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The Real Ghost Story

by Steven Novella, Oct 27 2008

Halloween is upon us, which means that every local news outlet has to come up with their fluff stories on ghosts, hauntings, electronic voice phenomena or something equally seasonal. If your name is attached to a skeptical society this also means that you are likely gong to be contacted by a clueless reporter looking for some token skepticism for “balance”.

Halloween is a great deal of fun, and I’m a big fan of fantasy horror. And I have no problem with news outlets covering seasonal topics. I also understand that not all news reporting is goin to be dead serious – outlets need their superficial fun pieces too.

But I do have a problem with the tendency to cover fringe science as “fluff” reporting. There is already a problem in mainstream journalism with overall quality. Like any profession, there are good and bad reporters, with a heap of mediocrity in the middle. Recently, probably due primarily to declining readership and therefore resources, the overall quality of journalism seems to have dipped.

But even these mediocre standards are tossed aside when a reporter thinks he is writing a fluff (charitably called a “human interest”) piece. They now feel no need to do any actual investigation, to understand the topic, or to discover what the “real” story is. Rather, the reporter is now in the business of entertainment. Their job is to showcase someone with weird beliefs, and perhaps accentuate that weirdness by having a scientist or skeptic throw out a negative quote. This is a problem when the topic concerns science.

Ghost stories intersect science because there are many gullible ghost-hunting groups who claim to be doing science but are actually just playing at pretend science. For those of us trying to teach the public a better appreciation for the methods of science, such groups can be counter-productive as they distort the public image of what science is.

Therefore, when Halloween fluff ghost stories focus on “scientific” investigations of ghostly phenomena, they are contributing to the scientific illiteracy of the public. Token skepticism actually makes it worse, as it gives the impression that the topic is a real or serious scientific question – otherwise why would some skeptical scientist bother even having an opinion on the topic.

There are a few occasional bright spots. I learned over the years to be very discriminating before giving interviews to reporters. I invest a few minutes discussing with the reporter what their angle is with the story, who else they are interviewing, and if they have written on the topic before.  Experienced reporters know to make it seem as if they are on your side, no matter what they intend to ultimately write, but you can still get a sense of what kind of piece they are looking to write.

Here is the best halloween article for which I was interviewed. The reporter, Jim Shelton, understood skepticism and that was the focus of his piece, not the believers. He knew that the real ghost story is why people believe in ghosts despite an utter lack of evidence or plausibility. Skepticism is more about the psychology of belief than about the beliefs themselves.

Happy Halloween, everyone.

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16 Responses to “The Real Ghost Story”

  1. Yoo says:

    Does this mean that my fluff piece about a haunted web site, occupied by someone who had been plagued with too many fluff ghost stories, is going to be rejected?

  2. With the proliferation of shows like “Ghost Hunters” and other such non-sense… Well, suffice it to say that I always feel as if my head is about to explode when I try to differentiate between good fun, and real science to the ignorant rubes that inhabit my little corner of the world. ;)

    I need to read Michael Shermer’s book that you all have linked on the right there, just to see why people do believe this tripe. Maybe it is as Carl Sagan said in his book linked on the right: it’s so pervasive and easy that people just seem to fall for it…

  3. Anthony Alonzo says:

    The problem with the “fluff” is the entertainment value. They keep the skeptics down to a ten second sound bite to keep them from killing the entertainment value of the piece.

    Unless skeptical programming is entertaining, it wont see air time. Shows like Bill Nye the Science Guy, Mythbusters and Cosmos have real entertainment value. Often as not, the skeptic comes off as a nerdy boring fuddy duddy. That’s right, the technical term is fuddy duddy, one who makes really cool science seem not only boring, but also manages to kill the fun “fluff” for the ignorant masses.

    I’m not an entertainer, so I have nothing to contribute but my own observation as one of the ignorant. If it doesn’t grab me in some exciting way, I quickly become bored and switch channels. Not usually what a program manager at a TV station is shooting for.
    Maybe what we need is for skeptics trying to get on TV to go and learn how to become engaging, and dare I say it, entertaining?
    To bring the science to the people in a manner that doesn’t require you to have any real knowledge on the subject to understan, and be cool and fun at the same time? Just like the shows I mentioned.
    I’m sure this has been said many ways by many people over the years. Just my two cents.

  4. Dr. T says:

    “Recently, the overall quality of journalism seems to have dipped.”

    Yes, it went from low quality in the 1960s and 1970s, to very low quality in the 1980s and 1990s, to abysmally bad in the 2000s. A major contributor to the abysmally bad state is the increased quantity of televised news and the tremendous competition for viewers. The media, therefore, panders to Joe and Jane Averageviewer, which does not raise the quality of journalism. We can also thank educators who believe that all our youth should attend college, which means that students previously considered too dumb for college now attend in droves. Colleges responded by greedily grabbing the addition tuition payments and dumbing-down their courses to keep the majority from failing. You can now get a BA in journalism while having the writing abilities of a high school freshman. (In Memphis, where I live, the journalists write like seventh graders.)

  5. Charlie Noble says:

    “Recently, the overall quality of journalism seems to have dipped.”

    The reporting has surely dipped, but the thing that really bugs me is that the type of stories that the news channels cover. They seem to decided to cover the stories that just seem to have a stupid point. Like a simple accident that had happened. But what I am looking for in todays news is a science section that is longer that 45 seconds.

    Sure I read a lot of interesting stories on the web but I would love to see some of the really intreresting science stories on the evening news. If any body thinks the same thing you can talk to me a Cnoble5818 at yahoo.com.

