January 23, 2008

Clueless credulity at the BBC: the stuff of legend

After giving a talk yesterday at the University of Chicago, I flew back to Philadelphia this morning, and at an airport newstand I bought a copy of Michael Crichton's 2006 novel Next to read on the plane. I don't recommend the book, but there was one high point for me -- between chapter 15 and chapter 16, there's a fake (?) news story under the headline "Blondes becoming extinct". It starts like this:

According to the BBC, "a study by experts in Germany suggests people with blonde hair are an endangered species and will become extinct by 2202." Researchers predicted that the last truly natural blonde would be born in Finland...

Then between chapters 33 and 34, there's another fake (?) news story, under the headline "No blonde extinction, after all", and the subhead "BBC Reported False Story Absent Fact Check; No WHO Study; No German Study; A Bad Blonde Joke for 150 Years". The story includes this true-to-life paragraph:

The story would never have run, said Georgetown media professor Len Euler, if even minimal fact-checking had been done by BBC editors. Some media observers noted that news organizations no longer check anything. "We just publish the press release and move on," one reporter observed. Another reporter, speaking on condition of anonymity, said, "Let's face it, it's a good story. Accuracy would kill it."

As far as I can tell, these "news stories" were written by Crichton for dramatic effect -- the manipulation of the media by mendacious businessmen and scientists is one of this novel's messages. But the business about the BBC running a transparently fake story about the forthcoming extinction of blondes is completely true: see "Blondes to die out in 200 years'", BBC News World Edition, 9/27/2002.

And the Washington Post really did a debunking story, ("Extinction of Blondes Vastly Overreported: Media Fail to Check Root of 'Study'", 10/2/2002), and Snopes really does trace the Blonde Extinction factoid back to 1865.

The most amazing thing is that more than six years later, the BBC still hasn't corrected the story on its "News" site. Nor, as far as I can tell, has the organization done anything to change the role of its "news" division as an uncritical echo for even the most transparently misleading press releases (see "It's always silly season in the (BBC) science section", 8/26/2006, for a small sample of more recent examples). The BBC is not by any means the only "old media" organization that acts this way, but given its history and reputation, it's suprising to see again and again that its standards are among the lowest in the industry.

Posted by Mark Liberman at January 23, 2008 06:30 PM