W. Joseph Campbell

A media myth tamed — or at least controlled

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Furnish the war, Media myths on January 3, 2010 at 4:58 pm

Many media-driven myths seem to defy debunking.

The tale of William Randolph Hearst’s supposed vow to “furnish the war” with Spain is a telling example. So is the notion that Walter Cronkite’s downbeat report in 1968 about the U.S. military effort in Vietnam forced President Lyndon Johnson to rethink American war policy.

Both media myths live on and on.

As I write in my forthcoming book Getting It Wrong, these “and other media myths endure, because in part they are reductive: They offer unambiguous, easily remembered explanations about complex historic events. Similarly, media myths invite indulgence in the ‘golden age fallacy,’ the flawed but enticing belief that there really was a time when journalism and its practitioners were respected and inspiring.”

While many media myths are indeed tenacious, the efforts of the Annenberg Public Policy Center over the past 10 years suggest that some myths can be curbed or contained, if not defeated entirely.

The Phildelphia-based Annenberg Center has worked to debunk the notion that suicides rise during the year-end holidays.

Such a connection may seem logical, given the stresses of the holiday season. But the data point otherwise: Suicides most often peak in the United States during the spring and fall, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

(See the CDCP’sl 2009 data sheet on suicides here.)

The Annenberg Center tracks newspaper reports for mentions of a holiday season-suicide link. Its analysis of reporting during the 2008–09 holiday season found that 37.5 percent of 64 newspaper articles asserted such a linkage. A majority, 62.5 percent, disputed or challenged the presumed holiday season-suicide connection.

The difference over 10 years is quite dramatic. In 1999–2000, the first year of the Annenberg Center’s study on the topic, 77 percent of 101 newspapers articles asserted a holiday season-suicide link.

The pattern has been a bit erratic in the intervening years, Annenberg Center data show.

In 2006–07, for example, just 9 percent of 32 articles asserted a holiday season-suicide link. The following season, however, 51 percent of 43 articles claimed there was such a connection.

Data for the 2009–2010 season are still being compiled. But a quick check of the LexisNexis database suggests that newspaper articles published in late 2009 more often challenged than claimed a holiday season-suicide link.

A notable example was an article in USA Today in late November which noted:

“You could blame George Bailey” for the myth. “In the 1946 holiday film It’s a Wonderful Life, that fictional character contemplated suicide on Christmas Eve, possibly giving birth to the idea that suicides climb during the winter holidays.”

The Washington Times suggested a similar explanation in an article published two days before Christmas.

Like many media-driven myths, the dubious holiday season-suicide link is neither harmless nor trivial.

The Annenberg Center says:

“Perpetuating the myth not only misinforms readers but it also misses an opportunity to educate the public about the most likely sources of suicide risk, including major depression and substance abuse.”

Still, the Center’s data offer a measure of encouragement that media-driven myths are not entirely beyond taming.

WJC

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