199: But I Read It in the Papers

But I Read It in the Papers

Newspaper coverage of psychological studies on the effects of violent videogames has become the primary ammunition in a widespread cultural conflict. But it might surprise you how little thought and effort actually go into these reports. Chris LaVigne exposes the limitations of traditional news outlets' coverage of the social sciences by going straight to the source: the researchers themselves.

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"Similarly, researchers who have been doing their work for many years, such as Dr. Craig Anderson, have become entrenched in reporters' Rolodexes and will get called for comment much more often, which limits the range of opinions most stories express."

In Pennsylvania, we have a professor at Franklin & Marshall College named Terry Madonna who is the go-to guy for polling analysis every election cycle. If a primary or general election is coming up, it's hard to avoid seeing his name in newspapers across the state on a weekly or even daily basis.

Having worked as a reporter and copy editor at a general interest newspaper for going on nine years, I can tell you that many of the people still in the industry (or at least the ones I've met) are older and less inclined to look at games seriously. As a former crime reporter who was assigned to write articles on ecstasy, methamphetamine and other drugs du jour, I can tell you that it is often frustrating as a writer to operate in such a reactionary environment, but that's kind of the nature of the news cycle.

David Simon (creator of The Wire) made a great point recently about newspapers surrounding a specific issue, like, say, lead poisoning, and tackling that to the exclusion of the bigger picture. There is many times a profound lack of context in news stories, a tunnel vision that allows us to create the shorter, to-the-point articles that the focus groups tell us readers want.

I'm going to stop blathering about whatever comes into my head now. Excellent article, by the way.

"We haven't trained reporters very well how to tell quality science from junk science," Gentile says. "Where this matters is in the 'get both sides of every story' rule that reporters do seem to follow pretty darn well. ... The joy of science is that at a certain point there aren't two sides. The world isn't both flat and round. We now know the right answer."

This is a big part of the reason why I don't bother with the papers or the cable news networks anymore: because they're all just, "Well, this is what these people said, but those people disagree...hmm? What's that? We should figure out if one side or the other is actually, provably right? Ha. Look, I've got shit to do, pal."

And yeah, it's not just games, it's science in general, regardless of how important it may be for people to get the facts--how many parents, for example, have bought into the vaccines-cause-autism myth because apparently reporters can't be bothered to sound the Bullshit Alarm? Then again, I suppose feeding the nonexistent controversy would sell more papers...

Fox News: "Mass Effect is an alien rape simulator! What? Hells no we haven't played it."

Great read. There's also a lot of guilt in the gaming press for preferring to post studies accusing gamers of being violent simply because it offends all of us. They get more clicks and enraged comments for these than they do studies saying games don't make you violent or can improve hand-eye coordination because we already know and agree with that.

For as much as newspapers feed into their audiences fears about games, the game press feeds into what pisses us off about that audience and their prejudices.

Great article. After reading that, and the comments posted thus far, I can't help but wonder: What if there was a news agency, or company, whose sole role was to find the faults of the other reporting companies? Every time someone like.. oh say FOX News reported on a story, this other company would take the story, and disect it to find the faults, and fill in the information people were missing. I'd think it would come out like The Daily Show, but with less comedy, and being a little more in depth.

I would watch/read something like that. I can wait a day or to for my news as long as it's the right news.

Definitely a good article.
As a psychology (and computer science) student, it frequently amazes me how sensationalist "news" can misrepresent scientific findings. It isn't limited to games either, even discussion of scientific theory as firmly established as Evolution can be twisted to fit what some people want to hear.
(Pulitzer Prize winner Edward Humes discusses it here: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/edward-humes/talk-radio-evolution_b_41908.html )

One of the things all of us news consumers have to keep in mind is that the people giving us information have an agenda: Sell Sell Sell.
They want to provoke a reaction because they want us to read their stuff, and while we're at it, click on the advertising links on their page... even The Escapist has to make money to survive.

News is great for letting us know that new research is out there, but often the scientists doing the research go out of their way to avoid making the broad, sweeping claims that the news media ends up throwing around to stir up interest. So go ahead, read the news, just make sure your skeptic helmet has a fresh pair of batteries.

Two things here.

