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Empty Calories for Your Brain

July 17, 2006

Here we go. As a writer and a former broadcaster, slippery delivery by news anchors drive me sort of nuts. I’ve been looking for a choice one to share with y’all lately, especially one that’d let me look at the issue I want without getting tangled in the issues that are beside my point. So I’ve chosen to go with this bit of reporting from NPR, which I heard in the car this morning.

Don’t mistake this as a dig on NPR, per se. Every news outlet does this shit some time. I’ve chosen to avoid, say, Fox News for this bit because I want it clear that I’m not harping on specifically conservative journalists here. I’m harping on all of them. Besides, I’m not about to start competing with John Stewart for Fox-bashing.

So, here’s the sentence that I heard on NPR this morning:

“[B]ut aside from launch, landing is the highest-risk part of any mission.”

That’s how that sentence looks on the page. Here’s how it was read by the broadcaster:

“(([B]ut aside from launch,)) landing is the highest-risk part of any mission.”

The reading of the line sensationalizes the information and actually changes its meaning. By throwing away the first clause (“aside from launch,”) and emphasizing part of the second, she actually changes the meaning of the statement as you hear it. In this case, it changes the landing from the second-most dangerous part of the mission to “the highest-risk part of any mission,” which is to say it changes the statement as it is received by the passive listener into something that is not actually true — we learned in the softened opening clause what is actually the highest-risk part of the mission, after all. But with that clause hand-waved away, the casual listener can be easily misled.

One of the things a good radio broadcaster must do is convey important information to a listener who cannot be assumed to be listening intently. Nobody just listens to the radio anymore. We listen and drive or listen and cook or listen and sleep. It’s easily to accidentally misinform a radio listener by changing the delivery of a news item.

This is a pretty harmless example, of course. The rest of the piece pretty clearly sketches out the real tone of the overall piece, which is clear and upbeat. It’s possible that this early part of the segment was delivered to play up the peril and, thus, the listener’s interest. Nothing new about that.

But this same trick is used all over the place when discussing other statistics and data in the news. So much of the statistics we’re given are so cock-eyed that they have little honest meaning. Consider how often you’ve heard things like:

  • “Aside from collisions, gasoline explosions are the number-one killer of motor vehicle operators.”
  • “A child who eats asparagus is 60% more likely to go to college.”
  • “A child who plays video games is 60% more likely to have bad posture.”

These are all ridiculous, made-up examples. They’re not that far off from things I’ve really heard and jotted down, though. Still, these are nuts. In the first case, the language is rigged to present gasoline explosions as “the number-one killer” even though they’re really number two — nevermind that that difference between first and second place could be an order of magnitude, for the sake of this report we want you to be afraid of gasoline explosions. In the second case, a statistical coincidence is presented without actual information, just data, so that you might somehow think asparagus makes it possible to pay tuition.

In the third example, you might think that a child who plays video games is 60% more likely to have bad posture… but that’s actually a descriptive report not a predictive analysis. What we’re actually being told is that kids who play video games are more likely to have bad posture, and I’ll bet that’s true. But broadcast news (CNN radio especially, it seems to me) is infatuated with percentages and desperate to make them seem relevant to your life. Here’s the thing, though: taking Timmy off of video games isn’t 60% likely to correct his posture. If your kid continues to slump at the dinner table or while he’s reading a book, he’s 100% sure to have bad posture. Likewise, if you teach him to sit up straight and tell him why its important, he’s more likely to have good posture even if he plays video games.

We’re given a lot more data than information when we watch or listen to the news. Giving a person data without information or the ability to derive it independently is like giving a kindergartener a circular saw. He’ll use it badly.

Here’s the rub, though: I can’t actually fault the news for giving us data. I can fault them for giving us only data, but what am I going to say, that I actually want CNN telling me what to think? No, the trouble is that I want the news to stop feeding junk food to our brains. When we’re in our cars, we snack on these little cookies that come out of the radio and it’s bad for us. It’s empty calories for our brains.

But unlike M&Ms and cinnamon scones, which we can only hope to work off in the hopes that we’ll lose them, we can turn junk data into real nourishment by chewing on it rather than swallowing it whole. We may not get what the copy writers or broadcasters or editors want us to to get out of it, but at least it’s not empty calories.

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