I’ve been listening to the You’re Wrong About podcast, this time about the infamous Ford Pinto. It seems that almost everything I thought I knew about it was incorrect and largely based on a single Mother Jones article.
The podcast makes an interesting point about that, and about journalism more widely: a lot of bad journalism comes from writers who are operating in good faith, or at least partial good faith. They believe that they have uncovered something so huge that they must tell the world. That belief can cause a kind of myopia.
Journalism is as much about what you choose to leave out as what you choose to put in. Let’s say you’ve got a whistleblower from inside an organisation with a suitably salacious tale. If it’s a really good story, if it’s the kind of story that’ll have people gasping over their morning paper, how much consideration will you give to the things that contradict or cast doubt over what the whistleblower is telling you?
People like to be heroes, and journalists are no exception – so if you think you’re the hero who’s going to break the story, you’re not going to consider that perhaps you’re being misled, or seeing connections that aren’t there, or ignoring evidence that shows that you’re not the hero here but the villain.
The MMR scare is a good example of that. How many journalists telling their readers of the entirely invented dangers thought they were doing Pulitzer-worthy public service journalism? And how many lives have been destroyed by the anti-vaccination movement they helped spawn?