With apologies to Marshall McLuhan for completely twisting his famous quote, I wanted to comment on the way the media impacts my life by subtly changing the message in many news stories.
“Massaging” data is what we used to call it when we had to take raw data and make it presentable and consumable for people. One might offer the following at one’s “data spa”:
- Anomaly removal
- Trend plotting
- Choice of mean, median, mode, or average depending on what is most compelling (central tendency)
In any case, you choose what to tell people, even when you start with pure facts.
The mainstream media is no different, so the following is not really a condemnation. But it is an observation to ponder.
The media massages the facts for various reasons, not the least of which is a natural tendency to choose language that reflects one’s own feelings on a subject.
Bloggers are changing the media landscape so that this problem may become less and less relevant. There are more bloggers than professional journalists. They tend to work outside the structure of large media companies. And many of them don’t seem to care about consequences of passing along either unadulterated facts (good) or wild speculation (entertaining but not so good).
In the meantime, media companies continue to want to publish news that “sells”. The choice of which story to report in the first place is one level of filtering. Once that’s done, the language choice is another factor. Then there’s a professional journalist’s concern about continued access to the folks who are the newsmakers on his or her beat. (For more on this aspect of massaging, read about one journalist’s reaction to what he called “a fat kid in a T-shirt in his mother’s basement, eating Cheetos and writing his blogs”.)
In my new business, a message like “interest rates on the rise” is far more compelling than “25 basis point increase being considered by major lenders”. Remember the spa? The headline writer spent a lot of time in the trend plotting room: only the best data masseuse can get a trend out of a single increase. (I am just using this as a generic example. I won’t try to convince you that interest rates are not on the rise; in Canada there have actually been two increases at some lenders in recent months. So what we’re seeing may well be the beginning of a trend.) I just find it interesting that media storms start when one headline is written this way and everyone else in the media “re-tweets” it as if it were fact.