Firstly, just how are we supposed to know who to believe when two obviously learned scientists come to polar-opposite conclusions on the same subject with similar data? And also:

But psychologist Dr. Douglas Gentile, who studies videogames as an assistant professor at Iowa State University and as Director of Research for the National Institute on Media and the Family, says newspaper reporters are too worried about presenting both sides of a debate that he says the "videogames cause violence" side has conclusively won.

"We haven't trained reporters very well how to tell quality science from junk science," Gentile says. "Where this matters is in the 'get both sides of every story' rule that reporters do seem to follow pretty darn well. ... The joy of science is that at a certain point there aren't two sides. The world isn't both flat and round. We now know the right answer."

...what? The "videogames cause violence" side has conclusively won? I've been playing video games since I was 5, and I've never been in so much as a fistfight. I'd say I disprove your theory, Dr. Gentile.

Second, much of the problem with society today (at least amongst the "old guard") is that they take the word of their favorite news source as gospel. Americans who grew up with the likes of Kronkite, Rather and Morrow simply cannot believe that the "news" would ever lie to or mislead them; to them, the "fourth column" is impartial and faultless. They cannot (or will not) believe that any "reputable" news institution would ever stretch the truth or mislead their readers/viewers for their own gain.

Then, of course, there's the OTHER problem with society, the people who only believe those news institutions who tell them what they already believe anyway, but that's a seperate rant.

Two weeks from now I have to do a presentation on the causes of violence in the city/young people. This article may come in handy! Thanks.

Like reality television, drama, ratings and hence money I see more focus on profit in the news industry than on solid stories. Some things are over-hyped because they incite fear and the like. Hell, just look at the use of celebrity for a prime example. Of course you're not going to find something well-researched and insightful which points out something the public don't really care about. Gaming becoming more mainstream may well help here.

Our demographic is not as noticed as it could be. A pity really, when reporters are writing for an audience who need some sort of folk devil to point the finger at. Were gamers accepted as a major, positive influence upon society and technology there would be less point in fearmongering.

This weeks articles really do make me sad for the lack of good investigative reporting in the country. Sensationalism sells. It does make me wonder if the reason for youth's lack of interest in "news" is because they can tell it's all double-speak, press releases, party-lines, opinions and very few facts.

WHAT?! You mean to say that the media is BIASED?! That everything people say and do is done in order to promote their OWN PERSONAL AGENDA (whether purposely or not)?! What a STARTLING revelation!!!

Seriously, whether it's Fox News, CNN, New York Times, or Homeschool Legal Defense Magazine (a probably little known ultra-right-wing magazine that promotes what it's name suggests it would), any media and all the media do what they want to impose their opinions on others. Even if they don't mean to, trying to be "fair and balanced", the fact they choose what stories to write about makes them opinionated (who gives them the right to decide what we should care about?).

Ironically Escapist is just as guilty as all of them. Does anyone else suspect the Escapist of copying and pasting stuff to this article? I'd love to see some of their sources!

Mimsofthedawg:
Ironically Escapist is just as guilty as all of them. Does anyone else suspect the Escapist of copying and pasting stuff to this article? I'd love to see some of their sources!

I understand where your coming from, but I think you may be overgeneralizing a bit. There are many layers of decision-making in the media from publishers and owners to editors and producers to the actual reporters and journalists. To suggest every single one of them chose their profession simply to promote a personal agenda is a bit out of line. Remember not to confuse professional journalists with talk-show hosts and editorial writers, which are a completely different breed even though they may appear on news channels and in newspapers.

Also, my sources for this article were interviews with the people involved, so there was absolutely no copying and pasting other than what was quoted and attributed to a source.

I think the main problem is the press goes to psychologists for these surveys, which are as about as scientific as looking up and seeing a star, and assuming they're all little twinkling lights that are only visible at night.

The human brain is one of the most complex machines we've ever encountered, and yet we think looking at a small percentage of humans doing something like playing a game, then using mathematical equations to normalise that behaviour and other mathematical equations to control for environmental "abnormalities" is an effective and appropriate way to predict all human behaviour across all cultures and all social groups?

GET REAL! Psychology is studied by Arts students, for god's sake!

