Why ARE journalists so stupid? And what are the implications?

This thread touches on the question in passing but I think it deserves its own thread. Whenever journalists describe things that I know about they get all sorts wrong, and from what anyone who knows about stuff I don’t (which is everyone) tells me that is the case with things I don’t know about as well.

It is not reasonable to expect a journalist to be some kind of polymath, but I truely feel that it is reasonable to expect a journalist who is trying to explain something to their readers to at least understand whatever they are explaining well enough to explain it. Otherwise they shouldn’t be mentioing it at all.

Question 1 then - why are journalists (apparently) so stupid? Have there been studies done on their competence? Are they better or worse than the general population?

Question 2 - what research, if any, has been done in to the implications. I can think of two major worries. Firstly, most people learn about obscure topics in as much as they learn anything about them from what they pick up either by talking to people who do stuff with the obscure topics (and usually therefore just get bitched to about something annoying at work rather than a good overview of the field) or by reading the news of the day about the topic. Secondly, opinion pieces and editorials by “respected” newspapers/magazines/journals very often have a disproportionate impact upon government policy and general establishment groupthink. Both sound like very interesting studies could have been done (e.g. track the misconception) - I know a bunch have been done on moral panics and things like deviancy amplification spiral, but how about stuff more to do with journalistic incompetence?

That thread is now up to 130 posts. Could you please point out which one(s) is/are related to journalists? Exactly which part of that thread are you asking about? Can you give an example of stupid journalists?

I’m not disagreeing with you, but for GQ, we should discuss a specific example rather than generalities. Otherwise, take it to the Pit.

Quick summary: the impression is that the article in the OP is a mis-quote or misunderstanding on the part of the journalist as to what “semi-automatic” means. Then several people point out on the first page that journalists (except for “specialty press”) aren’t experts in the fields they’re sent to cover, so mistakes like this are common. Then several people chime in to say journalists are categorically idiots.

The argument is a combination of (a) journalists aren’t experts in their fields, so take all news like this with a grain of salt and (b) journalists are dumb, because otherwise why would they be journalists. I don’t agree, but that’s what’s put forward.

Moved to IMHO.

General Questions Moderator

I’ve heard the same thing from some actual journalists. They are under intense pressure to produce a story quickly, whether they have any expertise in the subject matter or not. Slowing down to check the facts and do research would mean missed deadlines or a competitor getting the “scoop.” Therefore, errors in the story are rarely the result of deliberate malfeasance or stupidity, but rather the result of their demanding tempo.

Now, this is what I’ve been told. I personally believe that publishing a story without getting your facts straight is at best poor journalism and, at worst, willfully immoral. But that’s their excuse, anyway.

Interpreting things takes a lot of talent. You not only need to be able to gain a working knowledge about a subject, but you need to be able to translate it to a form that people without the same level of technical knowledge can understand (even if it means throwing some minor points under the bus). This is not a common trait, at all. This is why people like Bill Nye or Neil Degrasse Tyson are so respected – they’re not only intelligent and qualified people, but they have the charisma and ability to dumb it down to a level that laymen can comprehend without sacrificing (too much) accuracy.

Journalists frequently have to do this with many (often completely unrelated) topics, and not only that, do it under a time constraint. Then on top of that they have to appease an editor, boss, or even consciously take into account their audience. This is why dedicated sites to specific topics (or general sites with a humongous staff each dedicated to maybe one or two topics at most) are always going to be better.

Not only that, but many there are many (even most) issues that need to be reported on that, even within the field they’re reporting on, have no clear answer. So even an attempt to research it without technical knowledge will lead to a frustrating hunt of inconsistent facts and outright contradictions – that is assuming they can gain a good enough working knowledge at all if it’s some important-yet-extremely-difficult science paper.

Right. And to overgeneralize, most journalists are not ‘gun people,’ which makes misunderstandings that much more likely. When you’re not that familiar with a subject and you don’t know what you don’t know, it’s easy to make mistakes. The use of unclear terms like “assault weapon” by politicians doesn’t help either.

