Why do facts get distorted?


Understanding the dynamics and pressures can often help you to appreciate why you cannot trust statistical “facts” you find quoted in the papers.

As an example, consider the latest weather story about the appalling drought and heatwave that has engulfed the southern states of the US. Apparently it is the worst on record …

  • here claims that “Today and Friday are expected to be hotter than any time since 1950”
  • here claims “the worst in Texas history”

Now don’t get distracted … this is not about weather, but rather is about why we tend to often hear that X is the worst instance of whatever since <pick some random historical date>. It often plays out like this. An expert is asked, “When was the last time something like this happened?”. Often the reply is, “Oh, that was two years ago”. “Oh heck”, thinks the journalist, “Worst flood for two years is not gripping enough, so how can I spin this?”. He might then ask, “When was the very worst most extreme instance of X?”. “Ah”, says our expert, “that was 80 years ago, but we have had lots of similar events since then, and today’s instance is in a similar category”. “Bingo”, thinks our journalist, and so the next day you read a headline that claims, “X is among the worst for 80 years”. Others pick this up, and cite it, but end up dropping the word “among” along the way, and so another factually incorrect story takes off.

The expert has given accurate statistical information, so his integrity is intact, in fact he is often horrified when he sees the spin his quote gets. The journalist is also happy because he has used those same facts to manipulate it all into something dramatic, (and so he gets to keep his job).

OK, so what I’m getting at is that the goal of journalism is not just about the reporting of factual accurate truth. The industry is not a charity, there is a drive to sell papers and make money, and so there exists a pressure that you always need to keep in the back of your mind. They do of course report news and opinion, but they also need to be dramatic and so that pressure often results in a distortion of accurate facts to enable the writer to manufacture attention grabbing stories.

When faced with media claims of high drama – be skeptical because often they are driven by commercial pressures to grab your attention.

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