Attention, print media: Content has always been free

I ran across this sentence in a New York Times article today about the expected Apple tablet.

Almost all media companies have run aground in the Internet Age as they gave away their print and video content on the Web and watched paying customers drift away as a result.

This makes that vein in my eyelid throb. Let’s set aside for a moment the fact that these writers seem to think that readers only want content if it costs them money, but if it’s free they’re suddenly not interested. This sentence is emblematic of the intensely stupid way reporters write about the collapse of print media. They think that their content generates revenue—that readers pay their salaries, basically. In fact, content has always been free. What subscribers and newsstand buyers pay for issues doesn’t even cover the costs of printing and delivery. Content attracts eyeballs; print media makes money by charging advertisers to put their messages in front of those eyeballs. Producing content costs publishers money; ads pay the bills. It’s the exact same model as television, which everyone understands, but suddenly when we’re talking about pieces of paper instead of moving images, everyone gets confused. Or rather, reporters, who tend to have grand and romantic ideas about who they are and what they do, sell their reporter-centric version of the universe to readers, who are apparently tricked into believing that it’s true because it’s so often repeated.

But lisa over at Sociological Images put it so succinctly that I’m going to let her have the last word, with a few keywords swapped to make it about print media:

The real purpose of print media isn’t to inform you, but to collect a predictable audience that publishers can then sell to companies. Ads. Ads are the reason that journalism exists.



Did you know women just aren’t as funny as men? Yup. Can’t help it. It’s their lack of testosterone. Science says so!

At least, the BBC (and a number of other sources) think science says so. Multiple media outlets reported on a study, written by one Professor Sam Shuster and published in the latest issue of the British Medical Journal, which finds that men are more likely to crack insulting jokes about a unicycling researcher than women, suggesting that humor is tied to testosterone. The problem? The article is a joke.

It’s a gag. A larf. Mr. Shuster is pulling your leg. The Christmas issue of the BMJ, like many other research journals this time of year, runs a number of goofy, just-for-giggles articles, including this one, and another about which kind of candy bar has an internal structure most similar to that of human bone, and yet another about whether magical powers in the Harry Potter books are inheritable genetic traits. Anyone who passed 8th-grade science should be able to see that the article is a joke, or at least deeply problematical. The guy rode a unicycle through the middle of town and concluded that because men were more likely to make fun of him, they were funnier. Neither the environment nor the test-subject pool were controlled to make sure only one variable was being tested. The “jokes,” notes even the learned professor himself, weren’t funny, and were clearly just a mocking form of aggression, rather than actual humor. For the love of Pete, Professor Sam Shuster is a dermatologist.

So why is this obvious prank getting so much serious coverage? Basically, because editors love science and health stories.

More specifically, editors’ bosses — media company owners — love science and health stories because lots of people read them. Readers want the latest news from Iraq, sure, but market research shows they’re much more likely to read stories they think affect or relate to their daily lives. That’s why community newspapers keep growing while the rest of the industry shrinks — people care more about whether their local zoning council will allow that new Dunkin’ Donuts to be opened down the street from them than they do about how their senator voted on the minimum wage increase. Bigger papers try to meet this need by running more local and human interest stories, and by covering every new development in science and health research. After all, everyone worries about heart disease, or has a friend who got cancer, or would want to know if a new study showed that letting kids suck their thumbs for too long leads to overeating later in life.

There are a few serious problem with this trend. First, very few media outlets can afford to pay a science editor or reporter, so the people assigned to sort through and synthesize the dozens of science press releases they get every day may not be equipped to distinguish good science from bad. This leads to a lot of junk studies getting broadcast to a much wider, and much less savvy, audience than they would have had access to if they’d remained relegated to academic journals.

Second, reporters are rarely trained in how to interpret experiment results, so they’re prone to misinterpreting or exaggerating researchers’ conclusions, which is how a study finding that the number of human genetic variations increased rapidly after a massive population boom, a fairly uncontroversial discovery, becomes a story about how evolution is creating more differences between races, a conclusion which the study in no way supports.

Finally, sometimes there’s just nothing to report, but reporters are serious under pressure to come up with something anyway. Desperation drive them to overlook the poor quality of studies that come to exciting, controversial conclusions, like this one, or to try to spice up something dry, which leads to distortion of the actual results.

Alone, these problems are disturbing, because the average reader has even less training than reporters in interpreting data, and has the added disadvantage of not being able to see the original academic articles. This knowledge gap, combined with our society’s enormous faith in science, creates a public ready to accept at face value whatever it is that the media tells them science has discovered. That may not be such a big deal when the story is that eating more spinach may help prevent cancer, but it becomes pernicious when the study being reported is the kind editors drool over: one that claims to have discovered something that explains The Way We Are. When someone claims to have proven that girls are genetically predisposed to love the color pink, or that black people are inherently less intelligent than white people — no mater how iffy the science or how biased the researcher — it gets tons of coverage because the stories are controversial and relate to everyone’s lives, so they’re guaranteed to pull in readers. Readers, in turn, love the stories because they confirm and justify their prejudices and affirm that Some People Are Just Different, which means that the fact that those people earn less for the same work or are much more likely to be living in poverty is the fault of their unfortunate genes, not part of a larger system of oppression in which the reader is unconsciously, uncomfortably complicit.

Every person who believes the comfortable lie that society is meant to be structured the way it is takes us one person further away from a truly just and equal society. This stuff matters, it’s pervasive, and we need to start calling the media on it.