Last week, the Huffington Post breathlessly reported that McDonald’s could double its workers wages, thus giving them a “living wage,” by raising the price of a Big Mac by a mere 68 cents. This obviously had appeal to the HuffPo’s liberal sensibilities, more proof of how a big corporation was needlessly lining its pockets while exploiting the lowest rungs of the workforce. The “proof” was in a study that had been represented as a being run by a “University of Kansas researcher.” The study results looked so good that the fine progressives at the site just knew it had to be right—after all, it perfectly confirmed their own beliefs. This, I’m sure you have guessed by now, is confirmation bias in its purest form.
The Huffington post writer and editors didn’t check the source, and didn’t check the study. And as some non-biased, at least in the same direction, reviewers quickly found out when they did, neither held up. The “researcher” was an undergraduate (Arnobio Morelix, whose wonderful name alone would have made me want to check him out) , and the “study” might have been a term paper. The paper’s assumptions, conclusions and math didn’t hold up, as is fairly common for undergraduate papers. The Huffington Post had to retract its story, five days later.
Alas, too late!
Confirmation bias is deeply imbedded in human nature, and when an entire profession no longer follows its own ethics rules designed to minimize the effect (Literally Rule #1 of the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics—“Code of whaaa?”: “Journalists should: Test the accuracy of information from all sources and exercise care to avoid inadvertent error.”), it takes over the field….and where confirmation bias isn’t to blame, laziness and incompetence fill the vacuum.
HuffPo’s untested “study” by a KU undergraduate was repeated as reliable research by Think Progress, Forbes, The New York Times, The Washington Post, MSNBC, Fox News radio (which argued with it, but didn’t question or check its bona fides), The Houston Chronicle, the Business Insider, Gawker, The Franchise Herald, KIRO radio in Seattle, Newser, The Week, The Spokane Spokesman-Review, PJ Media, Truthdig, the Albany Times-Union, LiveLeak, The Daily Meal, AMNewYork, Moyers & Company’s blog, ABC News, The Examiner, NewsMax, MSN, Truthdig, various food industry sources, and others.
The bogus story, in fact, was treated like a game of “telephone,” with the story becoming more distorted the farther it got from its source. By the time it got to MLive.com, for example, the lead was this:
“Doubling the salary and benefits of every McDonald’s employee would increase the cost of a Big Mac by just 68 cents according to comprehensive research conducted by the University of Kansas.”
Now it’s not just “a researcher,’ but the whole university, and the study is “comprehensive.” As Ryan Chittum notes in his dismemberment of the study and the Huffington Post’s reporting of it, this is journalism malpractice…but then, the whole episode is. For after the truth about the study was known, and the Huffington Post finally corrected its story, many of the news media sources never bothered to correct their erroneous versions of it, and some kept repeating the original tale about the “University of Kansas researcher’s study.”
How do the citizens of a democracy make intelligent choices about their nation’s policies, laws, government and leaders when they can’t trust the news media to check facts, be objective and avoid misleading them with misrepresentations, distortions and lies?
Pointer: James Taranto
Graphic: Flaming Dumbass Files
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