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.