A Load of Bright
An atheist's views on religion and the supernatural

The Adoring Younger Brother


The main pillars of academic study, while differing widely in the knowledge they seek, all share a number of things in common. Science, history, philosophy and mathematics, across the spectrum, are all built on similar foundations. First and foremost, they are a quest for the truth. They all aspire to ask the right questions and to seek the correct answers, whatever they may be. They all require tireless hard work, hours of study and meticulous, painstaking graft for only the smallest steps of progress. Saintly patience and unimpeachable integrity over the course of an entire individual’s career are required, perhaps only to make the smallest advance on behalf of their discipline, and perhaps without ever gaining recognition for their work. They all demand a constant vigilance against ulterior motives and political influences that could dilute, or even poison their efforts. They are all disconnected from trade and industry, and therefore rely on government grants and private donations in order to fund their projects. Budget and time constraints are usually severe, and so, for the majority, salaries and lifestyles are modest. Finally, but by no means less significantly, they all reward a passionate, intellectual love of discovery, learning and knowledge.

This is not to say that all scientists, historians, philosophers and mathematicians live up this ideal, it is simply to say that these are the ideals held within the academic studies. You can have bad scientists, just like you can have bad plumbers. Perfection itself is an ideal that can only ever be striven for and never reached, but it is the effort to strive as if it could be reached that is the catalyst for progress.

Journalism is not an academic discipline in itself. It should, however, uphold all the same principles and values of an academic discipline. Journalism should be like a smaller model of an academic discipline, upholding all the same goals and ideals but on a smaller scale, appropriate to the task in hand. Journalism should be like an adoring younger brother, forever looking up to and idolising its hero, academia. It should aspire to mimic the integrity, and emulate the quest for the truth that the academic studies entail.

Sadly, it does not take a detailed examination of the popular media to see that this is far from what we have. I have already said we can have good and bad scientists, and the same applies to journalists. There are a few who really do credit to the pillars of any academic discipline in their approach to their work, but they are few and far between.

The popular media is a monster, composed almost entirely of greed, opportunism, sensationalism, manipulation and ego. The tabloid newspapers in particular have no interests beyond their own. They pander to their readers prejudices, no matter what they are. They play on their emotions, using scare tactics or deliberately creating false perspective. They talk constantly about celebrities and their private lives as if they are a major concern of ours. They are quite happy to print even the most dubious of rumours, gained from the most suspicious sources, and create every illusion of fact when presenting them. They either assert their distorted morals in order to manipulate politics to their own ends, or speak in a voice so weakly neutral on every moral issue, that they refuse to condemn absurdity, tragedy and atrocity when it stares them in the face. They have no interest in the truth, only their own projection of it. They go through the motions of regret and apology when they are sued, and convicted of libel, while sniggering behind closed doors at the relative pittance they are forced to pay out, and laughing all the way to the bank with the obscene profits their extra sales have garnered from deceit.

The majority of the public in Western cultures either believe in, or are extremely open minded to paranormal phenomena. And so, the popular media is rife with pro-paranormal propaganda. From daily horoscopes to wildly speculative, sensational reporting of supernatural stories, and promotion of TV programs about ghost hunting and mediums. They never stress the importance of scepticism when analysing paranormal claims.

And yet, you can be sure that if a shift towards scepticism were to make itself apparent within society, the media would seamlessly switch to a pro-scepticism stance as if it had always been that way.

The popular media is one of the most powerful cultural forces in the world, almost equal to the governments of the richest countries and the UN. It has money to burn, and an unprecedented amount of influence on public opinion. With the threat that religious faith and other non-rational thought systems pose to the well being of society today, we have never needed the media on our side more than now. We need it to change its ways, to grow from being the selfish, belligerent, delinquent that it is, to the adoring younger brother of academia.

