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    The News Media’s Dangerous Addiction to ‘Fake Facts’

    enJune 07, 2024

    Podcast Summary

    • Negativity bias in news mediaDespite inaccurate 'fake facts' being widely reported, negativity bias in news media and audiences perpetuates the suppression of good news and shapes public discourse.

      The bias towards negativity in both news media and audiences contributes to the suppression of good news and the perpetuation of "fake facts." For instance, the commonly reported fact that the US has the highest maternal mortality rate among rich countries is not entirely accurate. Journalist Jerusalem Demaris shares her investigation into this "fake fact," which she had also believed for years. Despite being widely reported, this statistic is not supported by the data, yet it continues to shape public discourse. This phenomenon highlights the importance of critically evaluating the information we consume and recognizing the role of negativity bias in shaping the news landscape.

    • Maternal mortality measurementA change in how we measure maternal mortality in the US led to an over-counting of deaths and a false impression of increasing maternal mortality

      While it's true that maternal mortality in the United States has been rising according to recorded data, a significant portion of this increase can be attributed to a change in how we measure maternal mortality. Specifically, the implementation of a pregnancy checkbox on death certificates led to an over-counting of maternal mortality deaths. This change, which aimed to address under-reporting, has created a false impression that maternal mortality is increasing when in fact, the number of women dying from pregnancy-related causes may not have changed significantly. It's important to note that many countries outside of the US have not made this change and their numbers remain steady. This discrepancy highlights the complexity of measuring maternal mortality and the potential for measurement error.

    • Maternal mortality reportingExperts and organizations play a significant role in maternal mortality reporting, but clear guidelines and transparent communication are necessary to ensure accurate and truthful information.

      The measurement of maternal mortality is a complex issue with objective and subjective elements. Objective errors include misclassification of cause of death, while subjective errors involve decisions made by experts regarding the inclusion or exclusion of certain causes of death. A recent study questioning conventional wisdom about maternal mortality was criticized by the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecologists, which called the study irresponsible and minimizing of lives lost. This response raises concerns about the role of experts and organizations in providing truthful information, and the potential for prioritizing narratives over facts. The debate highlights the need for clear guidelines and transparent communication in maternal mortality research and reporting.

    • Maternal mortality dataExcessive focus on crisis and catastrophizing in addressing maternal mortality can lead to ineffective or misguided solutions. Prioritize fact-finding and a balanced approach to understand root causes and find solutions.

      While raising awareness about serious issues like maternal mortality is important, an excessive focus on crisis and catastrophizing can lead to ineffective or misguided solutions. The speaker emphasizes that maternal mortality is a real problem that requires attention, but caution should be taken against relying on shoddy data or sensationalizing facts. Instead, a fact-finding approach should be prioritized to understand the root causes and find solutions. The speaker also highlights the psychological bias towards negativity and how it can influence our perception and response to issues. While it may be tempting to use catastrophizing to get people's attention, it can lead to audience fatigue and harm credibility. Ultimately, a balanced and fact-based approach is necessary to address complex issues like maternal health effectively.

    • Crisis Prioritization and Data AccuracyEffective crisis management requires prioritizing crises, ordering them, and providing accurate data to inform decisions, while avoiding catastrophic thinking and misinformation to maintain trust in institutions

      During times of multiple crises or concerns, it's essential to prioritize and order them to effectively allocate resources and make informed decisions. Misrepresenting or spreading shoddy data can lead to a loss of credibility among the public and lawmakers, hindering the ability to bring about change in the long term. Catastrophic thinking, if misguided, can result in harmful short-term policies and erode trust in scientific communicators and democratic institutions. It's crucial to provide accurate information and allow the public and elected officials to make informed decisions based on facts. The COVID-19 pandemic serves as an example of the potential harms of catastrophic thinking and the importance of maintaining trust in scientific communities and democratic institutions.

    • Crisis communication truthfulnessDuring crises, truthful and transparent communication is crucial to maintain public trust and credibility, even if the information is complex or unclear.

      During times of crisis, it's crucial for public health communicators to be truthful and transparent, even if the information is complex or unclear. Misinformation and masking the truth, as seen during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, can lead to long-term damage to credibility and public trust. This issue is not unique to the pandemic or the American public, as people from all walks of life and political beliefs were impacted. It's essential to acknowledge the complexity of the situation and communicate truthfully, even if it's challenging, to earn and maintain credibility with the public. This approach will foster a more informed and engaged population, ultimately leading to better outcomes for individuals and society as a whole.

    • News biases and incentivesRecognizing journalists' and researchers' biases and incentives is crucial for evaluating news. Approach news with a critical and reflective mindset, considering both the source's and audience's perspectives.

      Understanding the motivations and biases of news sources and consumers is crucial for navigating the complex world of news and information. The speaker emphasizes the importance of recognizing that everyone, including journalists and researchers, has incentives that can influence their perspectives. As a consumer, it's essential to be aware of these biases and incentives and to approach news with a critical and reflective mindset. The speaker also suggests that it can be helpful to consider the audience's biases and incentives when evaluating media coverage. Ultimately, being aware of these factors can help us make more informed decisions and engage more effectively with the news and information that surrounds us. The speaker also mentioned that she is working on a podcast at The Atlantic where they will be exploring these topics in more depth.

    • Policy IssuesThe new podcast 'Good on Paper' aims to challenge simplified narratives around complex policy issues by bringing nuance to topics like remote work, maternal mortality, immigration, public health, and civil rights.

      The new podcast "Good on Paper," launching in early June, aims to challenge simplified narratives around complex policy issues. The show, produced by The Atlantic, will delve into topics like remote work, maternal mortality, immigration, public health, and civil rights, among others. The goal is to bring nuance to narratives that have gone beyond their original facts, providing listeners with a more comprehensive understanding of these issues. For fans of thoughtful, investigative podcasts, "Good on Paper" is a must-listen. Tune in weekly on Fridays for new episodes.

    Recent Episodes from Plain English with Derek Thompson

    The News Media’s Dangerous Addiction to ‘Fake Facts’

    The News Media’s Dangerous Addiction to ‘Fake Facts’
    What do most people not understand about the news media? I would say two things. First: The most important bias in news media is not left or right. It’s a bias toward negativity and catastrophe. Second: That while it would be convenient to blame the news media exclusively for this bad-news bias, the truth is that the audience is just about equally to blame. The news has never had better tools for understanding exactly what gets people to click on stories. That means what people see in the news is more responsive than ever to aggregate audience behavior. If you hate the news, what you are hating is in part a collective reflection in the mirror. If you put these two facts together, you get something like this: The most important bias in the news media is the bias that news makers and news audiences share toward negativity and catastrophe. Jerusalem Demsas, a staff writer at The Atlantic and the host of the podcast Good on Paper, joins to discuss a prominent fake fact in the news — and the psychological and media forces that promote fake facts and catastrophic negativity in the press. If you have questions, observations, or ideas for future episodes, email us at PlainEnglish@Spotify.com. Host: Derek Thompson Guest: Jerusalem Demsas Producer: Devon Baroldi Links: "The Maternal-Mortality Crisis That Didn’t Happen" by Jerusalem Demsas https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2024/05/no-more-women-arent-dying-in-childbirth/678486/ The 2001 paper "Bad Is Stronger Than Good" https://assets.csom.umn.edu/assets/71516.pdf Derek on the complex science of masks and mask mandates https://www.theatlantic.com/newsletters/archive/2023/03/covid-lab-leak-mask-mandates-science-media-information/673263/ Learn more about your ad choices. Visit podcastchoices.com/adchoices

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