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Editorial

Reading with a grain of salt

Occasionally when I tell someone I work for a newspaper, I get an interesting (if not exactly surprising) reaction: a furrowed forehead, a wrinkled nose, squinted eyes. It’s the expression that says, people still care about newspapers? or, I get everything I need from blogs.

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By Dessa Bayrock (The Cascade) – Email

Print Edition: October 23, 2013

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Occasionally when I tell someone I work for a newspaper, I get an interesting (if not exactly surprising) reaction: a furrowed forehead, a wrinkled nose, squinted eyes. It’s the expression that says, people still care about newspapers? or, I get everything I need from blogs.

It’s the expression that says, I thought print was dead.

You’re thinking it. I’m thinking it. National and local papers have slowly thinned out, transforming into less weighty versions of themselves.

But for now, we’re muddling through the transition period from one state to another. Some are dealing with it better than others. It’s the riddle of the decade: how can print media evolve, and evolve effectively?

The most common—and successful—response is to spread out into new mediums, allowing the internet to infect the way print media runs, changing the pace from day-to-day into minute-by-minute.

Ironically, this means coverage is both better and worse than ever.

The Cascade is pretty lucky in this regard: as a primarily student-subsidized publication, we’re guaranteed the funding we need to print an issue every week. We face the same rising costs (and lowered self-esteem) as the rest of the industry, but our life as a publication doesn’t depend on advertising.

As a result, we have the opportunity to be idealistic in what we publish and how. If we can’t get a quote or a key piece of information, we don’t have to run it. If an article topic is fluffy or trivial or discussed to death, we don’t have to run it. Perhaps most importantly, if we can’t verify truth behind rumour, we don’t have to run it.

Other publications don’t have the time to make such decisions.

Take, for example, a story that made headlines last week. You might have seen it make the rounds on Facebook or Reddit in one form or another. The story? That Oreos may be as addictive as cocaine.

It’s a catchy headline, no matter where it is. The Globe and Mail: “Oreos more addictive than cocaine, study finds.” The Huffington Post: “Oreos More Addictive Than Cocaine? Study Shows Cookies Might Produce More Pleasure Than Coke In Rats.” Time magazine: “Oreos May Be As Addictive As Cocaine.”

These are reputable publications, but in the rush to get a hot story out into the world, they missed the facts: the research behind the study was done by students at Connecticut College. It wasn’t published. It wasn’t peer-reviewed. The gist of it was that rats prefer Oreos over rice crackers—no surprise there—and they also prefer a shot of cocaine or morphine to a shot of saline – again, a no-brainer.

That’s it. That’s the entire correlation between an oreos/cocaine comparison.

The original story was first published on the Connecticut College website as a look-at-the-cool-research-we-do press release, something that’s common in post-secondary marketing departments; UFV runs similar stories on research done here on a regular basis. They’re interesting. Sometimes they’re even informative. Their main purpose is to make the college look good to potential students and potential donors.

But they are not news articles.

This is the downside of the digital era: newspapers, magazines, and blogs alike are pressured to run stories as quickly as they hear about them.

While this keeps the content relevant and up-to-the-minute, it also results in error. Here, it made major publications eat their own words like so many Oreos; several that ran the initial story have now run secondary stories that imply they never misinterpreted the information to begin with.

The problem lies in placing too much trust in first reports, or, in some case, rumours. “Oreos are addictive” isn’t a headline likely to harm anyone, and other misinterpretations are downright funny – such as satirical stories from CBC’s This is That or The Onion taken as fact.

In other cases, however, overeager reports can be damaging or even dangerous: take the coverage of the Sandy Hook school shooting last year, in which media incorrectly reported Ryan Lanza as an initial suspect.

It’s an extreme example, but it’s also an important lesson.

The Cascade doesn’t suffer the same level of pressure to get the story out as soon as possible. At the end of the day, we can err on the side of caution, and follow the simplest of guidelines: Is it true? Is it fair? Is it necessary?

But in the larger realm of journalism, information is power. If a competitor has it, the pressure is on to match or beat it before the audience migrates elsewhere.

In a transition where the fleeting eyes of readers are the most tangible way to keep papers in the black, keep that in mind – and take in everything you read (and see, and watch) with a grain of salt.

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