I was listening to the excellent Two Psychologists, Four Beers episode with Gordon Pennycook, specifically the discussion on the credibility of the media in relation to conspiracy theories. Yoel, Mickey, and Gordon seemed to think there were two possibilities: “the mainstream media is deliberately dishonest and biased”, or “the mainstream media endeavours to report accurately and mostly achieves this”. Between these two options, I tend to side with the podcasters and say the second—but there is clearly a third option. So, in my most Very Online blog post ever, I give you the third option: “the media does try to report facts accurately when it reports them, but journalists are often incompetent, so The Discourse ends up sounding like lies even when the strict facts of the matter are true”.
To start, here’s a few very conspiratorial-sounding questions on hot button topics that have been prominently discussed in Anglosphere media (apologies, they’re Australia-focussed, but also North America should get used to the fact that the rest of the world exists). See how many you can answer:
- Euthanasia: In 2020, Germany’s Constitutional Court declared that German citizens had a constitutional right to assistance with suicide for what reasons?
- Disability rights: What percentage of babies with Downs Syndrome are aborted in Denmark?
- LGBTIQ issues: What percentage of Australian gay men have HIV?
- Abortion: Deceased abortionist Ulrich Klopfer was found in Indiana to have how many preserved foetuses at his house following his death?
- China: A number of Australian-university research institutes were found to have collaborated with which branch of the Chinese government in what program?
The answers are:
- Euthanasia: For any reason at any stage of life.
- Disability rights: 95%.
- LGBTIQ issues: 7.9%.
- Abortion: 2,246.
- China: With the People’s Liberation Army in developing surveillance programs to monitor Uyghurs, i.e. an ethnic group against whom the People’s Republic of China is currently executing a genocide.
If you click through those links, you’ll notice that all of them either link to press releases from primary sources or to mainstream media outlets. It is certainly true that these things were reported on. Bret Weinstein would be as-per-usually absurd to suggest any arch-conspiracy to hush this stuff up. And yet, in spite of the literally unbelievable nature of the items (Assisted suicide for any reason at any stage of life? So high an incidence of aborting babies with Downs Syndrome that the program looks virtually indistinguishable from eugenics? Australian academics’ collaboration in an ongoing genocide?), and in spite of how commonly the media discusses the overarching topics, I’m willing to guess this is the first you’re hearing of most, if not all, of the above specific facts. If you follow any of the above topics even remotely closely, that is astonishing! Australia recently legalised euthanasia in two states, we have a periodic discussion about liberalising blood donation for men who have sex with men, we’re constantly discussing Chinese influence on Australia’s institutions, and yet whenever I cite any of the above to an interlocutor—even one who “follows these issues closely”—I am greeted with incredulous stares. However incredible these facts may be, they have not permeated the public consciousness at all.
Or at least, this situation would be astonishing if we assumed the commentators in these arenas themselves knew these things. And we have no reason to assume that. On each of the above, after the initial report there was often little-to-no follow up or commentary. These episodes certainly weren’t hashed through the media in the latest iteration of the Two Minutes Hate. So, unless journalists and commentators are doing their job really well and ensuring they stay abreast of all the latest in their area, even if it’s only reported briefly and once, there’s every reason to believe they have no knowledge of any of these facts. And especially when these are hardly the sort of facts that you’ll be popular for sharing at the water cooler, it’s unsurprising they make very little impact after their initial publication. This is doubly true in more complex domains: my day job is in the energy sector, and it’s a rare day when reporting on the industry isn’t riddled with basic conceptual errors (e.g. “levelized cost of energy” is self-evidently not a measure of how much end-consumers will pay for energy, so it cannot be cited to discuss the impact of renewables or fossil-fuel generation on the prices paid by end-consumers).
So, whether it be due to excessively tight deadlines, poor-quality cadets, ideological echo chambers, or just plain-old laziness, there’s very little case to be made that The Discourse in the media accurately reflects reality in any real sense. Yoel, Mickey, and Gordon are clearly correct to be dismissive of conspiracy theories about deliberate media bias, but as Hanlon’s Razor goes, never attribute to malice what can be attributed to stupidity. The papers of record do remain good papers of record, and they are good collators of raw facts, but any statement of credibility beyond that is, uh, a stretch.
 Bundesverfassungsgericht. “Criminalisation of assisted suicide services unconstitutional press release”. Bundesverfassungsgericht. 26 February 2020. https://www.bundesverfassungsgericht.de/SharedDocs/Pressemitteilungen/EN/2020/bvg20-012.html
 Sarah Zhang. “The Last Children of Down Syndrome”. The Atlantic. 2020. https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2020/12/the-last-children-of-down-syndrome/616928/
 Kirby Institute. HIV in Australia: annual surveillance short report 2018. Sydney: Kirby Institute, UNSW Sydney; 2018. https://kirby.unsw.edu.au/sites/default/files/kirby/report/supplHIV2018_content_20180920r.pdf
 Derrick Byron Taylor. “More Than 2,200 Preserved Fetuses Found at Property of Dead Doctor, Officials Say”. New York Times. 14 September 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/14/us/dr-ulrich-klopfer-fetal-remains.html
 Sean Rubinsztein-Dunlop, Mario Christodoulou, Sashka Koloff, Lauren Day, and Echo Hui. “Are Australian universities putting our national security at risk by working with China?”. 4 November 2019. https://www.abc.net.au/news/2019-10-14/chinese-communist-party-gtcom-connection-australian-universities/11586118