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The paradox of newsworthiness

- December 5, 2014

Mars One CEO Bas Lansdorp holds a news conference to announce the launch of astronaut selection for a Mars space mission project in New York in April 2013. (Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images)
Mark Palko shares a devastating takedown by Elmo Keep about the emptiness of Mars One, a marketing plan that is being advertised as a space program that is supposed to be sending colonists to Mars.
There’s too much in Keep’s story to copy all of it, but here’s an example:

Here’s what it says, for instance, about how they will actually get people there: “Mars One anticipates using SpaceX Falcon Heavy, an upgraded version of the Falcon 9, which is in use by SpaceX currently. The Falcon Heavy is slated to undergo test flights in 2014, granting ample time for fine-tuning prior to the Mars One missions.”
This summer, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket prototype broke apart over Texas after “an anomaly forced the destruction on the craft.”

Also Keep has an amusing story about how she got the runaround when trying to track down an unsourced, but much-repeated, claim, that 20,000 people signed up to apply to be future Mars astronauts. The short answer: no evidence.
But many journalists would rather report the hype. It is, after all, easier to hype than to investigate. And, perhaps, hype stories are more popular than investigative stories. (I don’t know about this, I haven’t seen data on the topic, but I’m sure it’s been studied by some scholars of communication.)
As an example, Palko points to a completely credulous story by Vibeke Venema on BBC world service. Wow! As a credulous American myself, I always thought of the BBC as a class act, so this sort of thing is disappointing.
Palko concludes:

The press likes to maintain the convenient fiction that it is “open to all voices.” This is an obviously absurd proposition – even though the Internet has greatly expanded what news organizations like the BBC can offer, they can still only cover a tiny fraction of the information and opinions out there – but it serves the purpose of absolving journalists and, more to the point, editors and publishers from taking responsibility for what they present to the public.
When something appears in a major news outlet, particularly when it is presented noncritically, that outlet is implicitly endorsing the story; it is, in effect, saying that this story is something important enough to spend time learning about.

This relates to the problem I have with gee-whiz puff pieces on speculative science, such as those notorious claims on ovulation and voting or whatever. I have no problem with journalists reporting these topics – after all, most political reporters won’t have the statistics background to evaluate these claims or the political science background to recognize their absurdity.
Or, perhaps I should say, won’t have the political science background, in the sense of having seen lots of past published studies, to realize that just because something’s published and statistically significant, it doesn’t mean it’s correct. Anyone can recognize the absurdity of some of these claims – indeed, they’re newsworthy in large part because they’re absurd – but perhaps some training is helpful to stop from being snowed by the technical mumbo-jumbo that goes with them, the p-values, the permutation tests, the Bayesian inference, the MRI machines and the randomization and the tables and graphs and all the rest.
There’s also a selection bias. When some wacky claim gets out there, some reporters are inclined to believe it (Hey – a new car engine that gets 250 mpg that’s being suppressed by the big boys in Detroit! Hey – a scientist who’s figured out the genetic basis for political parties! Hey – a rogue sociologist blah blah blah) and some are inclined to be skeptical. But then the selection comes in. Here’s what I wrote on this issue before:

Suppose you happen to be convinced that the article is worthless, and so you decide not to run the story. But somewhere else there is a reporter who swallows the press release, hook, line, and sinker. This other reporter would of course run a big story. Hence the selection bias that the stories that do get published are likely to repeat the hype. Which in turn gives a motivation for researchers and public relations people to do the hype in the first place. On the other hand, if you do run a skeptical story, then you’re continuing to give press for this silly study, giving it more attention that it doesn’t deserve (in my opinion).

This is a political science blog that appears on the Web site of a major newspaper. So issues of media representation are important to us. We talk sometimes about political bias in the media, and that is an important topic. Indeed, there are political angles to the reporting of space exploration. But I think a lot of media bias, at least when it comes to science and technology reporting, comes from the paradox of newsworthiness: Stories that are less likely to be true are more likely to be exciting and thus worth reporting.