As long as there is money to be made though, I fear that nothing will change. So, as far as influencing society and making people aware of the need for scepticism and the flaws in religious faith, who can make a difference? We can! The work of the likes of Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris leads the way at the front line, but we can make a difference too. The internet is a wonderful invention, and speech is never freer than it is here. Blogs like this one can make a difference – if they won’t say what needs to be said in the media, then we’ll say it here. There is also continued growth in the number of people reading news online. Leave comments, and email the reporters. Crticise them when they are wrong, and praise them when they are right, for the good ones need to know we appreciate their efforts. We are in a minority, but if we all shout the same lines at the same time, our voice will be loud enough to be heard. No doubt, there’s a lot of hard work ahead, and we’ll have to be patient and persistent. But if we look up to and uphold the ideals of our academic heroes, and all pull together, we really can make a difference.

7 Responses to “The Adoring Younger Brother”

  1. “Journalism is not an academic discipline in itself.”

    I have two sisters who would disagree with you. One graduated from the Medill School of Journalism, and the other graduated with honors in journalism from USC.

    “The popular media is a monster, composed almost entirely of greed, opportunism, sensationalism, manipulation and ego.”

    You are attacking the wrong enemy. Tabloids give people what they want. They are doing exactly what they are designed to do.

    “The majority of the public in Western cultures either believe in, or are extremely open minded to paranormal phenomena. And so, the popular media is rife with pro-paranormal propaganda.”

    Yes, it’s true. But that’s because most people who haven’t really studied the issue (including journalists) are casual relativists. They really hesitate to come down on the side of any absolute truths. They are too afraid to offend. Journalists look for both sides to any story, even where there really aren’t two sides. Controversy sells.

    We can and should do everything you are saying. But don’t kid yourself that the problem is some vague “they” in the media. It’s a larger social and educational problem–a general intellectual laziness, an emphasis on entertainment, and a desire for quick answers. As has been often said, “we have met the enemy and the enemy is us.”

  2. Blacksun,

    I realise that journalism can be studied and qualifications gained, but that doesn’t make it an academic subject. Your sisters learned how to be journalists, and I would expect learned a lot about journalism, its history and its role in society. I could go on a course to be a chef, including classroom theory about the importance of hygeine, food in different countries and cultures and the history of the great chefs. It still wouldn’t be an academic discipline in its own right. I’m not for one second belittling qualifications in journalism, cooking or anything else, I just don’t think that everything qualifies as an academic discipline.

    I agree that tabloids give people what they want. I’m saying I don’t think they should, they should have the intelletcual courage and integrity to give people the truth. What do you mean, “designed to do”? Designed by whom? They have the freedom and power to choose their own function, they can change it if they wanted to.

    I agree, again, about journalists being uninformed and casual relativists, and that they are too afraid to offend. I think they lack intellectual backbone to call a spade a spade. They should share Richard Dawkins’, he has more than enough to go around.

    I agree with you also about it being a “larger social and educational problem”. The problem is that, because of the influence the media wields, we have a vicious circle. As long as the media doesn’t change, society won’t change, so the media won’t change, etc. So someone has to break the loop, and I think that’s us, or at least partly us (bloggers, atheists, free thinkers etc).

  3. “Designed by whom? They have the freedom and power to choose their own function, they can change it if they wanted to.”

    Well, they are money-making businesses, not public service organizations. PBS, NPR, and BBC seem to hold a higher standard than the ever-more-tabloid-like mainstream press.

    Some of this is due to news divisions needing to be profitable. (In the golden days of American media, news was seen as a more of a public service, and the entertainment networks subsidized money-losing news divisions.)

    I do think bloggers are partly the answer. I wish we could gain a little more credibility for being reliable sources of factual information. It would be nice to have some contextual fact-checking available (kind of what I imagine will arise from a combination of google and Wikipedia in the next 5 years). That way, no news organization will have any advantage through being able to spin facts the way they want, a la Fox (Faux) News. A few years down the road, the context-engines will be flashing red all over their asses.

