In 2015 I was on Gimlet Media’s Startup podcast as the “Atheist Bible Salesman”.
Startup was their biggest podcast by far at the time and so my story got a ton of internet and even mainstream press, including being discussed multiple times on Fox News.
The best part was seeing the difference between how the story was covered and talked about, versus what actually happened.
This wasn’t a complicated story that involved a big company or lots of people or different organizations. It didn’t involve anyone other than me, so I literally know all the facts.
If you’ve been talked about significantly online you know what I’m talking about. There’s an enormous gap between the truth and what’s covered.
This is so common we even have a name for it: the Gell-Mann Amnesia Effect.
Why does this happen?
Why don’t we read the New York Times the same way we read the tabloids? And why isn’t the New York Times better at finding truth?
I’m not saying this is a conspiracy. The NYT isn’t overtly lying or trying to hide important information.
The problem is that all the incentives are all wrong.
Truth takes time, and readers frankly aren’t interested in it. Humans are far more interested in:
- having their views confirmed (“My worldview is OK because these people think the same way”)
- feeling morally superior (“People who don’t think like this are bad”)
- being part of the tribe (“I read the same news as the people I admire”)
- feeling smart (“I read the news with the best brand”)
- having something to say in daily conversation (“I said something timely in my meeting with a client today”)1
- being entertained
Even worse: the business model of the vast majority of media is advertising, so their incentive isn’t even to tell you the truth in the first place, but to capture your attention.
They will get to truth in so much as it doesn’t cost them your attention or too much money to produce.
And they have to make another tradeoff still! Which is that if they don’t hit publish in time, a competitor might beat them and capture the valuable attention of the audience for the same story.
To be clear, this isn’t a new problem from the modern internet (i.e. Facebook and Google). The late Michael Crichton said this in 2002: (emphasis mine)
You open the newspaper to an article on some subject you know well… You read the article and see the journalist has absolutely no understanding of either the facts or the issues. Often, the article is so wrong it actually presents the story backward—reversing cause and effect. I call these the “wet streets cause rain” stories. Paper’s full of them.
The point was that journalists aren’t experts at what they cover. How could they be?
They’re not in the industry, don’t have the background or experience, and they’re never in the room or the building where the event(s) they’re covering actually happened.2
And then journalists have huge confirmation biases: the much-read NYT piece about Amazon had “over 100 sources” but that’s out of (in 2017) over 300,000 employees! And that doesn’t even include all the employees who have left.
If you couldn’t find 100 people who are pissed at any employer of that size I’d be amazed. Hell, make it 1,000.
Sources also have all of their own non-truth-seeking incentives for talking to a reporter:
- wanting press for their next thing
- hurting a competitor
- maintaining a good relationship with the journalist
- defaming a rising industry
- elevated status
- personal content marketing
I don’t know what to do about this. It’s not a new problem and will continue for the rest of our lives.
But remember that the Gell-Mann Amnesia Effect is real. When you laugh at how silly something you’re an expert in sounds in the paper, remember that most everything else should be treated with the same ridicule.
They often don’t have the technical expertise either. This isn’t a perfect example, but I’ve seen tech reporters covering the fastest growing businesses in the world saying they never took a class in economics.↩