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".