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!

Monday, May 30, 2011


From time to time, my observations of the way people behave lead me to despair for humanity. It sometimes seems that god must love shitheads, because there are so many of them. Fortunately, there is the gift of friendship, which reminds me that most of the people I know aren't actually shitheads, even if I don't agree with them about everything.

In fact, when I travel about, it seems that most of the folks I encounter here and abroad are really good folks with whom I have so much in common that whatever differences might otherwise divide us pale into insignificance. I've been privileged to know some amazing people, including a few famous ones, but mostly just "ordinary" folks like me who actually are extraordinary in their capacity to contribute to the world in ways that may not be visible to everyone. I know these people and their insights inspire me, their generosity shames me, and their spirits soar to heights I can only aspire to in my dreams. To have such people in my limited sphere is such an astounding blessing, on the occasions when I take the time to think about it (like tonight), all my despair falls away.

I continue to see hope for our species, however many shitheads try to dirty the water with their disgusting bigotry, phenomenal arrogance, pathetic tribalism, and stubborn ignorance. It strikes me that a lot of what is wrong with humans is their deep-seated insecurity, which drives them to attack what they don't understand and to deny that anyone not just like them has the right to be different. If we're to endure the trials I see in our collective future, we must overcome that insecurity and try our best to work together for the common good.

I've benefited tremendously from people with whom I have really deep-seated differences of opinion about various things. How can this be? Because I long ago outgrew the need to prove my own worth to myself and so have no need to prove it to them. My wife was a major factor in this change, as were my children, so if I seem to be reasonably well-grounded, it is directly attributable to my family. From the base of being comfortable in my own skin, it's been easy to accept differences of opinion with others. I've learned much and grown as a person precisely because I don't feel threatened by someone with a different viewpoint. In fact, a civil discussion with them about topics over which we differ helps me to clarify things.

How many total strangers do we curse and abuse because of some perceived flaw in their behavior? I might not like the actions of someone who drives stupidly on the highways, but I have to admit that if I knew them, I might like them despite their bad driving habits. I shouldn't feel anger about their behavior nor should I condemn total strangers.

At least tonight, I ponder the range of people I call my friends and I realize that many of them might not get along very well. In some cases, I know that for sure. The only things this group has in common, to the best of my knowledge, is that they're my friends, and they've all brought something I value into my life. For me, that's adequate compensation for the shitheads of this world. It gives me the hope to keep trying to make positive changes.