How to cultivate scepticism and read between the lines to know when a media story is bullshit, by PAT PILCHER.
Logging into Twitter before heading off to the land of nod is something I usually try to avoid as I nearly always end up seeing a tweet that makes my blood boil. This inconveniently has the effect of ruining an otherwise perfectly good night’s sleep.
Sadly, tonight was no exception.
Things kicked off when I stumbled upon a Kiwi Blog story that highlighted a German study in which electric cars were “found” to emit more carbon dioxide than their diesel-burning counterparts. It appears that the study was primarily used as a vehicle to poke the borax at the Government’s decision to ban offshore gas exploration.
Being more than a little sceptical, I queried the study’s veracity and asked Greenpeace for their opinion. They responded swiftly, and were damning in their reply, saying that, “It’s nonsense #fakenews” and that the writer of the story “should know better”.
It turns out that the study was compiled by the Ifo Institute and released in Germany in April. Predictably, German media did some fact-checking on both the findings and the research methodologies used in the study.
It didn’t take long before credible media outlets such as Der Spiegel and other German-language publications found that inaccuracies and faulty assumptions were liberally peppered through the study.
None of this deterred some media outlets from gleefully publicising the study and treating it as if it were factually correct. Because it is next to impossible to tell if any publications (including The Wall Street Journal) were aware of the fact that the study had been so thoroughly discredited, it’s hard to know if the widespread media coverage of the study comes down to editorial incompetence or shadier motives (such as pushing a political agenda onto an unsuspecting readership).
Having recently lamented how few readers adopt a sceptical stance in a market awash with dubious media content, and the widespread media coverage, it’s fair to assume that a significant amount of damage has been done.
None of this stopped Dutch energy researcher, Auke Hoekstra taking to Twitter to critique the study’s claims. He highlighted how the diesel Mercedes’ emissions used in the study were woefully inaccurate. According to Hoekstra, the model of Mercedes used in the survey emits 220 grams of CO2 per kilometre, instead of the 141 quoted in the study. Hoekstra also said that that the study used an unrealistically low number for how long electric vehicle batteries last, stating that, “even Tesla’s from the olden days can drive 600,000km before the battery reaches 80 percent capacity.”
In publicising the study, the media effectively handed climate change deniers ammunition to cast shade on EVs, despite scientific evidence highlighting the fact that fossil fuel powered transport contributes up to 20 percent of the world’s greenhouse gases.
Media watchdog Media Matters notes that Steve Milloy, who they say has long been a climate change denier and Wall Street Journal contributor, had tweeted about the study while US media outlets including Infowars and Zero Hedge had also publicised the research.
So, what should readers do to avoid such misinformation in the media? The key to successfully achieving this involves first understanding why it’s happening in the first place.
The sad fact is this: Traditional media is struggling. For decades, newspapers and magazines derived healthy profits from advertising and classified sections. Then the internet arrived and undercut what newspapers and magazines could charge for print advertising. With revenues evaporating, print media migrated online and aggressively embraced online advertising.
Enter stage left clickbait headlines. Whenever a headline leaps out (in a good or bad way) from an online publication, and you click it, you’ve earned the publication a small amount of money thanks to the wonders of online advertising where a click equals payments from advertisers.
Unsurprisingly, a sure-fire method of avoiding dubious stories is looking at misleading headlines and adopting a sceptical stance. If the headline seems dodgy, don’t click it. If enough of people do this, editorial teams might stop resorting to clickbait headlines to generate advertising revenues.
Additionally, be wary of how the media frames stories. Some media outlets will use “Reports” as a means of giving stories thin on facts more credibility. Headlines like “Report: crusty old gits conquer the beehive” really mean that the publication is unable to (or unwilling to) verify that crusty old gits have indeed conquered anything but are counting on the story sounding credible yet compelling enough to generate click-through revenues. It seems that by writing the word “report:” in front of a headline, some editors feel they can get excused from taking responsibility for the factual correctness of the content they publish.
A particularly devious method for framing stories that are short on facts involves the use of denials. Denials provide a convenient means for media outlets to publish content whose details cannot be easily verified. If a journalist hears that Jacinda’s cat has risen from the dead, but cannot find any facts to verify the story, they can call the PM’s office and publish a story that says, “PM’s office denies Paddles is back from the dead”. Even if the denial is real, the issue is portrayed so that the unverifiable Paddles rumour takes on some much-needed credibility.
Most importantly of all, read anything and everything with a sceptical frame of mind. If something sounds dodgy, or there’s a shortage of verifiable facts, then the odds are that the story is fake and aimed at generating online advertising revenues instead of informing.