideas their sources leak.

So, journalists, I implore you to examine your priorities and your frame of mind. Both are preventing you from upholding the good name of journalism. Remember: With great power comes great responsibility.

Super-Predators” and “bio-underclass” crack babies are neither parody nor farce.

If we bought the alien story in 1938, on Halloween no less, who would bother to question Newsweek’s “After Iran Gets the Bomb” issue last week, with its none-too-subtle photo of a mushroom cloud? How many people know that Iran has a “no strike first” doctrine?

Another scaremongering gem from CNN the other day began, “If you’re on Facebook, Twitter or any other social networking site, you could be the next victim.” But before I cower under my bed and delete my Facebook account, lest I become a victim of the dreading “phishing,” let’s do some quick math (something that journalists are averse to):

There are 300 million users on Facebook. Since 2006, the article said, there have been 3,200 cases of this social networking “cybercrime.” (Again with the scary words.) A few clicks on my calculator widget tell me that this averages out to less than 1 percent of users being hacked each year — even less if we were just including Facebook.

I think my Facebook account may just live to see another day.

So what if the media is prone to spurious reporting, you might ask.  Shouldn’t the average news consumer shoulder the blame for being so darn gullible?

I concede that it might do us some good to approach what we read and hear more analytically, and take the time to fact check the likelihood of becoming the next target on a cyberthief’s to-do list. Still, we shouldn’t   just chalk our gullibility up to stupidity or laziness.

As for the War of the Worlds incident, let’s give listeners the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps they were so hysterical that they missed the disclaimers that it was a hoax. (Please, humanity, let this be true.) Also, consider the time it was broadcast — shortly before War World II. People were especially on edge, the way we were after September 11. No one expected it to happen, and no one could anticipate what might come next. Things we never dreamed of happening really did turn our world upside down. That, with the onslaught of bleak news — some accurate and some not so much — leaves us vulnerable to the idea that we could be the next victims of something out of this world. And the news media capitalize on that.

That’s why we don’t always think to second guess reporters. The way we don’t expect someone who has spent every Sunday in services to steal, we also don’t expect a reporter who has been trained upon a code of ethics to create words out of thin air like “Super-Predators” and “crack babies.” Et tu, Nancy Grace?

So no, I don’t believe we can place too much blame on the consumer. To borrow a line from Spiderman’s Uncle Ben, I think that we’ve entrusted journalists with great power and great responsibility. We’ve bestowed them with the job of gatekeeper. We’ve put our trust in their hands. It is the journalist’s job to produce work that does not require hours on end of sifting through information to figure out where the cool logic and reasoning is hidden among vague and misreported facts.

Journalists are abandoning their purpose as they continue to turn and distort facts into dramatics. President Obama is spurning Fox News for its one-sided, skewed reporting. If he really wanted to make a statement for the public good and not just his administration, he could turn the other cheek, or at least rebuke, every news organization that does a disservice to the public by paralyzing them with hair-raising phrases and inaccurate statistics.

There are two main reasons I can see for such careless reporting:

First, to throw in another superhero reference for good measure, is that a news company’s kryptonite is its profits. More than ever, the media are driven by the need to survive, and that means money. To be the first across the finish line with the story, decisions are made on the fly, instead of being painstakingly deliberated. (Now if only Clark Kent applied his superhero powers to ridding The Daily Planet of sensationalism.)

Second, journalists are paranoid freaks like the rest of us. (Guilty.) Maybe they are writing about the rise of Super-Predators because they truly believe they’re out there lurking in the dark, waiting. Despite what journalists say about being unbiased watchdogs, reporters do not just throw away their identities, morals, personalities and beliefs when they sit down to write. The words they write and say are the best window into their cognition. It’s likely that if reporters are spewing out jitter-inducing phrases, they are allowing their own paranoia to blind them from reality. They too are vulnerable to the frightful ideas their sources leak.

So, journalists, I implore you to examine your priorities and your frame of mind. Both are preventing you from upholding the good name of journalism. Remember: With great power comes great responsibility.

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2 Comments

Filed under The Public Square

2 responses to “War of the Worlds Strikes Again

  1. theurbanbriefcase

    Wonderful post. Have you heard of Culture of Fear by Barry Glassner? It almost seems as though this fear that create focuses the public’s eye often on the symptoms of problems, rather than their causes. Deliberative thinking about complex issues sometimes seems to take the immediacy and emotionalism out of reporting. What is an alternative that you would recommend to catch people’s attention, but also promote moderate and sophisticated reporting? Is NPR a good model?

  2. Taylor Friedman

    Thanks, Daniel. Actually, “Culture of Fear” was the primary work I drew upon for my post “Fear Mongering in the 21st Century Newsroom.” Barry Glassner has tons of examples of reporters blowing isolated events way out of proportion.

    You’re right. The big problem is that the stories don’t have such an emotional impact when the reporter says, “Yeah, there was an incident of road rage today, but it was only one of three in the last three years.” Every story has to have a purpose for running, and reporters think that their stories have to have far-ranging significance. So instead, they say road rage is an exploding epidemic. I think an isolated event can still be newsworthy and have impact without having to misstate its prevalence in society. That’s the only alternative I can think of right now.

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