In articles that are on subjects I am knowledgable about or incidents I have person knowledge about, everyone has been wildly inaccurate. Ymmv.

I would suggest that there’s likely to be some confirmation bias going on too. Every article gets things wrong? Whenever they talk about thing you know about, they’re wrong?

Either that’s very unlikely or you don’t read much.

Almost every time I have been interviewed by a journalist, they have gotten one or more facts wrong in the published article, sometimes wildly so. They have also gotten facts wrong when reporting on events that I had personal knowledge of.

Sometimes I’ve been misquoted due to carelessness. I gave them the correct facts, but they evidently wrote it down or remembered it wrong. Other times it’s been due to misinterpretation or assumptions about what I said.

For one thing, news organizations figured that they could save money by not hiring specialists. Some journalist who is educated in and specializes in something like the military or politics or science is going to do a better job in the area of their specialty than some clueless guy, but cost more.

I’m also going to pop in here and say virtually every time I’ve seen a news report (particularly down at the level of the local paper or TV station) about something I know well, about the best I can hope for is that it doesn’t make me cringe too much. Which has made me realize pretty much any story about something I don’t know much about might as well be fiction.

If you have to cut staff, which a lot of news organizations have had to do over the years, it does make sense to go with generalists- and those cuts often mean older journalists with more expertise lose their jobs. That said, there are tons of reporters who work a specific beat.

I read a huge amount and while speaking of every article is clearly hyperbole I would say that over 95% of substantial articles where something is explained or referred to do, yes.

You should also know that often enough, journalists are correct in their initial reporting, but the story has to go through the editing process. Editors will change things to make them (appear) more clear, and to make them fit in the alotted space. There are a number of factors going against the preservation of facts by the time the article gets to print, a great deal is controlled by the actual news writer, but not all of it.

Journalists aren’t stupid, at least not any more stupid than other professions.

Now by the end of the day, you need to prepare and submit 2 1000 word articles; one on flea season and one on on the local nuclear power plant. Its 2pm, get going. Do your best, but I’m absolutely sure you will get some of the facts wrong.

By the way; your headline on this thread is incorrect and needs to be changed in the editorial process to better reflect reality, plus it needs to be shortened while maintaining the reality that journalists might be stupid, but no more than other professions…and try not to get upset that whoever changes your words does it wrong :smiley:

I am a very shit writer, but I could easily do 2 1000 word articles in a few hours that would be factually accurate, although possibly unreadable.

Not on Flea season and the nuclear power plant, complete with quotes. Journalists don’t get to chose the topics they are expert in to write about.
Oh, and it has to be readable…we expect this much from journalists


When I was a teen, the local hometown paper interviewed my father about the vacation we had recently taken. The article filled more than 2/3 of a tabloid page, and there wasn’t a single paragraph that was totally accurate, though some were not as bad as others. Maybe there was a printing deadline, but there was certainly no competition for the “scoop”.

This experience was repeated by reporters who interviewed me myself. I have since refused to talk to reporters. It’s just not worth it. I’d be happy to cooperate if they’d let me check the article before it goes to press, but that’s just not gonna happen, even in today’s world of fast emails.

I’ll also throw this in. Was a major player in a very minor story. Not thrilled about it honestly (I didn’t WANT the publicity for sure). But, hey this a chance to edgeumacate the public about something they could probably use the edgumacting about so I sucked it up.

But there was one issue. A certain fact or two was NOT to be in the article. This particular fact did not add anything to the article. Photographer AND reporter easily agreed to this.

Guess fucking what? Said fact was in the article (first damn paragraph IIRC).

So, when you read something, also keep in mind the folks that might know something about something could have well been burned in the past and are not the “experts” the paper is quoting.

That’s kind of an empty claim, and since you’re admitting your work wouldn’t be usable, it means even less.