Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Anatomy of a Hoax, or "How The Web Makes Journalism Lazy"

Yesterday, many news sources, beginning with the Huffington Post, reported that a banker left a 1% tip on a check at a restaurant to make some kind of point about his wealth and to insult lowly paid restaurant workers. This story raised ABSOLUTELY NO RED FLAGS among these news outlets.

Then the website Smoking Gun did incredible, undercover investigating reporting that required hours of research, tons of money and all the manpower they could muster. No, actually, all they did was CALL THE RESTAURANT. Using the information on the picture of the receipt that had been plastered all over the web. You know, like you'd expect A REPORTER TO DO.

It took all of a few minutes to discover the story was a hoax.

Sadly, this is how the media operates these days. In this fast-paced internet-driven world, a successful news story is only successful if it appears first or second. The drop off after that (in terms of the click thrus and page reads their article will get) is huge. So news organizations jump on interesting nuggets quickly, sometimes Twittering about things before they even know what's going on, just so they can claim they "scooped" the story.

This is how "new journalism" works, in 6 easy steps:

1. An interesting rumor or unverified story appears on Twitter or Reddit, lazy journalists' web sources of choice.

2. News organization writes a quick summary, links to the original post, and says something like, "this has not been verified yet, but isn't it cool? Share with your friends!"

3. News organization never attempts to verify the story, instead, spends the majority of its time pushing the story out through its various social media arms and adding the story to the evening's television news scripts.

4. Hours later, the story is debunked by a blogger, a site like Snopes or the Smoking Gun, or an enterprising three-year-old with Googling skills.

5. News organization issues an "update," while leaving the original story up because that way it still counts towards their readership metrics.

6. William Randolph Hearst chuckles, Edward R. Murrow rolls over.

Monday, February 27, 2012

The Modern Family Teen Sex Controversy

Family teen sex? That title will get me some hits from Google.

Huffington Post writer Ann Brenoff is mad at the Writer's Guild of America, ABC, and presumably the majority of teenagers in this country because last week's episode of "Modern Family" mentioned that a 17-year-old high school senior was sexually active-- AND THEY DIDN'T USE IT AS AN OPPORTUNITY TO TURN IT INTO A TV-MOVIE-OF-THE-WEEK TEACHING ABOUT THE DANGERS OF TEEN SEX!

The gist of it is, she wants "Modern Family," about life in the year 2012, to depict life in the 1950s.

By not making the loss of the teen girl's virginity (never depicted on screen, only alluded to) into THE BIGGEST DEAL IN THE HISTORY OF THE WORLD, Ann says the writers are sending the message that "everybody is doing it." Because everybody is not, she says. She cites this data:

"30 percent -- of both male and female teens -- still haven't had intercourse by the time they turn 19."

Um. So, Ann, you're saying that 70 percent of teenagers have had sex by age 19??? ANN, WHY ARE YOU SENDING THE MESSAGE THAT EVERYBODY IS DOING IT!!!???

Somehow, in Ann's warped mind, the fact that, yeah, almost everybody is doing it, supports her argument. HOW DARE THE SHOW MENTION TEEN SEX WITHOUT GOING COMPLETELY CRAZY ABOUT IT!!!!

Perhaps Ann believes every TV show mentioning the fact that teens have sex should just copy the plot of "For Keeps?"

Great movie, by the way.

Ann actually cherry picks the 70% fact from a report that also mentions:

"On average, young people have sex for the first time at about age 17."

You mean... gasp... like the character on the show!?!?!

It goes on to say...

"The majority of sexually experienced teens (78% of females and 85% of males) used contraceptives the first time they had sex."


"In 2006–2010, some 86% of female teens and 93% of male teens reported using contraceptives at last sex. These proportions represent a marked improvement since 1995."

And yet...

"Some 90% of publicly funded family planning clinics counseled clients younger than 18 about abstinence."

and oh...

"Only 5% of American high schools made condoms available to students."

Let's put it all together now, people:

Most American teens are having sex at age 17. Most are using condoms and birth control. The vast majority do not get pregnant and do not get STDs. The ones that do probably do because our society discourages the use of contraceptives.

Imagine if our country had a traffic safety committee getting mad about all the car crashes while at the same time yelling that there's no need to provide busy intersections with traffic light. ITS BEST TO JUST AVOID THAT INTERSECTION, KIDS!!! UNTIL YOU'RE OLDER!

Now, this "very special episode" of Modern Family doesn't mention whether the 17 year old is practicing safe sex. But the big moment in the episode is when the dad says to his daughter that he trusts her to make the right decisions. This approach-- creating a safe, non-judgmental relationship with one's teenager-- is a far better tactic than the reprimand-and-push-them-further-and-further-away-causing-them-to-star-in-the-next-season-of-Teen-Mom approach.

Perhaps if people like Ann didn't treat teen sex like an automatic disaster and blight on society, more parents would feel comfortable talking to their kids about safe sex. Maybe people would stop ignoring the power of hormones and start giving teens the tools they need to avoid tragic outcomes.

And maybe we should stop flipping out every time a TV show shows us something real, rather than insisting every plot be a morality play.

NYMag's Vulture blog might have the best take on this:

Phil is ready to have a “cool dad” moment with Haley — he looks at the camera and says everything he wants to say to us, the audience: that he realizes that sex is a natural part of life, and that he hopes that she’s being safe and that she feels free to talk to him about it. He manages to say none of this to Haley, and yet it’s enough, when she asks him whether he’d prefer a counter or a booth at the mall food court, he says, “Whatever seems right to you, I trust you.” Hug. No need for a heavy-duty Danny Tanner–style speech here, or a PSA. He’s said everything we wanted to hear to us, and he doesn’t need to say it again to Haley because she already knows. Haley, back on the couch at home, looks at the camera with a tear-stained face — not even a hint of sarcasm — and says, “I have a cool dad.” Such restraint, even more so than a grand emotional outpouring, is what makes this episode special.
Hmm. Maybe it is a "Very special episode" after all.

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