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                   Monday, February 20, 2017

How storm observer traffic brought home the reality of fake news

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Much of the news media today is in "panic mode". With their traditional business model rapidly evaporating, they are frequently resorting to acts of desperation. Many traditionally-respected publishers have abandoned objective reporting that serves the public good, turning instead to any and all means necessary to bring in views and hits to their sites (and in some cases, subscriptions). The end result is that editorial content (that serves the media outlet itself) has replaced objective reporting (that serves the public) as the media's main product.

Unlike "real" news reporting which aims to inform the reader by presenting only the facts of a story, editorial/opinion pieces are designed to "spin" an issue in order to elicit a reaction from the reader. These pieces are meant to stir up emotion and controversy where none existed before, or to fan the flames of minor issues into massive conflagrations. It's the opposite of peacemaking: a calculated effort to make enemies out of those who previously were friends or simply passing acquaintances, and reap financial rewards for doing so. Work two sides of an issue into a frenzy, and watch the hits and advertising revenue come in. In this way, the media is like the kids on the sidelines during a schoolyard fight that egg on the opponents instead of trying to break up the conflict.

The May 2016 Slate article on storm observer traffic by Eric Holthaus is a classic example of this phenomenon. This article, alleging that observer traffic is a widespread and critical problem in the Great Plains, gave storm observers a taste of what it's like to be a subject of the "fake news" epidemic. Storm observers have solid video evidence that heavy traffic is rare and not the dire problem it is made out to be, but it didn't matter - the conclusion of the Slate piece was reached before it was written. It was designed to pit the residents and authorities of the Great Plains against storm observers. No facts were going to get in the way of Slate/Holthaus' intent: to use all of us on both sides in their goal to bring clicks and hits to their site, even if it meant driving a wedge in between two groups of people who traditionally have been friends.

Dodge City, Kansas tornado and storm observers
Dodge City, Kansas tornado and storm observers - May 2016

I've never received a response from Holthaus as to why an article about storm observer traffic didn't cite anything from sources that come up on the *first page* of a Google search for "storm observer traffic" (and did for over a year prior to the article). There are only two possible explanations: either Holthaus did not perform research for the article, or he simply ignored any facts that would go against the narrative that was pre-determined in advance. Either one of those is absolutely indefensible for a professional journalist. The end result, a "hit piece", did real damage to the relations between storm observers and Plains residents. As Slate scraped up the ad revenue, the relationships between real people suffered in their wake.

This brings me to my main point: Holthaus and Slate are by no means alone in this type of behavior. Far from it. The same tactics are unfortunately the rule with much of what we see today in the media on just about any subject. Being a storm observer in the crosshairs of "fake news" like the Slate article has enabled me to easily see the exact same tactics being used in reporting of much more important issues facing our country. Consequently, indications are that the public's trust of the press is at an all-time low, and the media has no one but themselves to blame for this perilous loss of credibility.

Popular Youtube commentator Carl Benjamin (aka Sargon of Akkad), an articulate, perceptive political observer and self-described classical liberal, published this brilliant piece describing the media's "Overton Window". I think it is one of the best summations of the current state of the press as a whole. (Be advised that there is some language in the rest of the video if you watch it from the beginning, I linked directly to the pertinent segment).

All this being said, I am encouraged to know that there are still some upstanding, ethical people in the media who do actually care about accurate reporting with an aim to serve the public good. They are the ones that show both sides of an issue, and even attempt to correct the misinformation in the "fake news". To those, I say: your work doesn't go unnoticed - it is highly appreciated, and we need you! It is my hope that these types of journalists can manage to either a.) escape the cesspool of the companies that bind them to the clickbait and sensationalism, or b.) reform them from within. Our country desperately needs journalism that can be trusted.

25 Years of Storm Observing
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