    ~Noble

  6. I have some haunted belly button lint. I think it’s a candidate for fluff.

    Halloween is that time of year where kooky spooky tales of the paranormal take to the limelight. I figure it’s the only time of year paranormal groups can fight amongst themselves for that small window of media opportunity.

    I’ve been asked twice for my opinion this month. Nothing I have said can possibly be published so I flatly refuse to comment. I’d rather eat glass than give a positive tale about a scene which is riddled with childish conflict, fallacies and pseudo science.

    Ugh…the paranormal.

  7. Tom Hand says:

    Has the quality of journalism really dipped? I understand the point; but isn’t it simply that there’s far more “journalism” with the internet and cable news, so the same percentage of trash means a higher number of bad articles? I know there have been studies showing negative trends but do they compare through historical numbers and understanding of the time? It’s a complex topic, obviously; and certainly no reason to let up on journalists who produce garbage for ratings rather than facts for news.

  8. Devil's Advocate says:

    YES, the quality of journalism has dipped. It began with the excellent work of Woodward & Bernstein who outed Nixon & Watergate, making them media stars. This told the other 100,000 journalists that the pathway to fame and fortune lie in investigative journalism. This lead to the ‘journalist’ becoming another media star, another personality in the ‘news’, and excesses occurred – faked stories, faked witnesses, etc. Instead of reporting on the news, they came to see themselves as being the news. Watch any TV ‘news’ outlet cover a story today. They rarely interview anyone actually involved – that would require time and money expenditures. Instead they interview each other about how they feel about the story, or hire someone to act as their special authority in the story area, someone who also had nothing to do with it. Too many journalists do what woos and pseudoscientists do – they first pick their opinion or conclusion on a given issue, then ‘report’ only that data which supports it: biased data selection. Journalism too often ‘reports’ not the full facts, but those which justify their opinions. The Associated Press recently announced they would no longer require objectivity from their reporters, even on mundane stories, that every AP writer is now allowed to write his/her opinions into the story, all without labeling the work as ‘opinion’ or ‘editorial’.

  9. Cambias says:

    Dr. T, I must object — it’s not that “Joe and Jane Averageviewer” are idiots — it’s that the media professionals _assume_ Joe and Jane are idiots. Every few years some very smart, very sophisticated show or movie is a surprise success, but nobody ever seems to learn the lesson that the audiences _like_ material which engages their intelligence. Look at how popular _Mythbusters_ is, or the ongoing boom in really excellent nonfiction books, or the success of shows like _Lost_, which constantly teases the viewer with complex mysteries. “Joe and Jane” aren’t stupid, but too many stupid people in media use that as an excuse for creating mediocre material.

  10. Pete says:

    First have to say just listened to the latest Skeptics Guide and found out about the website. Looks like there goes all my free time. I’m pretty excited you teamed up with Brian Dunning, I love listening to that guy. Hope this site takes off!

  11. Sarah says:

    Yay! How excited am I that that good article you link to was published in the newspaper I work for? :)

    I am a devoted listener to the SGU and Skeptoid, and I try to bring skepticism to the newsroom as much as I can (they did an article about some guy’s crazy chemtrails meeting on one of my days off, though…) We got a press release from a local ghost society, wanting us to go on an investigation with them, and I said “Not unless I can call my skeptic guys too!” :)

  12. Sarah says:

    Also, unfortunately, my paper just switched over to a new web site carrier today at 5 p.m. and the archives are not fully implemented yet.

    Here is a link to the same article in Google’s cache:

    http://74.125.45.104/search?q=cache:7knqNM96G0sJ:www.registercitizen.com/site/news.cfm%3Fnewsid%3D15483270%26BRD%3D1652%26PAG%3D461%26dept_id%3D12530%26rfi%3D6+skeptical+society+novella+register+citizen&hl=en&ct=clnk&cd=1&gl=us

  13. rdriley says:

    As a trained journalist, I almost feel obligated to comment on the question “has the quality of journalism dipped?” Also, I just like to spread my opinion about things around the internet. Makes me feel smart.

    I think I’d have to give a qualified “yes.” I’m not sure the quality of reporting has changed substantively, but the level of writing surely has.

    On the subject of reporting, just consider how BAD journalism was in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. William Randolph Hearst pretty much set the standard for bad journalism.

    As I said in a comment on Dr. Novella’s own blog, the one thing that really negatively affects modern journalism is the all-encompassing drive for “balance.” That means no objective attempt at truth-telling. It means journalists give equal time to cranks, no matter how crazy their ideas are.

    I don’t believe the problem with “fluff” pieces as described in the post is anything even remotely new. It’s a phenomenon that’s existed for decades. It is also, sadly enough, the only area outside the sports pages where balance isn’t worshipped. A light, entertaining story on Jesus toast needs no opposing viewpoint, in the eyes of editors.

  14. Bill says:

    Our local newspaper’s online edition has the requisite front-page story on one of our local paranormal research groups (who devoutly do NOT want to be called ‘ghosthunters’)

    This group is led by a woman named Christy Necaise. Here’s one of her quotes in the article:

    “I’m not doing this to prove this is real,” Necaise added. “I already believe it is.”

    I’d like a double order of confirmation bias, please, waiter.

    Link to the full article. Registration is required, but you’re only required to give general demographic information. And if you want to mess with their marketing a bit, you can lie. :)

    http://www.azcentral.com/community/surprise/articles/2008/10/31/20081031gl-nwvparanormal1031.html

  15. Erick says:

    CNN.com ran a story on ghost hunters today without even the usual token level of science.

    http://www.cnn.com/2008/LIVING/10/31/boo/index.html

  16. Scotty B says:

    I did a search for “Novella” on the Register Citizen site and found the article Steve referred to:
    http://www.registercitizen.com/articles/2005/10/31/front%20page/15483270.txt