How To See Through Media Distortion|
and Bogus Studies
by Alex Cosper (5/6/15)
Each day people are bombarded with hundreds of media stories that often shape popular perceptions
as to what's going on in the world. People who absorb a lot of this information without questioning
it can actually get a pretty distorted view of the world as a consequence. That's why the old saying
"don't believe everything you read" still stands true today. Even President Lincoln in the 19th century,
long before mass media became a big part of everyone's lives warned, "you can fool some of the people
all of the time and all of the people some of the time, but you cannot fool all of the
people all of the time."
A Brief History of Media Distortion
Lincoln, of course, never lived to see television, movies, radio, record players or even telephones.
He did, however, read newspapers and books. He probably knew, like most politicians, that every publisher
has a certain pre-conceived agenda, such as a political or philosophical slant. The saying "freedom of
the press belongs to who owns the press" reveals quite a bit about how printed content works, which
can also be applied to other media.
Throughout American history there have only been a short list of
big publishers and media groups that have controlled a high percentage of the pop culture landscape.
All the thousands of other small independent publications and media outlets get to be there to make up a small percentage
of the big picture. The fact is, most people who want to convey a message to the masses do not have
the capital to pay for the massive machinery that delivers the content to millions of people. Even the
average website only attracts less that a hundred visitors per day, unless it has high search rankings or
gets a boost from bigger media.
A quote that is often attributed to Hitler is "the bigger the lie, the more people will believe it." Add
repetition and vast audiences to the equation and you have a strong foundation for brainwashing a certain percentage of the masses.
Ever since the World War II era that concept has loosely shaped the basis of advertising around the
world, especially in America, where repetitious vague messages are what sell a wide range of products. In
the 1950s, for example, there were actual television commercials that claimed "9 out of 10 doctors"
preferred a certain brand of cigarettes. Obviously, these commercials were based on fake studies.
Here are the basic rules for truth in advertising under the Federal Trade Commission Act of 1914:
1) Advertising must not be deceptive or unfair
2) Advertising claims must be backed by evidence
3) The FTC conducts investigations of commercial entities and issues reports to Congress
Although the Federal Trade Commission was created in 1914 and the Lanham Act went into effect in 1946
in the United States to prohibit false advertising, there have been countless fraudulent advertising
cases even in the 21st century. As far as news agencies, they aren't really held accountable by anyone.
Their agenda, by the way, is not so much to "get the story right" as it is to attract as many big
sponsors as possible, which is how they make the bulk of their income.
How Fake News Can Really Just Be Paid For Public Relations
On top of that, there have been a vast amount of public relations pieces
to promote businesses while being disguised as news stories. Whenever you come across a vague study,
for example, that says something like "sugar is good for your health after all," chances are it's a
fake study concocted by a PR firm that invents a fake think tank designed to protect the interests
of their clients who hire them to spread misinformation in the media.
So how does one see through all this distortion? One of the most simple quotes to remember is:
"believe none of what you hear and only half of what you see." Like most sayings, it's an exaggeration
that does not always apply, but many times it does. Think of how even a football game is staged with
cameras and how the game sometimes is halted so that the network can take a commercial break. Instant
replay never lies, right? Well, sometimes even the best camera angles can look distorted, which is
why you need actual human officials to make calls, even though sometimes video proves them wrong.
One thing you'll notice about television is that the networks are more loyal to their sponsors
than the shows they program. That's why shows come and go while the big sponsors stay the same.
So if an actual real independent scientific study shows evidence that a certain product causes cancer,
it may get little or no press coverage and when it does, it is often countered with an "expert opinion"
from someone with a vested interest in the product who says "I disagree with this study." That's why
fake studies are needed by big companies to marginalize the shock of real studies.
Why Is It Obvious This Was a Bogus Study?
To demonstrate how fake a "study" can get, consider a May 6, 2015 article published in NME
about Queen Mary University of London's "research" on music history. First of all, this university,
which is funded by the UK government, is mostly known for its medical studies, so why on earth is
it suddenly doing a music study? The NME headline read
The Beatles and Rolling Stones didn't 'revolutionise' music but hip-hop did, study claims. Nothing
against hip-hop or any other kind of music, but the only truthful statement in the headline was "study says."
The following claims quoted in the article are just opinions in the first place, regardless of who gets
credit for revolutionizing music:
1) Musical characteristics of the British invasion were already established in the U.S.
2) Hip-hop saved the charts in 1991
3) "Many people claim music is getting worse and worse, but we didn't really find anything like that"
The article does not go into any details about how the study was conducted, but says that a research
group studied chord changes, tones and music trends on the U.S. pop charts from 1960 to 2010. This group found that the years
1964, 1983 and 1991 stood out for "marked change." However, an actual thorough study would have revealed
that music on the pop charts shifted dramatically to disco and dance music in the late seventies. This
shift had little to do with public taste and more to do with how the radio industry consultants began moving
away from broad formats in favor of niche formats such as dance, rock, r&b and adult contemporary.
