Rule #1: do no harm; rule #2: fear-mongering is harmful

This article originally appeared on scholar and researcher danah boyd’s blog and on Medium.

I believe in the enterprise of journalism, even when it lets me down in practice. The fourth estate is critically important for holding systems of power accountable. But what happens when journalists do harm?

On Sunday, a salacious article flew across numerous news channels. In print, it was given titles like “Teenagers can no longer tell the real world from the internet, study claims” (Daily Mail) and “Real world v online world: teens do not distinguish” (The Telegraph). This claim can’t even pass the basic sniff test, but it was picked up by news programs and reproduced on blogs.

The articles make reference to a “Digital Lives” study produced by Vodafone and Google, but there’s nothing in the articles themselves that even support the claims made by the headlines. No quotes from the authors, no explanation, no percentages (even though it’s supposedly a survey study). It’s not even remotely clear how the editors came up with that title because it’s 100% disconnected from the article itself.

So I decided to try to find the study. It’s not online. There’s a teaser page by the firm who appears to have run the study. Interestingly, they argue that the methodology was qualitative, not a survey. And it sounds like the study is about resilience and cyberbullying. Perhaps one of the conclusions is that teens don’t differentiate between bullying at school and cyberbullying? That would make sense.

Yesterday, I got a couple of pings about this study. Each time, I asked the journalist if they could find the study because I’d be happy to analyze it. Nada. No one had seen any evidence of the claim except for the salacious headline flying about. This morning, I went to do some TV for my book. Even though I had told the production team that this headline made no sense and there was no evidence to even support it, they continued to run with the story because the producer had decided that it was an important study. And yet, the best they could tell me is that they had reached out to the original journalist who said that he had interviewed the people who ran the study.

Why why why do journalists feel the need to spread these kinds of messages even once they know that there’s no evidence to support those claims? Is it the pressure of 24/7 news? Is it a Milgram-esque hierarchy where producers/editors push for messages and journalists/staffers conform even though they know better because they simply can’t afford to question their superiors given the state of journalism?

I’d get it if journalists really stood by their interpretations even though I disagreed with them. I can even stomach salacious headlines that are derived by the story. And as much as I hate fear-mongering in general, I can understand how it emerges from certain stories. But since when did the practice of journalism allow for uncritically making shit up? ::shaking head:: Where’s the fine line between poor journalism and fabrication?

As excited as I am to finally have my book out, it’s been painful to have to respond to some of the news coverage. I mean, it’s one thing to misunderstand cyberbullying but what reasonable person can possibly say with a straight face that today’s youth can no longer distinguish between the internet and everyday life!?!? Gaaaah. It starts to feel like science fiction.

danah boyd is a principal researcher at Microsoft Research, a research assistant professor in media, culture, and communication at New York University, a fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society and author of “It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens.”  Follow her on Twitter @zephoria.

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  • lunarcamelco

    “Each time, I asked the journalist if they could find the study because I’d be happy to analyze it. Nada. No one had seen any evidence of the claim except for the salacious headline flying about.” What basis is there for referring to this type of content as “journalism” or the people who produce it as “journalists”? “Content providers” would be far more accurate.