Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Media as carpetbaggers

Recently I had a discussion with someone from Associated Press. Apparently, he was in the Intergalactic Weather Center to do yet another piece on tornadoes. Among other things, he asked me about Mark Svenvold's book on tornado chasing, which I reviewed here. In that review, I begin with:

This book is the product of another 'carpetbagger' - someone migrating temporarily into the world of storm chasing, doing his research, putting down his thoughts on what he's seen, and then packing his bags, off onto some new topic to write about and sell yet another book.

It dawned on me during this conversation with the person from AP that essentially all of the media reporting on tornadoes and science is being done virtually exclusively by carpetbaggers. The inaccuracy and lack of substance in media reporting is a direct result of the reporter's profound ignorance about the scientific subject. The people who actually know something about the subject matter typically are not those doing the media pieces. Reporters and documentary production teams roll in to do interviews either because of some recent events that call attention to tornadoes and tornado science, or because someone decided it was time to do another piece about the topic. Whatever the motivation, it's only a happy accident when they ask a meaningful question or know enough to interview someone who actually knows something and the interviewee manages to convey something accurately and clearly in his/her allotted soundbite(s) within the piece. That tidbit of reasonable information, however, will be overwhelmed by a veritable tsunami of misinformation in other pieces, or even by other content in the same piece containing the lonely morsel of accurate, meaningful information. How can the public tell the difference? Short answer -- they mostly can't.

Carpetbaggers frequently focus their interviews on "names" in the field, some of whom may be in management and who may not actually know much about the subject. Interviewees always have personal biases in how they see things (that includes me, of course!), so the tidbit that gets quoted from them may not be representative of how many members of the profession feel about any given topic. Given that everyone is biased, how does one distill the truth from all the media pieces? Seeking the truth is about getting information from many sources, not just the "names" in the field, or what the media provide. But most people don't seem to be all that interested in tornadoes (for example) -- except possibly when it's on the evening news or when it affects them personally. For many, it's evidently too much trouble to spend time searching for the truth by doing some serious study of the topic. So they view the garbage that spews out of the media and think they learned something, when most of what they received was superficial crap, much of it actually misinformation.

The media reporters are almost unanimous in their contempt for their audience. "Dumb it down to the 3rd grade level, please!" If all the public ever gets is 3rd grade content, then this contempt becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. No one seems interested in challenging their viewers to think, apparently because they believe they're incapable of it. That's not what the media are about, it seems.

The sad fact is that if media pieces are the primary process by which most people learn about tornadoes and tornado science (or any other technical topic), then any attempt to inform them via this pathway is doomed. There's no reason to attempt to interject your knowledge and experience into the torrent of media content, because it will end up being diluted beyond recognition. People who study and forecast tornadoes aren't writing these media pieces -- they're quite fully occupied with doing that work, which absorbs most of their attention (apart from whatever time they might devote to their families and hobbies). And the media moguls aren't very interested in seeking their contributions, anyway. What does a scientist know about journalism?

As luck would have it, I was a budding journalist in high school. And my journalism mentor made it very clear to me that if you do an interview, you have to work very hard to get your facts straight. You don't write the story until after you've done the research. And you should ask your source(s) to check your story for factual content before you run it! This standard of journalism seems to have become "old-fashioned" and mostly "out of style" today. The superficiality and outright misinformation pouring from the media on a daily basis is an inevitable result of this carpetbagging. Today's style of journalism makes this inescapable, so I don't do interviews any more!


Danny Brouillette said...

I found this blog post timely and relevant. It reminds me of something that Bill Clinton quipped during the elections last year. To paraphrase--unfortunately, I cannot find the actual quotation anywhere--he was bemoaning that we are living in an era of factless media. It is a shame that I cannot find the actual quotation because he put it so well. A number of more conservative people I know--and I know plenty being from an affluent western suburb of Chicago--claim that the media are "liberal." Of course, they are into demonizing the word "liberal," but I agree with them that there is a problem with mainstream media. Media are not liberal as much as they are sensational. The media are corporations mostly, corporations seek to make money, more viewers equate to more money, and viewers apparently like sensation, which, itself, is a self-fulfilling prophecy (as you suggest). For instance, only the Weather Channel can sensationalize heat the way it does; apparently, reaching the 90's yesterday in Oklahoma and Texas is unusual news, when such an occurrence is well represented in the climate record in early June if we bother to examine actual climatology. However, many average viewers will now think that such weather is unusual. The same goes for media that attempt to assign EF ratings to tornadoes while they are still occurring. (I heard a lot of that on 24 May.) The result is that most people fail to realize that EF ratings are based on damage that is evaluated by a NOAA-sponsored damage survey team. I know better for both instances because I am a meteorology student. I found your perspective very interesting, Chuck, and don't blame you for not wanting your words to be canned into sensationalized sound-bites.

