What Gay Sheep Teach Us About News Reporting

Here’s a textbook example of why you should be skeptical of science stories reported in the mass media. A scientist studies the physiological factors in sexual orientation of sheep. Then PETA learns about it and complains about how (a very small number of) rams are being killed to study their brains. A blog notices the press release and further distorts the story into scientists working on a way to eliminate homosexuality from the human population. The distortion spreads among blogs, gets picked up by a newspaper too lazy to check the facts, and then that spreads to other newspapers.

Of course, some magician‘s radio show gets to the bottom of it long before corrections start appearing in newspapers.

Not that technology reporting is any better. It’s painfully obvious to anyone with even a bit of knowledge in the area that technology stories tend to be written by people who know absolutely nothing about the topic and are largely cribbing some company’s press release. You’re best off avoiding these and instead reading sites that actually have a clue and are happy to do a little digging.

Even worse is mass media reporting on anything to do with court cases. These stories are invariably framed as the court ruling in favor of one side over the other (typically “big business” versus “the little guy”), whereas the court is actually ruling on a particular issue in dispute between the two parties. Sure, “court sides with big business” makes a sexier headline than “court rules statute of limitations under XYZ act is measured from beginning, not end, of appeals process”, but the latter has the advantage of being accurate. This is intuitively obvious to anyone who spends even a little time following the Supreme Court, for example.

The obvious trend is that the more you know about a topic, the more obviously wrong stories that appear in the mass media about it are. The inescapable conclusion is that you should be skeptical of anything you read in the newspaper or see on a TV news report.

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