Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Mass Hallucinations and Shoddy Journalism

      About 15 years ago, we posted our research of the Bell Witch Legend on-line.  At that time there were NO skeptical examinations of the legend.  It was a good candidate for our work.  The legend was reported to have occurred in Adams TN, which was a forty-five minute car ride from our office. We also read somewhere on the Internet that this Legend was the most documented of any similar occurrence.  However, researching this legend taught us a very valuable lesson -- always trace reports to the "source".  If a report does not identify its basis then one should discard it as strictly opinion and not evidence.

       We found lots of reports of the Bell Witch legend.  It was a very popular story in Middle Tennessee.  Almost none of these reports identified their source.  Every one that did give reference, pointed to only one source -- an 1894 novel by Marvin Ingram, a newspaper man who had a colorful background in "Enquirer type" reports.  He was reporting on an event that occurred three generation prior and for which no eye-witnesses existed.  It didn't take a rational mind very long when reading this novel to ascertain that the whole thing is "poppycock." Nevertheless, that never hindered the spreading of the legend.  Those who want to believe do so regardless of lack of evidence.

     The propensity to exaggerate and report in hyperbolic terms with minimal concern for "facts" is big business.  The king of the 'Alternative' facts is the "Exaggerator-in-Chief" who occupies the White House.  It is almost comical when he points the finger at popular media sources for their "yellow" journalism.  Nevertheless, like it or not, he has a valid point.

      Pull up any popular media website and it is packed with "click bait" -- boring stories with explosive titles or lead-in paragraphs, mostly by advertisers who have paid for internet real estate.  The websites could care less.  They do not realize (or maybe don't care) that these garbage articles "throw mud" on their entire website and diminish their credibility. 

      Robert Bartholomew writes in the Skeptic Magazine 22.1, AN OUTBREAK OF MASS HALLUCINATIONS AND SHODDY JOURNALISM: Why We Need Skepticism More Than Ever, about a mysterious epidemic of hallucinations which was reported to have broken out in Oregon in October of 2016, media outlets around the world portrayed the story as a baffling medical mystery. There’s only one problem, like the story of the Bell Witch, -- it never happened. 

     Bartholomew concludes
What does this episode tell us about the state of journalism in the 21st century? Most sites simply carried the initial breaking news story, never bothering to verify it or contact authorities for clarification. In fact, when the Coos County Sheriff suspended his investigation into the episode on October 27th, local media outlet KCBY-TV continued to maintain that the Department had closed its inquiry into the “five people [who] showed symptoms of hallucinations. This is a story of two outbreaks, the first involving mass suggestion, while the other was even more concerning: an outbreak of shoddy journalism.
      As far as we are concerned, the only thing which is new is the ease at which garbage spreads via the internet and chain email letters, and that it has reached the highest office in America. In Trump's proclivity to throw mud he diminishes his credibility in the eyes of the world and that in turn hurts us all. That is no hallucination.

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