The human mind is as complex as the universe that surrounds us, and we need a similarly complex theory to understand it. We need theories as complex as those from Hawkins and Einstein to truly understand the mind, let alone begin to predict human behaviour and the impact one thing has on it.

After all, the "Einstein" of Psychology is Freud - whose contribution to science is that we all want to kill our dads, f*ck our mums, and if we're scared of spiders it means we're scared of vaginas... what does that tell you about Psychology?

But psychologist Dr. Douglas Gentile, who studies videogames as an assistant professor at Iowa State University and as Director of Research for the National Institute on Media and the Family, says newspaper reporters are too worried about presenting both sides of a debate that he says the "videogames cause violence" side has conclusively won.

"We haven't trained reporters very well how to tell quality science from junk science," Gentile says. "Where this matters is in the 'get both sides of every story' rule that reporters do seem to follow pretty darn well. ... The joy of science is that at a certain point there aren't two sides. The world isn't both flat and round. We now know the right answer."

Whoa, wait... What?

While his point about presenting both sides of an argument that has been decided is valid, I couldn't think of a worse example than this. The National Institute on Media and the Family isn't a scientific research institution, it's a lobbyist group with a friendly name. They have a distinct agenda that presumes videogames cause violent behaviour. While Mr. Gentile may consider the argument no-contest, there are hundreds of other researchers with thoroughly-researched papers that would disagree. This is exactly why the media needs to provide both sides: because the sides often believe that they are right and that there is no controversy.

There are much better examples. Intelligent design advocates were saying at one point that man's coexistance with the dinosaurs was scientifically controversial. In reality, their man-and-dinosaur theory was only being supported by themselves -- while scientists were arguing how much can be explained by evolution and where it all started, there has been clear evidence for decades that the two didn't exist at the same time and there were no mainstream theories that considered it a possibility. A theory being supported by one person, or a small group of people, does not make it controversial -- you need a significant portion of a population to be in argument to make something truly controversial.

Where the media really falls down with respect to science is their understanding of experiment vs. proof. All too often, the news reports on a new paper that "proves" a given claim. Often these experiments involve much fumbling in the dark, stumbling upon new theories, and while these are worthwhile, they are far from proofs. Even experiments specifically designed to "prove" a given theory can never truly do so -- they can only verify or disprove, and even then, there can be flaws in the methods used that invalidate the conclusions made. A theory isn't proved until it has been tested numerous times in various ways and the research has been reviewed thoroughly, to the point where the vast majority of the community can agree on it. For example, Pythagoras' Theorem, while never absolutely proven, has been accepted as true due to centuries of unfailing use.

Psychology is a particularly slippery field for this. The sources of error are numerous, the variables are nearly impossible to control, and the experiments are usually considerably different from the processes they are attempting to model. While not impossible, it is extremely difficult to "prove" anything using these sorts of experiments -- it takes much more rigor to verify these sorts of theories than it does in more physical sciences like physics and chemistry. Yet, a single paper that involves a couple of experiments on a small test group, resulting in a narrow margin of effect, is accepted as complete and total proof by the media. Whether it's videogames causing violence or brocolli curing cancer, it takes much more than one paper to prove anything.

The results of poor scientific reporting can be devastating. Just look at the case in South Africa, where, on the word of disputed research, people are relying on multivitamins instead of anti-AIDS drugs, resulting in thousands of deaths. Similarly poor proofs have led to dozens of dangerous diets in North America. Eat this, don't eat that, because one (possibly unreliable) source said it's a good idea. This sort of reasoning is dangerous and reporting it as fact is irresponsible.

FunkyJ:
I think the main problem is the press goes to psychologists for these surveys, which are as about as scientific as looking up and seeing a star, and assuming they're all little twinkling lights that are only visible at night.

GET REAL! Psychology is studied by Arts students, for god's sake!

After all, the "Einstein" of Psychology is Freud - whose contribution to science is that we all want to kill our dads, f*ck our mums, and if we're scared of spiders it means we're scared of vaginas... what does that tell you about Psychology?

Your understanding of the field of Psychology is a bit outdated, friend. Freud's theories, particularly the ones you mentioned, have been refuted and are not believed by modern Research psychologists. Clinical Therapists do things that have little to no basis in science, but that's a different issue.

