Friday, July 17, 2009


There are some things that journalism is not equipped to handle well. Religion, for instance, since most things don't change very quickly and understanding those that do requires considerable background knowledge. So we have the result we get: religious reports whose details can never, ever be trusted and attempts to sensationalize things that are hardly surprising. Scientific discovery is another: science changes too quickly for journalists to keep up, and the understanding the change requires even more background knowledge. So we have the result we get: reports on apparent scientific discoveries whose details can never be trusted and that never really get followed up properly, and the dropping of significant qualifications in the attempt to make it sound interesting or to make it fit into a few words.

But there are also other things that journalism is not equipped to handle well, due to other reasons besides pace of change and necessary background, and these have to do with the fact that journalism rarely, very, very rarely, ever deals in facts. Its standard MO is not dealing in facts but in testimonies to facts. And testimonies are perilous territories. Thus you get useless news items like this. You could, in principle, have a decent account of people who think the moon landing was a hoax; it would require actual discussion of facts, not a series of paragraphs of the "These people say this, those people say that" sort. It would require showing some discrimination and critical thinking skills, noting the problems with the sort of conspiracy thinking underlying the claims of a hoax, and would require reasonable assessment of the actual evidence, not just letting hoaxers give their viewpoint about it. I know that journalists are capable of unreasonable assessments of evidence; I've seen it. So is it too much to ask for reasonable ones?

But more than that, although in principle you could have a decent article about hoax theories of the moon landing, do I really need one in order to learn more about the NASA LRO? Are you not just wasting my time by talking about people who believe the landing is a hoax, and then spending exactly six sentences in three short paragraphs on the LRO, which is the only actually newsworthy point in the whole article? I already know there are people who think the landing was a hoax. I'm already bored, just writing that sentence. If you're going to claim to give the news, let's get to the news.

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