Over 392,000 results.
That is the number of web stories produced about flat-earthers in the last few months, with much of the recent excitement centring around California man Mike Hughes.
If the name doesn’t sound familiar, you might better know him as the guy who was determined to launch a rocket to prove that the Earth is flat.
We know about Mike, and his scheme, thanks to the constant and regular news updates on this story. I am certain the media will cover his launch (which has been delayed) or the explosion of his homemade rocket, and his inevitable realization that he is wrong. They have content for ages with a story such as this one. But why does something demonstrably false like “whether the Earth is round or flat” deserve significant media attention?
The answer is it doesn’t. It may be an ‘unusual’ story – one of our key news values – but it does not affect anyone’s life in any important way.
However, people keep clicking on the stories. And in our current media environment, clicks are life. Clicks mean people are interested. Clicks mean ad money.
As Ron Burgundy said in Anchorman 2, “Why do we have to tell people what they need to hear? Why can’t we tell them what we want to hear?” It seems some organizations didn’t realize the movie was meant to be a parody.
There’s a bigger issue here than just greed, however. Our news organizations struggle to differentiate between fact and belief. In this story, the fact that the Earth is round is given the same weight as this man’s belief it is not. On vaccination-related stories, the opinion of non-medical experts that vaccines cause autism is matched alongside scientists saying, “No, they don’t”.
Journalists feel pressure to provide both sides of the argument in a story, even when one side is not compelling, credible, or informed. Take this recent CBC investigation into HR practices at Bell. Hundreds of employees contacted CBC to say they are unwell because of the work conditions at the telecom giant, and Bell’s only comment was to claim all the allegations were “untrue“.
While the Bell story is a bit less cut and dried than our other two examples, it strains credibility to present Bell’s comment alongside the claims of hundreds of employees. It’s reminiscent of Donald Trump yelling “Fake news” in response to negative coverage. Yet parroting what they are told is what journalists feel they must do to be ‘fair and balanced’ and avoid potential lawsuits.
In another scenario I was involved in, a customer of one of our clients criticized the client for its evacuation procedures which, arguably, failed her. Yet she was not actually familiar with the policies she was criticizing. When she complained to the media, reporters shared her opinion verbatim – failing to note that her version of events misrepresented the facts.
So, what to do about news stories which are distractions, which confuse major issues, or re-open debates that should be settled?
- Don’t read the stories. And encourage others not to read them. Hide them in your Facebook feed.
- Support responsible journalism. If you see journalists or organizations producing good quality reporting, encourage them. Buy a subscription, if you can. Share good stories. And read the whole story, not just the headline.
- Use Snopes, PolitiFact, and other resources to verify the information that you read. Recognize that these are operated by humans and are not perfect either. And acknowledge that, sometimes, research makes a new discovery and things change (but always conduct research before changing your opinion!)
- Acknowledge your own biases. Most negative news stories aren’t as bad as they are presented – but the media wants definitive answers, and so do we. Also, if you are rejecting an opinion, belief, or other statement, particularly if it agrees with your worldview, make sure you can back up your view.
- Acknowledge the media’s limitations. Ultimately the world is a more complex place than the media can ever hope to convey in one hour of television or a 20-page newspaper.
Bonus: here’s a fun Twitter account for those who enjoy laughing at some of the sillier stories in the media these days.