Don’t always buy what you’re sold

    Just like the rest of society, individual professions are subject to fads.
    Back in the 1980s, for example, the big fad in urban planning was pedestrian malls, which rendered downtown streets undriveable, forcing people who went downtown to shop to walk from store to store.
    When I was living in Fargo, they tried to turn two blocks of the small downtown into a pedestrian mall by making the street curvy and putting concrete pillars in the middle of it.
    Within a couple of years, downtown Fargo was dead as Dillinger.
    The idea sounded good in theory, but it didn’t work in practice because of that ol’ devil, human nature. The people behind it seemed to forget that when it’s 20 below zero, given a choice people will go to the local shopping mall rather than walk around outside.
    A few years ago, the big fad in my profession was “citizen journalism.” The theory was that with the internet turning everybody into a publisher, there would be a golden age of great reporting by people basically doing it in their spare time.
    Thus, we have the modern internet, a prime example of Sturgeon’s Law that states 90 percent of everything is manure.
    And it’s another one of those cases where human nature rendered a lovely theory invalid.
    It hasn’t worked because of two things endemic to human nature: confirmation bias and a susceptibility to a good sales pitch.
    Confirmation bias is the tendency of people to believe things that reinforce what they already believe. If you’re on Facebook, you see it pretty much every day. The troublesome thing is that even the most implausible “fact” can be believed once filtered through confirmation bias. Thus, a Washington, D.C., pizza parlor’s basement becomes the hub for a pedophilia ring, even though the building actually has no basement.
    How does this relate to “citizen journalism?” It has to do with how professional reporters are trained. One of the most important parts of a reporter’s training is to guard against confirmation bias, both their own and a source’s. As the ancient professional aphorism says, “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.”
    And overcoming confirmation bias is hard. Every reporter has had the disappointment of having a story that seemed good evaporate, which can happen for a number of reasons. Sometimes, there’s a feeling of “it may not be true, but it should be.” One thing that’s saved me from going on a lot of snipe hunts is a good working knowledge of urban legends, which pop up more than you’d think.
    Confirmation bias can be overcome with some hard work and hard thinking, but the second problem — the susceptibility to being sold — is a bit more thorny.
    First of all, some salesmen are good. My Dad was a salesman and could’ve sold freezers to Eskimos. And he didn’t lie; my Dad actually was the most honest person I’ve ever known. But not all salesmen realize that honesty is an important part of their trade.
    And salesmanship often can be subtle. To guard against being sold a bogus story, a reporter has to engage in something like next-level thinking.
    Remember the great Y2K hysteria? Airplanes were going to fall out of the sky, the electrical grid was going to die, dogs and cats were going to marry, all that stuff.
   And none of it happened. When the clock turned to Jan. 1, 2000, it became a huge nothingburger.
   I was suspicious of the whole thing from the start.
    In the first place, I never saw a story that had a good explanation of why, when the clocks reset after midnight, everything was going to go wrong. It was simply presented as a fact, with no real explanation.
    And it was pretty obvious, from a lot of the stories, that credulous reporters just listened to the “experts” but didn’t really understand what they were saying. They failed to use two of the most important tools in a journalist’s toolbox, the questions “how” and “why.” They forgot an important rule: If you’re writing about something you don’t really understand, you’re not going to be able to make the reader understand it.
    And let’s face it, some journalists, including editors, simply aren’t that smart. I had an editor who was not exactly the brightest bulb in the marquee. A local lawyer, who had no special computer expertise, had somehow latched onto Y2K and it made him panicky, and he had this editor’s ear. Lots of snipe hunts that year.
    The other thing reporters tended to forget, and which led to a lot of bogus Y2K stories, was the Latin phrase “cui bono?” It means “who benefits?” Somehow, the loudest screaming about Y2K was coming from people who were selling a solution to it, sometimes the solution. Just give me your money, they’d say, and those airplanes won’t fall out of the sky.
    Maybe it worked, because it didn’t happen. The argument could be made that the reason nothing happened with Y2K was because everybody was prepared for it, but that can’t be proven. It’s just as likely that nothing would’ve happened anyway.
    These are things that all too many “citizen journalists” didn’t realize. Reporting isn’t just a matter of stenography, of writing down what a source says. A reporter also has to evaluate whether the source knows what he’s talking about, and the combination of ignorance and certainty can be all too convincing.
    Even those of us who do this for a living can fall down there, but hey, nobody’s perfect. Even though I never really dug into it, I’m pretty sure my Mom loved me.
Tom Pantera is the news editor at the Wauneta Breeze. He has a passion for storytelling, obscure trivia and family. Email: breeze.editor@jpipapers.com

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