More Evidence That Contradicts the "Study"
Disco, by the way, despite being huge on the pop charts, failed to sell the necessary amount of albums to
be profitable for the major labels in the late seventies, aside from the Saturday Night Fever Soundtrack, leading to a music industry recession
through 1982. This fact is documented by many music industry authorities, including Frederic Dannen in his
1989 book Hit Men. Yet one of the biggest selling singles of the 1979-1980 era was the independent
release of "Rapper's Delight" by Sugar Hill Gang, a rap record that mentioned hip-hop and outsold most
of the pop "hits" on the Billboard Hot 100 during that period, despite only barely making the top 40. That should
be a clue that the "pop charts" aren't always a reflection of the most popular trends in music.
Another big red flag in the study was that hip-hop "saved the charts" in 1991. First of all, the biggest
selling album from that year was the debut album by Mariah Carey, which was not considered hip-hop.
If you stretch the definition of the genre, then maybe Vanilla Ice and NWA were considered hip-hop, but
those were the only artists of that genre with number one albums that year on the album chart.
Album sales, by the way, are the real measure of popular success in the music business, whereas singles
are really just commercials to sell albums. Other number one albums that year were by R.E.M., MIchael Bolton,
Paula Abdul, Skid Row, Van Halen, Natalie Cole, Metallica, Garth Brooks, Guns N' Roses, U2 and Michael Jackson.
Country artist Garth Brooks (who didn't have any songs on the pop chart in 1991 and most of the entire decade) somehow
outsold almost all other albums that year, as did rock artist Metallica, who did manage to hit #16 on the
pop singles chart with "Enter Sandman." That song clearly is bigger in history than most supposed popular
songs on the "pop chart." Nirvana's single "Smells Like Teen Spirit" only made #6 on the Billboard Hot 100,
despite selling a million units. The single came from one of the biggest selling albums issued that year
as sales piled up well beyond 10 million units throughout the decade, far exceeding the sales of most
hip-hop artists of the same period.
As far as the top singles of 1991, a pop ballad called "Everything I Do (I Do It For You)" by Bryan Adams
held the number one spot for seven weeks. Not only was it the year's best selling single in America, it
was also the best selling single in the world. Most of the biggest hits that year had an adult contemporary
ring to it by artists such as Madonna, Surface, Whitney Houston, Gloria Estefan, Wilson Phillips, Amy Grant,
Roxette, Hi-Five, Extreme, Mariah Carey and Paula Abdul. Was "Good Vibrations" by Marky Mark or "Gonna Make You Sweat"
by C&C Music Factory really considered hip-hop or house? Most real music experts will likely tell you both since the genres overlap.
One of the weakest claims of the "study" is that the music of the British invasion was a reflection of
previous pop trends established in the 1940s and 1950s. If that's true, how many psychedelic rock
songs can you name prior to the sixties? How big was the Motown sound in the 50s, when most pop hits were
by white crooners while early rock and roll and r&b represented just a small percentage of hits? That's an
important question since The Beatles and Rolling Stones were both heavily influenced by lesser known
r&b music of the fifties.
Let Us Not Talk Falsely
Not a single hit of the fifties sounded like the hypnotic orchestration of "A Day In the Life,"
by The Beatles, which remains one of the most remembered songs from the most legendary album of the
sixties, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Part of what made the album so monumental was that
it was a huge seller without having any hit singles on the pop chart, which in itself is revolutionary.
One of the most innovative rockers of the decade who was very influenced by The Beatles was Jimi Hendrix,
who even moved to London for awhile. Who wants to argue that someone sounded like Hendrix or actual British
rockers such as The Who or The Kinks in the fifties?
Matthias Mauch, who was quoted in the article representing the researchers, pretty much gave away the bias
of the "study" with the claim that they didn't find anything about how "many people claim music is getting
worse and worse." Obviously, it's very easy to find those opinions all over the internet, at least regarding
pop music. Even pop artists have made similar statements, so it's not just a fragile theory that can be
quickly swept under the rug, not to mention it's only an opinion voiced by many people.
doesn't take much research to prove the music industry has been suffering from declining sales since
1999. There's a pretty strong argument that less people are buying popular music for a good reason,
if you want to get technical about opinions backed by dollars.
The point is that both NME and "the study" try to push a view that doesn't hold much truth. While it is
true that hip-hop became fairly big on the pop charts in the 1990s, it existed long before 1991, both
on and off the charts. One thing everyone has to remember is that many "studies" are just make up PR
to persuade audiences to have perceptions about products.
How to Tell If a Study Is Bogus
Here are dead giveaways for seeing through bogus research, regardless of the medium in which it is delivered:
1. sketchy claims such as "some say," "it is suggested that" or even "studies show"
2. lack of explanation on the scope of the study and how it was conducted
3. no mention of how many subjects (participants, songs, etc) were analyzed
4. no explanation why the study was conducted and what the original biases and hypotheses were
5. vague details on the researchers - who they are and what their agenda is
6. small studies vs big studies (the larger the sample size, the more believable the study)
7. no other studies with similar conclusions to show a pattern
8. obvious errors that are easily debunked with minimal effort