ReverseEngineered:
Where the media really falls down with respect to science is their understanding of experiment vs. proof.

A theory isn't proved until it has been tested numerous times in various ways and the research has been reviewed thoroughly, to the point where the vast majority of the community can agree on it.

While not impossible, it is extremely difficult to "prove" anything using these sorts of experiments

ReverseEngineered has the right idea, psychological studies strip away a great many complexities in an attempt to reasonably control an experiment. In practice, none of them are capable of proving a claim about human nature. At absolute best, a psychological "truth" is along the lines of "X is usually the case for the majority of humans". For example: "Humans have two hands, and five fingers on each hand". If you read virtually any peer-reviewed, published, scientific article you won't find any sentences saying "we have proven that doing X causes Y". Not even in physics or chemistry. Well, maybe mathematics.

My point is this: one might, for example, be able to provide evidence for the claim that "video games increase violent behaviors", but there are always a boatload of caveats, because "video games" and "violent behaviors" are huge categories. What a psychologist can say at the end of a study is something like this (fictitious):
"In our Sample(1), 15 year old boys(2) filled out a survey that contained a series of difficult social situations(3). Half of them played Manhunt(4) for 8 hours before taking the survey, the other half did not. The responses to the social situations for those who played Manhunt were, on average(5), more violent than those who did not play Manhunt."

1) You can never sample everyone, a sample may be biased (see 5)
2) This may or may not hold true for 10 year old boys, or 20 year old boys, or 15 year old girls, we don't know.
3) These may be modeled after real situations, but they're always stripped down and simplified.
4) So we know Something about this one game. What about other games? We don't know.
5) This is also very important. Statistically, all "more" or "less" or "different" means is that it is unlikely to have happened by chance. Usually Psychology uses a 95% confidence interval, meaning that even if you did everything else perfectly, you'll get the wrong answer 5% of the time.

The way that scientists come to regard something as "proven" or "true" is if, over time, a number of studies by different people find similar results. Personally, I don't believe video games cause violence. Do violent kids seek out violent video games because they find them enjoyable, and provide the results people like Douglas Gentile want to hear? Probably.

I really liked this article, mostly because its importance to the video gaming world is mostly tangential. Anything can be affected in any way by the way the media portrays scientific researches. True scientists can never say something has been proved (there was a great line about how a real scientist does a lot of work on a hypothesis, and when he goes to test it it turns out to be wrong, and so he just discards the theory without a thought; can't remember much about it, though.) but journalists have to chew and dumb these things down for the masses, and the masses don't believe anything that isn't definitive and completely proven (so they wouldn't believe anything any science other than mathemathics have discovered, really).

There was a line in the article in which a news article used the word 'adventure' when there was no relevance to it in the study; obviously, the article's author just thought it was a good enough substitute for the actual subject, (or actually a good enough counterpart for 'violence'), and was more focused on making an article that was good to read than one which was scientifically undisputable. After all, if you write an article having scientifical rigour in mind, it'll be just a carbon copy of the study itself.

Frizzle:
Great article. After reading that, and the comments posted thus far, I can't help but wonder: What if there was a news agency, or company, whose sole role was to find the faults of the other reporting companies? Every time someone like.. oh say FOX News reported on a story, this other company would take the story, and disect it to find the faults, and fill in the information people were missing. I'd think it would come out like The Daily Show, but with less comedy, and being a little more in depth.

I would watch/read something like that. I can wait a day or to for my news as long as it's the right news.

Impossible. There can't be unbiased conversations, let alone unbiased news agencies!

chrislavigne:

Mimsofthedawg:
Ironically Escapist is just as guilty as all of them. Does anyone else suspect the Escapist of copying and pasting stuff to this article? I'd love to see some of their sources!

I understand where your coming from, but I think you may be overgeneralizing a bit. There are many layers of decision-making in the media from publishers and owners to editors and producers to the actual reporters and journalists. To suggest every single one of them chose their profession simply to promote a personal agenda is a bit out of line. Remember not to confuse professional journalists with talk-show hosts and editorial writers, which are a completely different breed even though they may appear on news channels and in newspapers.

