My name is danah boyd and I'm a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research, a Research Assistant Professor in Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University, and a Fellow at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society. Buzzwords in my world include: privacy, context, youth culture, social media, big data. I use this blog to express random thoughts about whatever I'm thinking.

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Rule #1: Do no harm.

Rule #2: Fear-mongering causes harm.

I believe in the enterprise of journalism, even when it lets me down in practice. The fourth estate is critically important for holding systems of power accountable. But what happens when journalists do harm?

On Sunday, a salacious article flew across numerous news channels. In print, it was given titles like “Teenagers can no longer tell the real world from the internet, study claims” (Daily Mail) and “Real world v online world: teens do not distinguish” (The Telegraph). This claim can’t even pass the basic sniff test, but it was picked up by news programs and reproduced on blogs.

The articles make reference to a “Digital Lives” study produced by Vodafone and Google, but there’s nothing in the articles themselves that even support the claims made by the headlines. No quotes from the authors, no explanation, no percentages (even though it’s supposedly a survey study). It’s not even remotely clear how the editors came up with that title because it’s 100% disconnected from the article itself.

So I decided to try to find the study. It’s not online. There’s a teaser page by the firm who appears to have run the study. Interestingly, they argue that the methodology was qualitative, not a survey. And it sounds like the study is about resilience and cyberbullying. Perhaps one of the conclusions is that teens don’t differentiate between bullying at school and cyberbullying? That would make sense.

Yesterday, I got a couple of pings about this study. Each time, I asked the journalist if they could find the study because I’d be happy to analyze it. Nada. No one had seen any evidence of the claim except for the salacious headline flying about. This morning, I went to do some TV for my book. Even though I had told the production team that this headline made no sense and there was no evidence to even support it, they continued to run with the story because the producer had decided that it was an important study. And yet, the best they could tell me is that they had reached out to the original journalist who said that he had interviewed the people who ran the study.

Why why why do journalists feel the need to spread these kinds of messages even once they know that there’s no evidence to support those claims? Is it the pressure of 24/7 news? Is it a Milgram-esque hierarchy where producers/editors push for messages and journalists/staffers conform even though they know better because they simply can’t afford to question their superiors given the state of journalism?

I’d get it if journalists really stood by their interpretations even though I disagreed with them. I can even stomach salacious headlines that are derived by the story. And as much as I hate fear-mongering in general, I can understand how it emerges from certain stories. But since when did the practice of journalism allow for uncritically making shit up? ::shaking head:: Where’s the fine line between poor journalism and fabrication?

As excited as I am to finally have my book out, it’s been painful to have to respond to some of the news coverage. I mean, it’s one thing to misunderstand cyberbullying but what reasonable person can possibly say with a straight face that today’s youth can no longer distinguish between the internet and everyday life!?!? Gaaaah.

(Image by Reuben Stanton)

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5 comments to Rule #1: Do no harm.

  • As an ex-journalist shifting into academia, let me just crap on my old profession a bit and note we’re not always (and never real have been) a profession that allowed facts to get in the way of a good story.

    One thing I’m learning now as I conduct my own academic research (and never considered when I was scanning academic papers to find some something that could be explained in a headline and help me reach that day’s quota) is that not all academic journals, articles and academics are created equal. And let’s be honest — in a profession where people are expected to churn out more copy in less time, who can really be bothered to find — little on read — the actual study?

    I don’t envy you — having gotten through the first chapter of your book (with plans to finish it ASAP), I’m not sure how you’re going to convey the ideas you share in interviews without having the journalist (and his just-as-guilty editor) fixate the sexy cyber bullying word. I was already thinking it by the time I had finished the preface — how do you develop talking points for a book promotion push on a subject like this?

    This is the reality of a world here quality journalism is measured in page views and not how well it explains complex subjects to readers who want to understand the world they’re living in.

  • Jeroen

    Since when does the Daily Mail get a mention when we talk journalism? Do they not make a living of the fabrication of headlines and stories?

  • Wei

    Jeroen, yeah, news sucks. It’s an amoral capitalistic enterprise. It’s no surprise that state-funded efforts tend to be a lot more moderate (NPR, CBC, BBC, etc) than fly-by-night rags like The Daily Mail.

    The problem Ms. Boyd’s pointing to is this widespread attitude in journalism that either doesn’t understand the basic mechanics of scientific research or chooses to ignore peer-review and context for pageviews and subscribers. That’s certainly something that is far more insipid to internet journalism than established news channels (ie Gawker/UpWorthy/Buzzfeed/Slate/Salon/etc). Increasingly this attitude of wild exaggeration seems to have infected even these established institutions. You don’t have to turn very far to see that the content The Atlantic is pushing out is largely memish and sensational; hell, they even had Hannah Joffrey-whatever pen an article for them about the grand ol’ topic of helicopter parenting which drew grand conclusions from a tiny number of decontextualized studies in sociology and child psychology which is something of a common practice among Joffrey-whatever’s homebase at Slate.

    You’d think that with the huge issues of employment facing college grads you’d see a boon in journalistic accuracy (and there are sites like The Awl or The Toast that reflect this) but this kind of careful, studied attitude still isn’t mainstream. People want to read easy, sweeping conclusions and so the use and abuse of synecdoche has become widespread. The hope is that teaching basic scientific literacy would at least account for some of these biases but it’s hard enough just learning to read much less how to read skeptically.

    So this is just a rant and it’s an excellent one as far as rants go. But there’s nothing to do but hope that we figure out this education business and make some marginal gains on scientific literacy.

  • Harini Gangur

    Hey Danah,
    I agree with this post. These days, I cannot tell the difference between a gossip column and literal journalism. Studies that are being “cited” on the news end up being not completed, or just a fraction of the studies information. The goal these days of news reporters and journalists is not to actually report the fact; its to keep the viewer or reader on the edge of their seat, to get them to react wildly to something, to make them keep coming back to the writer for more. If the news cited real studies, and things that were actually happening in the world, no one would want to read them. They would rather head to TV channels like ET or magazines like People or USA Today. It saddens me to see how much journalism ha changed, and the citing of all academic sources and journals should be done correctly. The job of journalists is to inform people; not to misguide them.

  • @ Harini,

    I think it’s important to note that the goal of many (and I would even argue most) journalists *is* to produce fact-based reporting. It’s important to recognize this–to not paint with too broad a brush here with statements about all journalists–if we want that work to be recognized and valued.

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