Quick Note: How Not to Write a Psychic Story

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  October 12, 2009 — 2 Comments

Recently Boing Boing pointed to a blog post at Mediactive concerning a story in the Arizona Republic about people turning to psychic practitioners in hard economic times.

“When the going gets tough, Valley residents apparently go in search of the metaphysical. Local psychics and astrologers say that while they’re seeing some decline in business as longtime clients cut back on discretionary spending, the recession is bringing them many new customers.”

According to Dan Gillmor at Mediactive,  this puff-piece commits many journalistic sins.

“Consider the way the story starts. The word “apparently” is a tip-off that the piece is based on no actual data. Who’s the source for this alleged mini-flood of new customers? Why, the people selling the product. Makes sense to me: In I-can-see-into-the-future territory, we can just take their word for it. Not a single customer is quoted. We hear only from the people who are claiming to be getting this influx of new customers. Can’t the newspaper find even one client?”

He’s also not very happy that not a note of skepticism concerning their future-seeing abilities was to be found, indeed, the paper instead ran a side-bar of definitions that clearly favored a “believers” perspective. However, if he thinks that’s bad, he’s in for something of a shock.

“No newspaper, as far as I know, gives its pages over to self-described psychics. Yet the Republic’s story quotes several, along with the astrologers, with a straight face.”

No newspaper? It’s a veritable trend! The “psychics do well in hard times” news-meme has been spotted in the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the New Jersey Star-Ledger, WSBT22 in Indiana, the Palm Beach Post, and CNN. Those are just the ones I bothered to blog about, I’m sure there are many more. I agree that these articles are usually instances of badly-researched and written journalism, but whose fault is that? Certainly not the psychics, who are merely eager to get more publicity and press for their business, the fault instead lies with a lazy, underfunded, and ideologically insecure press. Constantly afraid of offending anyone, reporters nowadays either search out opposing views when none are needed, or take uncritical dictation when they should be seeking out hard data and doing follow-up. Journalism isn’t ailing because they are giving psychics a pass, it is ailing because the entire enterprise of news-gathering has lost its way. Filler-stories like “psychics do well in hard times” are just a symptom of a press incapable, or unwilling, of tackling the bigger stories.

Jason Pitzl-Waters