in commentary, critique, news

I don’t understand why mainstream media gets things so wrong.

A few weeks ago I heard something from a friend – climate change will mean more boys will be born. At the time, I didn’t give it much thought because we were having a conversation and I didn’t have any facts one way or the other.

Revisiting the idea, I realized that I’ve recently read a conflicting notion. I read a comic book by Aminder Dhaliwal called Woman World that talks about a world where men have disappeared and women have to form society again. It’s a Utopia –

No, I’m not claiming that a comic book is scientifically accurate, but it does seem to be telling more truth than Fox News. I searched for the idea online and tried to find its source. Here’s what a search for it looks like –

You’ll notice that most articles don’t give you a clear answer to the question and want you to read the article to come to a conclusion. Some of them, like IFLScience clearly state that a higher proportion of girls will be born due to Climate Change.

But then there’s Fox8.com – “Warmer temperatures bring sons”

Total lie. Well, not really. But mostly a lie, because the people living in Cleveland, which is where Fox8 belongs, do NOT live in preindustrial Finland.

There’s a research paper out of Japan, linked here, which all of these articles quote. If you open the link and read no more than the “Conclusion” line, it’ll be quite clear to you that the evidence says that less boys will be born over time because the male fetus is more susceptible to external factors. (I’ll come back to external factors)

Since this narrative doesn’t suit Fox 8 Cleveland they warped the headline to what they want to state. The article includes research by one Samuli Helle, from the University of Finland, that states that in the case of the Sami people of Finland, warmer temperatures will mean more male children for that community.

The way it’s worded in the article, it says –

Clearly, the person writing the article or their editor decided that single line should be the headline. I wanted to call out said person who wrote the Fox News article, but if you look for the author, it’s attributed to CNNWire.

What?

I opened a few more of the articles on the search page and they all attribute ‘CNN’ as the author of the article.

I searched for the keywords and CNN and found out that one Susan Scutti, who writes on medical topics for CNN, wrote the article here, and it was syndicated to all these other outlets, including Fox. Fox8, however, had the bad sense to change the headline to what suits them, because in this age of information overload, their readers will only read the headline and move on, sadly misinformed on the topic. From what I understand about wires, news organizations receiving the wire can’t change the text significantly, but can change the headline to suit their needs.

But, that doesn’t let CNN off the hook either. I don’t know what the interaction between Susan Scutti and Samuli Helle was (the article mentions emails), but the article words it to say that warmer temperatures will bring more male children everywhere.

The truth couldn’t be farther from that statement. The Japanese research, and Helle’s own research seems to state that in colder regions like Finland, warming up will bring more male children, but in the majority of the world, where ‘external factors’ such as forest fires, floods, and droughts are going to be the norm, more girls will be born. Helle even admits in the article itself that the effects of climate change on reproduction will not be uniform worldwide. Yet that’s exactly how the article seems to portray it.

I reached out to Susan Scutti and Samuli Helle a few days ago to get clarification on the topic. While I didn’t hear back from Scutti, Helle responded back. I’m going to put his response in full below, instead of the hit job that Susan has done on Helle’s work and responses.

Yes that study considered only Sami people who lived some two hundred years ago in northern Finland. We aimed not to generalize that result to other populations, at least not to modern humans. I am not quite sure how strong is the evidence for such an association in modern or western populations, since haven’t been following that literature too closely for years now. We did however publish another article in 2009 showing that in whole Finland during 1865-2003, high temperature was associated with proportionally more male births. Please see:

https://besjournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/j.1365-2656.2009.01598.x

Samuli Helle via email

So, there’s research that during a large period of time, higher male births did happen in Finland during ‘warm years’. However, by the author’s own admission, this does not apply to other modern or western populations. Further, even if you accept the results of the 2009 paper, do the same apply to the US, where the weather profile varies wildly from Finland? I don’t think so.

Media outlets can often be seen doing one of two things – terrible oversimplification, and muddying the waters. Clearly, Fox oversimplified the results explained in the article, all while others who syndicated the article left it untouched for the nuance the headline provides. On the other hand, it seems that CNN found this piece of evidence from the Japanese study and decided that they can’t write a one-sided article, so they went out and found conflicting information, however misguided, and published it alongside.

Had Susan Scutti referenced the 2009 paper, it still would have made some sense, as the results actually do seem to be in favor of the argument. However, referencing the Sami people study clearly shows a misguided attempt at ‘balancing’ the reporting.

I don’t know whether it was the author of the article, or her editor, who decided that the reporting needed to have two sides, but this sort of silly mistake is what erodes trust in the fourth estate. Anyone skimming these articles will be swayed to think one way or another, but anyone who takes a breath and reads the content will see the aimless wandering that media outlets call the news nowadays. This is how cynics are created.

In the end, take the whole thing with a grain of salt – in some countries, more boys will be born, while in most, it seems, more girls will be born. Wait for the research to talk about your country, your demographic, and your time. Everything else is noise.

What do you think?

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