Also, my sources for this article were interviews with the people involved, so there was absolutely no copying and pasting other than what was quoted and attributed to a source.

I know there's a big difference between talk show hosts and editorial writers compared to simple journalists. What I meant was that every piece of journalism is inherently biased simply because of the perspectives and material the journalist (and anyone else in the process of making an article) choose to use. for example, you saying, "Newspaper coverage of psychological studies on the effects of violent videogames has become the primary ammunition in a widespread cultural conflict." is a biased statement because from your point of view, there's something (implicitly) amiss, and you must "expose" these limitations. I am not saying you're right or wrong, I'm just saying it's inherently biased, whether it's UNINTENTIONAL or INTENTIONAL.

Regardless, the real point wasn't so much that all news is biased, but that no one particular news source is safe from the confines of opinionated material - not even the Escapist - and therefore people shouldn't simply take the news as it's given to them.

In a weird way, we actually agree... I suppose I was sort of just taking your thought to a different place.

At some point, you may realise that you shouldn't watch the news or read the papers, unless for real emergency broadcasting like a war broke out. You'll find yourself feeling MUCH happier.

About newspapers:

"I think they're kind of giving people, their audience, what the audience wants," says psychologist Dr. Christopher Ferguson.

Oh really, ya think?! (Massive sarcasm)

The infotainment industry, with its busines models based not on subscription but who catches the eye of the reader that particular day, is all about giving the audience what it wants. You don't survive as a per-day selling newspaper if you were to suddenly tell the audience "You're WRONG, you uninformed ignoramus!". You do not ever see a newspaper like that challenging the reader and trying to change their perspective of life. Never...

/S

The best example of uninformed sensationalism was when i last week picked up a copy of a free newspaper (which obviously lives off of selling ad-space in the paper). The front page read: "Vestas fires 1300 employees in Denmark" (Vestas is the worlds largest producer of windmills, based in Denmark). The article went on, saying that the economic crisis were to blame, and basically that Vestas was a doomed company.

When I later picked up a copy of an (in Denmark) acclaimed and respected financial newspaper, I happened on an article concerned with the exact same firing of 1300 employees. However, this newspaper had actually taken time to research the matter, and as it were, Vestas had achieved a quite respectable economic growth over the last year, and the reason it fired 1300 employess in Denmark was that it was moving production to places were the windmills were actually getting bought (seeing that windmills are rather cumbersome to transport over any distance, it makes sense to hire 1300 employees for your factory in China/USA, if they're the ones buying your mills).

Bottom line is, that the former, sensationalistic article was not only completely and utterly WRONG, what's even worse is, that it is actually making people who read it DUMBER than they we're by (unintentionally perhaps) misleading them, because the journalist didn't really have to time to research the matter. Despicable...

Fantastic article (because it gives me what I want... damn).

I write press and comms for a living, and seeing my press releases reproduced word for word in not one but two free local newspapers and their websites is dispiriting to say the least.

The best/worst part is when they DO use our PR as the basis of an "original" story, rather than just copy-pasting and putting their byline on it, it's literally always to serve their editorial line - I mean, the two papers I mentioned above have clearly differentiated editorial positions so what I regularly see are two stories both reworded from my copy (i.e. with no other info than what they got from us) with a totally different angle, and totally different conclusion, reading as totally different news.

I get the reasons why, etc., it's my profession - but it hasn't always been like this. I think the news industry has become batshit crazy.

Clemenstation:
Fox News: "Mass Effect is an alien rape simulator! What? Hells no we haven't played it."

That was the such a bad report.

Striker1246:

Clemenstation:
Fox News: "Mass Effect is an alien rape simulator! What? Hells no we haven't played it."

That was the such a bad report.

Embarrassing, even for Fox. The townhall.com column they based their outrage on was even worse, but at least that guy got fired.

People love to blame video games for the things that go wrong with today's youth. Back in the 60's and 70's it was that new fangled rock and roll music and drugs, now it's Halo and WoW.

The sad fact is, we, as a society, don't seem to want to fess up for our own dumb mistakes in life. Parents will try and blame gaming for a whole host of terrible occurrences, because they can't face the fact that it may be their fault their kid is an anti-social sociopath.

 

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