Thursday, February 14, 2013

Dumbing down Americans

We all know the newsmedia often dumbs down its reporting, and that Americans are ill informed about the world. Today I saw a small news story linking the two.

On Yahoo’s golf blog, “Devil Ball”, Shane Bacon reported that Swedish golfer Daniela Holmqvist was playing in the Women's Australian Open in Yarralumla when she felt a sharp pain in her leg, looked down and saw a spider crawling off her. He wrote, “the caddies immediately identified it as a Black Widow.”

He apparently got the news from Women’s Golf Digest, which reported in detail on her somewhat grisly self-surgery, and added: “She'd just been informed that a Black Widow bite can kill a child in as little as 30 minutes”.

There are some problems with this story:
  • Black Widows do not live in Australia; the local related species, which is different, is called the Redback (Warning: Link has spider photo!). An Australian—and one presumes there were some around her—would have called it a Redback.
  • People generally don’t die from Black Widow OR Redback bites. In fact, there haven’t been any recorded deaths in Australia since 1956. Talking about the bites killing children “in as little as 30 minutes” without pointing out it doesn’t happen is hyperbole for mere dramatic effect. 
This is obviously a minor and unimportant story, but because it is, it's easier to show how the newsmedia works, and part of the reason why Americans know so little about the world. The reports should have used the correct species name, rather than the American one. The report shouldn’t have talked about the spiders killing children when, in fact, no one has been killed in Australia in more than half a century.

This all matters, first, because accuracy matters: If there are factual errors in a news report, one must necessarily question everything in that report—it becomes impossible to trust that reporter or the newsmedia outlet. Second, by insisting on reporting stories in American terms, it reinforces Americans’ ignorance about the world, leading many Americans to believe that the entire world is just like America.

New Zealand, by the way, has its own related species, the Katipo (Warning: Link has spider photo!), which is endangered. It is extremely rare, and no deaths have been recorded since the 19th century. Also, unlike most other widow species, the female Katipo doesn’t kill and eat the male after mating (which is where the species’ family name “widow” comes from; most other species practice what is usually called “sexual cannibalism”—nice name, eh?).

So, in this post others’ errors have been corrected and you’ve learned more than you did in either “OMG! SPIDERS!” golf story. See how easy that was? Too bad more journalists don’t treat their readers’ intelligence with that kind of respect, especially on subjects that really do matter.


Roger Green said...

But it said the "caddies" IDed it; maybe it was just them being wrong.
Wasn't that a Samuel L. Jackson movie - Spider on a Golfer.

Arthur (AmeriNZ) said...

After I published the post, I went and checked the original Swedish story and, if Google Translate is accurate, the story said that Australians told her it was a Black Widow. As far as I can tell, there are no widow spider species in Scandanavia, which would explain the mis-identifiying the spider.