Daryl Ilbury

Archive for December, 2012|Monthly archive page

The weird things about this blog…from 2012

In Eish! on December 31, 2012 at 6:37 am

The super-helpful WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2012 annual report for my blog…It makes interesting reading.

Here’s an excerpt:

600 people reached the top of Mt. Everest in 2012. This blog got about 7,100 views in 2012. If every person who reached the top of Mt. Everest viewed this blog, it would have taken 12 years to get that many views.

Click here to see the complete report.

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The media’s role in perpetuating gun killings

In Eish!, Fools, media, Science on December 26, 2012 at 9:20 am

This year the festive lead up to Christmas was dealt a savage blow with two events in the US that shed light on a particular area of scientific interest for me: mental health. These were the massacre of 26 people at Newtown in Connecticut and the killing of firemen responding to a call out in the upstate New York town of Webster. Both of these events brought to the fore, yet again, the issues of gun ownership and mental health.

More worryingly for me, they provided yet another opportunity for the media to play their role in perpetuating such tragic events. This can be seen in the recurring cycle of (mainstream) media coverage of mass shootings:

Initially the media busies itself with reporting on the bare bones of the event: what, when and where. After the initial shock the media tries to address the ‘who’ – ‘who was the killer’ – and the ‘why’ – ‘why did he do it?’ As expected, the typical phrase used in much of the media coverage in these particular shootings was that the perpetrators  – Adam Lanza at Newtown and William Spengler at Webster – had ‘mental health problems’ or ‘personality disorders’.

I have a serious problem with this for several reasons that are part of this recurring cycle of tragedy and violence.

Firstly it redirects attention away from the critical issue of gun control, thereby helping absolve lawmakers from confronting the controversy. (A point worth considering here is the state of mind of anyone who wants to amass an arsenal of weaponry? Are they preparing to lead an invasion? Are they scared of being attacked by zombies?)

Secondly it provides ample opportunity for the wholly unqualified to comment on mental health issues. This gives the media the opportunity to dig up people who claim to have known the killers. These are often people all too ready to ‘diagnose’ ‘incriminating evidence’ of ‘mental health problems’ or ‘personality disorders’ in order to get their 15 minutes of fame. Examples: a perfectly in-character Fox8 interview with a barber who used to cut Adam Lanza’s hair when he was a boy and the pathetic NewsOne’s search for motives by quoting Lanza’s former babysitter (bear in mind Lanza was 20 at the time of the shootings, and so I’d hazard a guess it would have been about 10-15 years since she last babysat for him!)

Thirdly, this encourages the media to highlight physical elements of a killer’s characteristic appearance as supposed ‘evidence’ of such mental health problems. For example that Lanza was ‘pale’ and ‘skinny’ or that he ‘often wore black’, or that Spengler was ‘wild-eyed’ and ‘dishevelled’. Additionally, elements of the character of a killer are isolated and highlighted for further supposed telltale signs of some mental health problems – the fact that they were ‘shy’ or ‘a loner’. By extension this draws unnecessary attention towards individuals who display similar character traits. If the comments point to certain sub-cultures – such as ‘goths’ or ‘nerds’ – it further stigmatises people who are drawn to those sub-cultures.

Fourthly, the media make sweeping statements about ‘mental health’, which is in fact an incredibly broad term for a developing science that covers a wide spectrum of issues, from common anxiety through depression to rare psychopathic behaviour. (By definition, if you are continually hampered by feelings of tension or worried thoughts about something, say inability to pay your debts, and you avoid certain situations out of worry, and you often experience sweating, trembling, dizziness or a rapid heartbeat – sound familiar? – you’re displaying the classic symptoms of anxiety [adapted from the Encyclopedia of Psychology]. You may therefore have a ‘mental health issue’.)

By broadly labelling perpetrators of killings such as those at Newtown and Webster as ‘having mental health problems’ or ‘personality disorders’, and then colouring an incomplete picture with unqualified and unscientific anecdotal commentary, the media are not only guilty of bad journalism; they are injuring the developing science of psychology; and contributing to the further alienation of people who are part of ‘unconventional’ sub-cultures, and stigmatising those (many) people with mental health issues.

All they then need to do is to reach for rifle under the bed, and the cycle is repeated.

A troubling week for South African science journalism

In Eish!, Fools, Science on December 8, 2012 at 11:39 am
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Batman was shocked with the ignorance amongst the youth of the basic principles of science

It has taken a rather troubling, I’d venture to say ‘bizarre’, week in the media to shake me from my blogging passivity. The week has captured, quite succinctly, two components of the dire condition under which science journalism in this country finds itself.

In the past week, the following has happened:

  1. Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga announced at the release of the annual national assessment results that the average score in maths for Grade 9 learners (approx 14 years of age) is 13%. No, that’s not a typo, that really is thirteen percent;
  2. The Times Media Public Editor Joe Latakgomo published his opinion that it should be the press’s responsibility to remove from their pages the personal ads from people masquerading as doctors and who offer (to a very willing and receptive consumer) a combined portfolio of services normally including penis enlargement, cleaning dirty money, fixing broken marriages, and winning the lottery;
  3. The Business Day, South Africa’s leading financial daily newspaper, announced that it was shelving its weekly Health News supplement (for which I am a regular contributor), quoting budget cuts; and,
  4. The Sunday Tribune announced it was shelving all input from external writers for its Sunday Magazine supplement (in which I have a regular column writing on psychology), also quoting budget cuts.

The following is clear: on the one hand we have a desperate need for the media to help create a learning environment for South African youth and to educate adults about the dangers of pseudoscience; and on the other hand the mainstream media is stifling the science journalism needed to do just that.

On the plus side, it all segues very nicely into a piece of mine that will appear in the 21 December edition of Mail & Guardian: an adaptation of the main project I wrote for my Masters, entitled ‘The Quest of Prometheus: the state of science journalism in South Africa’. I will provide a link to it on my website on the 22nd December.

Read it. Unless of course you’re going to hide under the duvet because you believe the world will end on 21 December; in which case, like Robin, you deserve a serious smack around the head.