Conservative media figures are pouncing on a fallacious column suggesting that bullying has nothing to do with suicide rates among teenagers, in order to justify their long-standing campaign against anti-bullying efforts.
Writing for the Poynter Institute on October 25, Poynter faculty member Kelly McBride denounced media coverage of bullying-related suicides as "emotional linkbait." McBride argued that such stories promote "a false narrative" - that bullying can lead to suicide - "that has no scientific support":
Yet when journalists (and law enforcement, talking heads and politicians) imply that teenage suicides are directly caused by bullying, we reinforce a false narrative that has no scientific support. In doing so, we miss opportunities to educate the public about the things we could be doing to reduce both bullying and suicide.
There is no scientific evidence that bullying causes suicide. None at all. Lots of teenagers get bullied (between 1 in 4 and 1 in 3 teenagers report being bullied in real life, fewer report being bullied online). Very few commit suicide. Among the people who commit suicide, researchers have no good data on how many of them have been bullied.
It is journalistically irresponsible to claim that bullying leads to suicide. Even in specific cases where a teenager or child was bullied and subsequently commits suicide, it's not accurate to imply the bullying was the direct and sole cause behind the suicide.
McBride's entire argument proceeds from the construction of a straw man. Nobody claims that bullying always causes suicide, but it's hard to ignore the finding that victims of bullying are two to nine times more likely to consider suicide, according to researchers at Yale University. Similar research has confirmed a correlation between bullying victims and suicidal behavior.
It's true, as McBride notes, that not all bullying victims kill themselves. It's also true that not every cigarette smoker dies of lung cancer, but that's hardly a compelling reason to downplay the risks of smoking.
Unfazed by the logical flaws plaguing McBride's column, right-wing pundits reacted with glee, wielding it to advance their long-running crusade against anti-bullying programs, particularly those aimed at addressing bullying of LGBT youth.
On the October 28 edition of his radio show, Rush Limbaugh read extensively from McBride's column, concluding that bullying has been over-hyped by the media:
The bogus story that New York Times columnist Paul Krugman had filed for bankruptcy appeared on Boston.com, the sister website of The Boston Globe, through a third-party content provider that posts content without editorial approval and provides such content to more than 200 web outlets.
That provider, meanwhile, took the story from an Austrian-based blog without any editorial review or fact-checking of its own, a practice that is becoming more and more common in the Internet content sharing world. The blog has since deleted its post and all posts from the author appear to have been removed from Boston.com.
The false story, which had its roots in a satire by the website Daily Currant, was subsequently picked up by the conservative site Breitbart.com, a move later criticized by Krugman himself and numerous news outlets from The Atlantic to Politico. Breitbart.com has deleted the post, with its author blaming Boston.com, which he says he "trusted" for the story.
But according to Boston.com, they played no role in the creation of that post, an editorial mechanism which troubles some observers.
He said he reached out to financialcontent.com at roughly 9 a.m. EDT today to have the item removed. It was removed at 11:34 a.m. EDT.
"The reason why we partner with them is to provide stock data," Agrella explained Monday, just hours after the item was taken down. "That is why we contract with them. The stories are additional content provided on the side. We have partnered with them for 10 or 12 years."
Financialcontent.com had picked up the item from an Austria-based business blog, Prudent Investor, without any editorial review of its own, according to financialcontent.com CEO Wing Yu.
"We are a technology company, we don't have an editorial desk," Yu explained. "There is an RSS feed that we parse from each content provider. We have categorized [Prudent Investor] as a business content provider and the content is syndicated along with the byline."
YU said Prudent Investor is one of more than 400 content providers that financialcontent.com draws on for news and data, which it then forwards to some 200 news outlets such as Boston.com, as well as others owned by McClatchy, Media News Group and AOL.
The Prudent Investor website is based in Vienna, Austria, and run by Toni Straka, who describes himself on the blog as "an INDEPENDENT Certified Financial Analyst who worked as a financial journalist for 15+ years and now evaluate global market trends."
CNN business correspondent Alison Kosik, whose recent tweets referred to Occupy Wall Street protesters as whiners and interested in "smoking weed," now regrets at least one of the postings, according to a CNN spokesperson.
Asked to respond to the tweets that have drawn criticism from media critics and journalism veterans, CNN emailed this short statement:
Alison regrets the tweet and took it down.
That statement was in reference to a Twitter exchange Kosik had in which she described the "purpose" of Occupy Wall Street protests "in 140 [characters] or less" as "bang on the bongos, smoke weed!"
Another Kosik tweet, in response to a question about the list of demands from protesters, stated: "the list of whines is too long already."
Both Twitter comments were captured by NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen. Kosik has removed the "smoke weed" posting, but the "whines" item remained up as of Friday afternoon.
Several media writers and news instructors said Kosik crossed the line when she offered such opinions on Twitter while also covering the growing story as a CNN reporter.
"What is her job? Is she a straight news reporter?" Eric Deggans, media critic of the St. Petersburg Times, asked sarcastically. "And if she is considered a straight news reporter, it crosses the line because she is revealing contempt for the protesters before she even gets there."
Media critic David Zurawik of The Baltimore Sun said Kosik needs to understand the power of her tweets.
"It's public record. You can say 'I'm doing it in a different forum, it is not in the story or the post or the report,' but you are still making a public utterance about this story," Zurawik said. "I think this is really a management problem at CNN New York. I don't think their standards are there. You have what is really an important story, literally on your doorstep and you go out and make fun of it."
Judith Miller's criticism of a Poynter Institute online course on Islamic issue reporting, which she claimed urged "political correctness," drew a harsh rebuttal from the journalism training outlet.
Kelly McBride, a Poynter senior faculty member, told Media Matters: "I think she's crazy. The course urges journalists to be smart, accurate and contextual when it comes to reporting on Islam in America. It suggests that when you are reporting about deaths caused by Islamic terrorists that you not descend into fear mongering and instead put the threat of terrorism in proper context.
"It is a sound, solid journalistic course, it's based on the values of accuracy and fairness and context and independence in minimizing harm."
At issue is an online column Miller posted at Fox News' website Friday about the free Poynter online course: Covering Islam in America.
Poynter's News University presents the course in conjunction with Washington State University and the Social Science Research Council.
Miller wrote that she took the course and objected to its suggestion that Islamic terrorism might be getting disproportionate coverage in relation to other deadly issues such as AIDS or world hunger:
The professors offer these helpful comparative death tolls to give the 9/11 death toll "some context," they say.
But the implicit message of the course seems obvious enough: 3,000 dead Americans, (and they might have looked up the actual death toll) have been over-covered. Why don't journalists spend more time covering malaria, or hunger, or especially HIV/AIDS, which the last time I checked, was hardly being ignored by the nation's media?
For that matter, why aren't the media investigating bathtub deaths, since according to "Overblown," John Mueller's attack on what he regards as the government's obsessive focus on terrorism, more Americans die in bathtub accidents each year than in terrorist attacks?
The answer should be fairly obvious to such an august institution as Poynter: just as the press covers murders rather than traffic fatalities, which far outnumber killings in America each year, it covers terrorism intensively because motive matters.