There is a current social battle being fought about the nature of facts and reality. Truth is under attack because of ignorance and apathy. Fake news are being spread as real events, misleading millions of people into believing things that never happened. “Alternative facts” are being pushed as equally as legitimate as scientific and statistical facts in a fit of postmodernist relativism. Technological filter bubbles skew the world you see on the Internet and isolate you from information that contradicts your beliefs. There are now even fake fact-checkers who try to leach credibility from real fact-checkers just like pseudoscience parasitizes on real science.
A great deal of this comes from fake news websites, pseudoscience activists, various quacks and cranks as well as other sources. But some of it comes from mainstream media. The mainstream media has spent years being complacent about the threat of misinformation and let low-quality material and bad journalistic standards fester and spread across their own websites and networks. This article looks at four prominent ways this has and continues to occur and proposes five directions that might mitigate some of the problems we now face.
How the mainstream media failed science and reason
There are many problems with the mainstream media, but four of the most egregious problems is false balance, misinterpreting single studies, active promotion of pseudoscience and clickbait headlines that do not deliver.
Journalistic false balance: journalistic balance is great for current issues and issues where there is a legitimate scientific or historical controversy. If journalists are making a critical segment about a party or a person, it is reasonable to give them an opportunity to respond to any accusation or claim being made against them. This is crucial for objective journalistic reporting and gives viewers a balanced view of the issues, all the facts on the table and allows them to make up their own minds. However, if this kind of approach is used for well-supported scientific and historical facts, it creates the misleading impression that there is a genuine debate on issues that are settled on the broad strokes (although specific details may still be debated), that both sides are legitimate positions (when they are not) and provide a false impression of the science.
Sensationalizing preliminary scientific findings: science is an ongoing process and hundreds of thousands of scientific papers are being published ever year. Individual studies add to this growing knowledge mass, but they have to be interpreted in the larger context of the scientific literature. Mainstream media often take new and preliminary scientific findings out of this context and push it as revolutionary when those studies have important limitations that are often not mentioned. This makes it appear as if science is always changing its mind and that what counts as a scientific fact changes every week. In turn, this severely undermine the public confidence in science.
Indulgence in pseudoscience and quackery: the mainstream media also engages in blatant promotion of nonsense like psychics, alternative medicine, superfoods, haunted houses, conspiracy theories and so on. This gives attention and ultimately money to those who promote dangerous nonsense. Out of all of the ways that the mainstream media contributes to the misinformation wars, this is perhaps the most blatant and obvious. Besides attention and money, the news networks and newspapers also lend their reputation to this nonsense. If someone finds a story promoting quackery in a newspaper they trust, they are probably more likely to believe it as the credibility of the newspaper bleeds over into the credibility of the story (some kind of halo effect).
Clickbait for views without delivering: to get read by a lot of people, news websites must have attention-grabbing titles. This is often done by promising something (such as “this one weird trick”) or manipulating people’s fears (“your [common symptom] might be [dangerous disease]”) and anger (“[member of disliked group] did [awful thing]). This is dangerous and destructive, because most people just read titles and maybe a little bit of the intro to a story before clicking away, giving them an erroneous impression of the situation. It is fine to use some kinds of attention-grabbing headlines, but then journalists have to deliver with the content. If your headline is about a weird trick that can improve your health, you better make sure that trick really do improve health and that this is backed by scientific evidence. It is also clear that a lot of people strongly dislike clickbait titles because they are fooled into visiting a website but then do not get the reward of reading interesting content.
So if the mainstream media would acknowledge that they share some of the responsibility for the problem with low-quality news reporting, fake news and so on, what can be done? Although there are no perfect solutions or magic bullets to this problem, there are a few ideas that the mainstream media could try out.
Make fact-checking overt: most mainstream media engage in some forms of fact-checking, but it is hardly ever made into an overt and integral part of media coverage. Turn fact-checking into its own program, make it a core segment just like weather or sports and have it as a guiding principle throughout all coverage. Do not fall for fake news just because it supports the political leanings of the news network or newspaper. If something sounds too good to be true, it is probably false.
Improve journalist scientific and statistical literacy: all journalists, regardless of what they are doing or reporting on, should have a considerable level of scientific and statistical literacy. These issues are just as important as knowing about history or politics. Just like you would not have any confidence in a journalist who did not understand what a President or a court of law was, it should be equally embarrassing to lack basic knowledge of modern science and statistics. Not just basic facts (like climate change and evolution are real, the dose makes the poison and so on), but the methods of science and how to approach issues with a scientific mindset. This will help to reduce the reliance on false journalistic balance and sensationalizing preliminary research.
Zero tolerance against nonsense: stop publishing credulous nonsense like astrology, psychics, and superfoods. Do not spread pseudoscience and quackery. If you make a mistake, retract the article or the reporting, explain what you did wrong and what steps you will take to avoid it happening in the future. Journalists who make mistakes should be praised if they change their minds and correct and retract faulty claims. Those that makes mistakes should be given the support and education needed to prevent it from happening again.
Honest titles: it is important to have attention-grabbing titles, but there is a difference between honest titles that accurately reflect the content and low-quality clickbait. Use inventive and exciting titles, but you have to deliver. If you use a title like “Use this one weird trick to get X” then make sure that this trick actually gets you X based on solid science.
Educate viewers: have programs and segments that help educate viewers on how to fact-check claims by themselves. Give them the tools to fight misinformation. Tell them about fact-checking initiatives, how scientific research works, the impact of cognitive biases, why it is bad to rely on a single study, how to get reliable information and so on. Give people a fish and they will have food for a day, teach people how to fish and they will have food for a lifetime.
The mainstream media must accept some of the responsibility for the spread of misinformation, the rise of fake news and “alternative facts”. They have seeded the fertile ground of human imagination and cognitive biases with false balance, sensationalizing preliminary scientific findings, indulging pseudoscience and quackery, and misleading clickbait titles for views. How can this be fought? Although there are no perfect solutions, it might be useful to put fact-checking into center stage with entire programs or segments devoted to it (just like sports or weather), make journalists more informed about science and statistics, use honest titles, zero tolerance against nonsense and help educate viewers to become fact-checkers of their own.