Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The amateurism of modern journalism : a small example

A couple of days back, I discussed how startlingly amateurish journalists can be sometimes. A good example of this can be seen right now in relation to a subject that I've raised on this blog in the past - Dr. Aubrey de Grey's predictions that a breakthrough in life extension technologies may be made in the next few decades. If you type his name into the Google news search function, you'll see a flurry of uncannily similar news reports from the last 24 hours, all of which seem to have been modelled on a single report from Reuters. Nothing wrong with that, so long as the journalists concerned have checked for accuracy. But as it is, many of the articles contain an identical error. For instance, this is from the Daily Mail -

"It's a milestone that few, if any, of us expect to reach.

But the first person who will live to see their 150th birthday has already been born, according to a leading scientist.

Even more incredibly, Aubrey De Grey believes that the first person to live for 1,000 years will be born in the next two decades."

And this from Opposing Views -

"A British doctor claims we are not too far away from virtually living forever -- in fact, he thinks the first person to live 1,000 years will be born in our lifetime."

In reality, as the quickest of internet searches would have revealed, de Grey has been saying for many years that he thinks the first 1000-year-old has probably already been born, and indeed may now be in the latter half of middle age. In this case, the journalists are potentially doing him a favour by (unwittingly) toning the prediction down, because the boldness of his claim tends to encounter instinctive resistance, but even so it's a very sloppy reporting error. So how did it happen? Presumably, de Grey told Reuters that the first 150-year-old had probably already been born, and that the first 1000-year-old was probably less than twenty years younger than that person. Someone then put 2 and 2 together, made 22, and took that as an indication that the first 1000-year-old was due to be born in the next twenty years. A whole series of news outlets went on to take their cue in herd-like fashion.

This sort of thing is, alas, scarcely uncommon in journalists' reporting of pronouncements by scientists. At the height of the BSE scare, every new snippet of information was heralded by hysterical headlines suggesting either that millions were about to die, or that the problem was now completely over - in spite of the fact that the information itself was almost always extremely ambiguous. It seems that many journalists are simply allergic to ambiguity, nuance or detail - but even if that won't be changing any time soon, it would at least be a start if they actually wrote their own articles from scratch, rather than using a ready-made template and very superficially "putting it into their own words".


  1. I think that if the first 1000 year old had already been born and was in the latter half of his/her middle age, we'd probably already know about it ;-)

  2. I think, James, that they are writing for an audience that expects dumbed down sensationalism in bite sized pieces.

    I can see, even in "broadsheets", a lowering of standards in every sense since I started reading newspapers.

    Although this in no way is intended to excuse what I see as a grave error in the managements' direction of travel, I do recognise that they are all in dire straits, given the changing market in which they operate; the availability of 24 hour news on television and internet.

    The revelations of the last few days involving hacking into telephone calls and cell phone messages of victims (rather than "celebrities" and political figures), and perhaps most importantly, corruption within police, may change the face of journalism beyond recognition.

    If only the UK government have the courage to act decisively.

    As they say:

    'If "ifs" and "ans" were pots and pans, there'd be no need for tinkers.'

  3. Thought they were fable floggers and gossip-mongers from the get-go: A
    bit like historian wannabes and other main-chance scrambling propagandists?

  4. Jim : the argument is that rejuvenation technologies may come along in 25-30 years, by which time a small number of people who are currently in the latter half of middle age would still be in a robust enough state to benefit from them.

    Tris : Yes, it was the broadsheet coverage of the BSE scare that used to astonish me more than anything, they were just as bad as the tabloids. I certainly hope you're right about the events of recent days changing things forever.

  5. Ah, apologies, Jim, it took me two-and-a-half hours to get that joke!

  6. Phew!
    I'd decided not to reply to such a humourless goon... but you're forgiven and I'll continue to enjoy your blog ;-)