Finding A Bit Of Truth In An Ocean Of Garbage

As you may have already noticed, one of the most frustrating developments of recent years is the difficulty in obtaining reliable news and information from media sources, especially in the United States.  Paradoxically, while this would be expected in far-off lands with totalitarian governments, it certainly wouldn't be in those with a free press.  Yet I submit that keeping informed today is harder than ever, as we are inundated with information from every angle, the majority of it garbage.  I'll be examining this regrettable topic in a series of posts here at Geekademy, in hopes it will help others recognize the problem and avoid its consequences.

To use a metaphor, if low-quality food is thought of as “junk-food”, might we also call low-quality media “junk-programming?”  Junk-news?  And, just as junk-food has adverse consequences for our bodies, this “junk-info” has detrimental effects on our blood-pressure and happiness.  Taken to its logical conclusion, might it even be a threat to democracy?

What prompted me to consider the subject was a comment a few months back from a friend from high-school.  She had mentioned via social-net that she had been debating on whether her kids would receive flu-shots last season.  Now that she had seen an exposé from Inside Edition, (wherein it was claimed a teenage girl developed a horrible disease as a consequence of the shot), she was now sure that refraining was the right decision.

Happening upon the thread, I took a second and thought to myself, “Is she making a critical decision regarding her children's welfare based on a spot from Inside Edition?”  I don't want to single her out for harassment, after all the shows do their best to appear legitimate and authoritative.

Yet as I had expected, about a month or two later it came out that the diagnosis and resulting spot were wrong
Today, we live in a connected virtual community, and YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, and blogs, in addition to traditional media, are the medium through which community panic and delusions spread ...
The panic over the vaccine, however, is entirely manufactured, primarily by dedicated conspiracy theorists and anti-vaccinationists, and then aided by irresponsible media.
—Steven Novella, MD, 2009
There was enough scrutiny on the piece that IE ran a follow-up, possibly in an attempt to undo the tangible damage they had caused to families across the country.  Sadly, few people were likely around at exactly the right time to see it.

But the bogus story itself wasn't the biggest problem here.  Rather, the fact being that one shouldn't have enough confidence in such a TV show to decide where to eat for lunch, much less whether to vaccinate your kids!  These types of shows (as seen above) simply aren't credible or reliable, as I shall attempt to demonstrate further.

What's going on here?

It appears many have forgotten, or perhaps never learned that TV is make-believe.  Yes, even the news to a large extent!  In the U.S., you'll hear many complaints about a particular news channel getting things wrong on purpose.  Others complain about TV having an agenda, pushing shitty values, violence, sex, and the occult.  I've noticed the errors and odd agenda myself.  As an aside, I'd add that if it were up to me, I'd rather see 10x fewer murders, and 10x more nipples—for the sake of the children of course.  The term “boob-tube” would then be even more appropriate, right?

Boobs aside, the point I will attempt address is that, as many suspect, the media is biased.  Contrary to popular belief however, the bias is isn't necessarily a “liberal” bias or a “conservative” one.  While individual organizations do choose angles they can exploit, I submit that as a whole ultimately they are biased simply in favor of profits.  Meaning short-term quarterly corporate profits, in this world of modern finance.  Now profits in themselves are not a problem, but rather the pressure that comes every quarter to get the numbers up, by any means necessary.  An excerpt from the article:
Recent corporate-governance reforms, including the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, fail to address the root cause of accounting scandals: a wide spread obsession with earnings that drives companies to push accounting standards to the limit and, in extreme cases, to engage in outright fraud.

Analysts fixate on quarterly earnings at the expense of fundamental research. Corporate executives point to the investment community's behavior to rationalize their own preoccupation with earnings. To meet Wall Street expectations, managers make decisions to increase short-term earnings --even at the expense of long-term shareholder value -- and may employ accounting gimmicks. The resulting misallocation of resources short changes everyone -- investors, employees, and consumers alike.
—A. Rappaport, Wall Street Journal, 2004
Bias is not the whole story, of course.  Sometimes simple incompetence or sloppiness rules the day.  Occasionally as we shall see in a future post, media corporations, just like their financial brethren, consciously decide to lie outright when it suits their needs.

I've been investigating this subject over the last few weeks, and have found there is a lot here, more than I had originally imagined.  My findings will be delivered shortly in several future posts on the media.  In addition I'll describe ways of protecting yourself from misinformation, so hang in there and don't give up without taking a look.

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