  4. Journalism may not be a scientific discipline, but it is most assuredly an academic one. In its purest form, journalism requires the same kind of rigor that the sciences do: go out and collect data and write it up accurately. As an added challenge, journalists must strive to be concise, creative, captivating, and new–on a daily basis.

    The fact that there are many hacks and panderers who use the label “journalist” to describe themselves doesn’t change the idea to which the label should be properly attached.

    It would not be reasonable to judge “science” by the work of creationists, even though they masquerade as biogeneticists, geologists, paleontologists, etc. Nor would it be accurate to judge the study of “history” by the accuracy of pop movies like “The 300” or “Gone With the Wind.” Do try to avoid generalizations in the future, and don’t judge the venerable art of journalism only by what you read in the tabloids or see on the I’m-witless TV newscasts.

    You might find it revealing to look up the print journalistic work of Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, Stephen Crane, Rebecca West, and John Hersey, to name just a very few. Darwin, too, was a journalist in the true meaning of that word, and quite a good one. As far as the possibilities of broadcast journalism go, you could do no better than to seek out recordings and videos showing the work of Edward R. Murrow, for starters.

  5. Blacksun,

    I take your point about news agencies not being public services. I suppose what I mean when I say “they should”, is “for the benefit of society in the long run”.

  6. Exterminater,

    Journalism may not be a scientific discipline, but it is most assuredly an academic one. In its purest form, journalism requires the same kind of rigor that the sciences do: go out and collect data and write it up accurately. As an added challenge, journalists must strive to be concise, creative, captivating, and new–on a daily basis.

    I this just summarises what I said. You’re right that journalism needs to be more immediately interesting and prolific, but apart from that it is like an academic discipline on a smaller scale. I still think that if you call it an academic discipline in itself, then almost anything can be and the concept of the term is diluted.

    The fact that there are many hacks and panderers who use the label “journalist” to describe themselves doesn’t change the idea to which the label should be properly attached.

    It would not be reasonable to judge “science” by the work of creationists, even though they masquerade as biogeneticists, geologists, paleontologists, etc. Nor would it be accurate to judge the study of “history” by the accuracy of pop movies like “The 300″ or “Gone With the Wind.” Do try to avoid generalizations in the future, and don’t judge the venerable art of journalism only by what you read in the tabloids or see on the I’m-witless TV newscasts.

    True, but I think there’s an important difference. Creationists, aren’t “bad scientists”, they are “pseudo-scientists”, or simply “not scientists”. But I don’t know if it’s appropriate to name anything “pseudo-jounalism”. I think there’s just good and bad journalism.

    I am starting to think I over-generalised. I did attempt a disclaimer by acknowldeging the work of good journalists, but perhaps that was insufficient.

    You might find it revealing to look up the print journalistic work of Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, Stephen Crane, Rebecca West, and John Hersey, to name just a very few. Darwin, too, was a journalist in the true meaning of that word, and quite a good one. As far as the possibilities of broadcast journalism go, you could do no better than to seek out recordings and videos showing the work of Edward R. Murrow, for starters.

    Fair point about Dickens, Twain etc, but I really had the modern era of journalism in mind (say, start of the 90’s to present day). An oversight on my part not to say that, I hold my hands up. That’s not to say I think journalism was perfect in the past, but I think there has been a decline. I don’t know Murrow, I’ll check him out.

    I did focus most of my frustration on the tabloids because I think they are the worst offenders, but I think otherforms are guilty too. Having said that, from the comments, so far, I’ll take on board your advice about generalisations in future.

  7. “I suppose what I mean when I say “they should”, is “for the benefit of society in the long run.”

    I agree, and that’s where we start the next discussion over utilitarianism vs. individualism. It’s a really thorny issue. But I come down on the side of strong individualism being better for society in the long run. But then we have to put up with the kind of crap you are talking about. The alternative is draconian regulation “for the greater good.”

    Which brings us back to the desperate need for education and enlightenment. But people have to want it. The fact that they often aren’t willing to work for it was kind of your point in the first place.🙂


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