Chuck Doswell said...

What I really find upsetting is that my name is used to lend credibility to a story that usually includes various inaccuracies, misinformation, and misquotes. Plus I find the notion insulting that these reporters are doing me a favor by allowing me to be heard in their medium.

Danny Brouillette said...

Yes, frustrating, insulting, and time-wasting. At my university, we meteorology students are allowed to submit free-lance two-day weather forecasts to the student newspaper. There is no compensation (at least anymore). I occasionally submit a forecast--by e-mail the night before. So often, what appears the next day in the paper, with MY by-line, is a distortion of what I submitted. Sometimes, professors from other departments or other students ask me about why-such-and-such-is-not-happening-because-you-forecasted-it. Well, generally, I didn't! But, they got their free forecast, and I suffered embarrassment, however slight.

Real intellect requires care; monied media inspires haste.

David Brown said...

Most people thrive on sensationalism and the media obliges by providing it in spades.

Believing what is shown on television, especially, perpetuates a simplistic and often faulty view of the world. Because most of the population has never been taught to think critically about what they glean from the electronic or print media, they cannot segregate sensationalism from reality. To keep their audiences onboard, the media operates on a lowest standard level of presentation. It is a vicious circle.

Anonymous said...

I agree with the theme expressed in the article and the comments. As a meteorologist for over 25 years... 15 of the initial years in broadcast media...I have witnessed much of the hysteria and misinformation. What scares me much more? This same process is at work with the dissemination of information regarding American foreign policy over the past 50 years. Orwell, anyone?

Scott said...

"This book is the product of another 'carpetbagger' - someone migrating temporarily into the world of storm chasing, doing his research, putting down his thoughts on what he's seen, and then packing his bags, off onto some new topic to write about and sell yet another book."

I don't think that 'carpetbagging' as you call it, is necessarily bad.

I think that John Grant Fuller did a very nice job in his Tornado Watch 211 book giving insight into the 1985 outbreak in OH, PA, and NY. He has also written interesting books on other subjects including the incident at Fermi 1 in Detroit, and nuclear testing in Utah.

I spent most of the night reading a book by Nancy Mathis called Storm Warning, it was about the May 3, 1999 outbreak and was such a good book, I couldn't put it down. You were mentioned over and over in that book. I wonder what you thought of it, if you read it?

John O'toole did an excellent book on the 1953 Worcester tornado, it's called 84 minutes, 94 lives, and does a nice job of telling the story from the point of survivors.

These writers were carpetbaggers in the sense that they were not meteorologists and were not writing in their field of expertise. However, I give them credit for doing their homework and asking the right questions and ultimately putting together some good books.

I'd be interested to hear your comments on those books.

I got the impression that Nancy Mathis interviewed you for the book but I didn't see you in the list of people she thanked at the end of her book. I suppose that she could have gotten the information from your essays.

Like you I don't like shallow and inaccurate reporting. Because of that I have done what some other people have done that I know and simply stopped watching TV.

What few shows I do see are downloaded and watched on the computer.

I think it will be a matter of time before TV will be a thing of the past. Who want's to be told what to watch and when to watch it? No thank you.

Who wants to watch a newscast with pretty blonde bimbos who know little about what they are reporting about? No thank you.

Who needs the hype?

Television news readers need to realize that they aren't the story. They aren't important. It's not about them.

OTOH, I like authors who will go outside of their area or areas of expertise, talk to the right people, ask the right questions, and put together a book that is accurate, insightful, and educational. Even if they are carpetbaggers.

Chuck Doswell said...

Scott ...

I haven't seen the Fuller book. I reviewed the book by Nancy Mathis, so evidently you didn't follow the link I provided at the beginning of this blog.

My point is that carpetbaggers typically don't get it right. It's not impossible ... only unlikely. It's always interesting to me to see how many people (not all people) interpret a generality to imply an absolute statement.

Jim Means said...

Interesting post. Some journalists try very hard to get things right, though. There's a free tabloid publication in my town that carries a question and answer column that had a recent question about tornadoes. The answer, which can be found here,

contained what I thought were some errors, particularly in the last paragraph, and I sent in a fairly long email explaining the process as I understood it. I was gratified and somewhat shocked to see the entire email published in the next week's column! I really didn't intend my explanation (which even contained some math) to make it into the column--I was just trying to make the columnist understand things better. You can see it here:

Of course whether I did any better in my explanation is probably for someone like you do to decide.

Anyway, I just wanted to pass along that some journalists really do try to get things perfectly correct.

Chuck Doswell said...

Jim ...

No doubt there are a few true journalists about, but their voices are swamped by the vast outpouring of mediocrity so characteristic of media'journalism' today.