Fake journalism

Most people assume that when they read a news account, they are reading a more or less faithful representation of reality. This illusion is quickly shattered when you happen to know the story behind the story.

Case in point. My colleague Daphne Bavelier, in some rather brilliant and groundbreaking research, has discovered that playing action games (computer games that involve rapid real-time response by the player) greatly improves the human brain’s ability to track multiple objects at once and to make rapid and accurate decisions in real time. Research by her and her colleagues has shown that in a very real sense, playing action games over time makes our brains work better (much as physical exercise makes our bodies work better).

It’s important to point out at this juncture, given what will come later, that we’re not talking about violent video games in particular. Some action games happen to have a violent narrative wrapped around them, but Bavelier’s research has shown that the narrative is irrelevant — driving games or games involving only abstract objects will benefit brain development just as much as an action game framed in a violent narrative (like shooting aliens or zombies).

Bavelier gave a talk on her research the other day at a little workshop on Games for Learning at New York University. In a funny moment during the Q&A, an audience member asked the following question: Since girls don’t like violent games as much as boys, how can we get girls to play them? Bavelier, who had already made it very clear that actions games are not the same as violent games, responded with the sardonic (and somewhat exasperated) suggestion that maybe a game could “use, for example, a princess which has a magic wand and whenever she touches something, it turns into a butterfly and sparkles”, which got a big laugh from the audience.

All well and good, until you read the Associated Press article by Karen Matthews that came out the next day. Matthews wrote the article as though Daphne Bavelier had deliberately advocated for violence in video games. The article ended by quoting Bavelier’s response about girls and butterflies as though it were a serious suggestion.

You can judge for yourself by reading the article, which is rather absurdly entitled Violent video games touted as learning tool.

Matthew’s article claims that Bevalier is promoting violent computer games, yet nowhere is there a quote in the article where Bevalier says any such thing (because she never would say such a thing). Rather, quotes by others and misdirection are used to warp the point of the talk.

It’s clear, to anyone who was present at Bavelier’s talk, that Matthews’ article is pure sensationalism — a deliberate misrepresentation designed simply to drum up fears about games (and, I suspect, to sell newspapers).

It’s chilling to realize the nasty and cynical game that Matthews is up to here. How much of the “news” we read is actually garbage like this? How often does useful and important research get obscured by shoddy and dishonest reporting? And how often do we happen to have the background knowledge to know that the news article we are reading is, essentially, fake journalism?

10 Responses to “Fake journalism”

  1. davidmaas says:

    LoL, that Parent’s Person has a good point… a butterfly and sparkles canon would kick ass. Imagine whopping an opponent and watching him, her or it disintegrate poly by poly into a writhing mass of magic and insect.

    On the other hand, I’m not sure exactly what demoscopic “us females” is. That sound like a differentiation from just “female”, or “woman”. Like… you disagree and your tits mean nothing – you’re no longer one of “us females”.

  2. admin says:

    Daphne was rolling her eyes as she said it. Her response was unambiguously sardonic, intended to make fun of the whole idea of trying to lump “females” into some kind of monolithic demographic.

    Not that I’m necessarily opposed to violence against virtual butterflies, as long at it isn’t just gratuitous virtual-butterfly-violence. 😉

  3. Dagmar says:

    You know what the problem is? Most people (male and female) who make sexist or in other way discriminating remarks, do not understand irony or sarcasm, even if you roll your eyes like a ball in a pin-ball machine. :-)

    On the other hand there is the problem of the journalists that are misusing quotes intentionally, either to discredit someone, to make things fit in their own world outlook, or just to make a headline.

    So Ken it is your choice, what do you prefer to think of the journalist you are talking about? 😉

  4. admin says:

    Gosh, was I too subtle in stating my opinion of this journalist? 😉

  5. davidmaas says:

    There’s growing displeasure with journalistic coverage of things scientific. Dave Hone (http://archosaurmusings.wordpress.com) and many other paleontologists often crit the quality of journalism.

  6. Dagmar says:

    @Ken The question is still if the journalist did this because she didn’t (want to) understand or intentionally…

    I remember the time when my father was quoted wrong in Germanys biggest Sunday tabloit. After the people read the garbage in the tabloit, we ended up with (tons of real) garbage in front of our house and phone calls from “friends” calling him traitor. At least in this case, I believe that the journalist who did quote my father wrong, was totally aware of what he was doing.

    But when I think about it, it is much better to believe that some people are just dumb enough… It makes living a lot easier in general. :-)

  7. admin says:

    Dagmar, I suspect it was entirely intentional. Karen Matthews has a history of doing this sort of thing. See, for example, her highly distorted article about New York City school teachers.

  8. abc says:

    video game violence leads only to video game victory

  9. Dagmar says:

    Ken, I read this. This woman journalist (I am not sure if I can still call her journalist) doesn’t meet any journalistic and ethical standards, to put it in the most polite way I can find.
    You know what I ask myself, if their can’t be found some (more) real journalists who actually feel ashamed for her ‘work’ ?!

  10. montana says:

    hello kitty is a great example of a video game “princess-ness”
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cq0PQZ18nUU&feature=related

    Perhaps Karen Matthews should log some hours playing this game to get some of the benefits Daphne Bavelier’s research implies. [perhaps, making “…accurate decisions in real time…” ?]

    I get my news through the grapevine… [ and boingboing.net among other places ] – and even then it’s thoroughly questioned.

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