To Journalists: Debunk Rather than Dramatize "Doomsday" Stories - Vulnerable Get Suicidal
To Journalists: Debunk Rather than Dramatize "Doomsday" Stories - Vulnerable Get Suicidal
This is an international petition. The two main points are:
- Please do not dramatize "doomsday stories" beyond what the sources say. If you must run them (as you had to for 2012 of course), please indicate it clearly when there is no scientific support .
- Also please highlight the scientific debunking where available, and make it easy to find, rather than hidden away in a paragraph many readers will not notice.
This petition was originally prompted by a story that got widespread coverage during the "silly season" here in the UK. It promoted a non noteworthy video on YouTube, with amateur graphics of "the earth reeling like a drunkard" along with other events of the Apocalypse with the title "Why The World Will End Surely on 29th July 2016 ? Shocking Facts".
The Telegraph online (online edition of a respected mainstream UK newspaper) dramatized it with a timer at the head of the page counting down hours and minutes to the end of the world (this timer was removed when the end time was reached) . Many readers were scared that we'd all die when this timer reached zero. The only source for this date in all these stories, AFAIK, was the video title, which was just whatever date some anonymous person chose to type, hidden behind a YouTube channel name.
This is an extreme example, with no astronomy behind it., just a work of imagination loosely based on images in one of the most enigmatic books in the Bible. It is very common. In September 2017 many stories promoted the absurd ideas of David Meade, again no basis in science or astronomy.
However, journalists often write doomsday style stories about real events too such as non noteworthy asteroids that do flybys of Earth, and many other things that are no threat to Earth at all. As an example, I got urgent scared messages about a dramatic doomsday style story ran through most of September 2016 about an asteroid 2009ES that had already done a flyby on 5th September 7.2 million kilometers away.
The third point in this petition is:
- Journalists, please check sources and not publish non noteworthy "silly season" doomsday stories at all - in view of the risk of causing extreme anxiety and possibly suicides for vulnerable people.
There was no reason at all to run a story about a non noteworthy YouTubevideo by an anonymous uploader in summer 2016, the papers themselves made it noteworthy, generating millions of views and giving the uploader thousands of dollars (estimated) in ad revenue, by running stories about it.
We need to remember that readers of these stories include young teenagers, adults with learning difficulties, and many who flunked physics at school, and decided that this was not for them. They are not able to judge these stories scientifically.
If you agree with these two points, please sign the petition. Also do share it with your friends. I don't think it's realistic to try to end all dramatized reporting of "Doomsday". But I do think it is feasible to do something about the mainstream journalism reporting, by increasing awareness, if in no other way. That's the aim of this petition. You can also read this with embedded video and images here.
Why is this important?
I am an author of online articles debunking Nibiru and other non scientific apocalyptic news stories. I got many pm's and comments from anxious vulnerable people after the Telegraph article, who thought we were all going to die when the timer reached zero some time on July 29th. It's been the same for numerous other dates, running at about a dozen a year for the ones that "hit the news".
The NASA scientist David Morrison, who fielded "Ask an astrobiologist" up to his retirement in 2012 coined the word "cosmophobia" for people who suffer extreme anxiety as a result of stories like this.
SCARED PEOPLE AND SUICIDES
I don't think many journalists can be aware of this impact their articles can have - something has to be done about it. For more about the story that inspired this campaign and to read some of the comments by people who are scared by such things, see my "World Did NOT End On 29th July! AWFUL "Silly Season" Story - Journalists Please Be More Responsible" and other related articles. The one with most comments is "Imaginary Bullshit Planet Nibiru" with over 1000 comments That includes replies so that's about 500 posts from scared people.
The messages I get via pm are similar. Including questions about when it would happen in their time zone. Incidentally, if anyone reading this is scared, please see that first article, where I explain with simple arguments why none of those things are possible. If you have questions, just comment on any of my articles there, and I'll reply to you as soon as I can (usually within 24 hours).
As you can see, there are many ordinary people who take such things deadly seriously. They are deeply concerned about things that sound utterly bizarre to astronomers, such as
- Earth flipping upside down, or shifting its geographical axis - they think this has already happened although it is easy to check any starry night that the pole star is still due north.
- Two suns in the sky,
- Blood moons (a series of four lunar eclipses)
- A hidden planet or entire solar system unknown to anyone except NASA, which they think will fly past Earth or hit Earth some time in the next few months
- Also planetary alignments, alignments with the galactic core (which happens every year but many people got scared of that one during the 2012 scare), and many other things.
Some of them get so anxious they can't sleep, and worry about such things day and night.
They try to calm down but when they go online they see yet another story or video about a near future Doomsday and start panicking again. Some have to leave their jobs because of anxiety, and others are suicidal.
There is at least one confirmed suicide caused by the 2012 scare and David Morrison says that anecdotally he was told of several more.
Most of you reading this won't realize it, but there have been four major scares since I wrote my first doomsday debunking article in autumn 2015:
- September 2015
- Lead up to Christmas 2015 (I got messages from people asking if there was any point in preparing for Christmas as the stories were saying we would all be dead);
- Spring 2016;
- July 2016.
- I've debunked predictions that scared many people for 2016: July, October (twice), November (twice), December (twice)
2017: January - March, January (twice), February (twice), June. and now Sept.
ONLY SOURCE FOR THE 29TH OF JULY DATE WAS THE TITLE OF A YOUTUBE VIDEO
The video for the Telegraph article was not uploaded by anyone of note. Indeed it was an unauthorized copy denounced by the original author in a post to their facebook page. Someone just reuploaded this video with the 29th July date added to its title. AFAIK this YouTubevideo title was the Telegraph's only source for the end date for their count down timer.
Other papers that ran this story, though without the drama of a count down timer, included the Independent, the Mirror, and Metro magazine (who published the denouncement of the video by John Preacher). (wikipedia entries about Independent, Mirror, Metro). The Telegraph removed the timer from the page when it reached zero.
This video (which I won't link to here, easy to find) has racked up over six million views as a result of all this free publicity and has probably earned its unauthorized uploader of the order of $8,000 to $22,000 in YouTube ads revenue. They have now changed the date in the video title to "Why The World Will End Surely on 31st October 2016 ? Shocking Facts", presumably in hope of some more free publicity of the same sort in October. They have also disabled comments. I hope that some of the journalists who publicized this 29th July story, if they read this, will have second thoughts about running similar stories in the future.
WHAT COUNTS AS OVER DRAMATIZING
This is on the basis of messages I get, some of the things that scare people. Perhaps some of these might surprise you if you are a journalist, some simple changes that may make the stories much less scary for vulnerable people.
- Titles with the words "Doomsday" or "End of the world' or "Apocalypse" - the Telegraph story had all three. Many people read the title first and don't pay much attention to the actual content.
- Use of dramatic hyperbole again with any of those words. Example, "Britons 'thinking Brexit would lead to APOCALYPSE' stocking up on doomsday supplies" Though it's a perfectly acceptable figure of speech, readers with cosmophobia will understand this word literally as their default assumption for what you mean. It needs a little care. and especially so if the context is astronomy or cosmology. This is one that really surprised me that anyone would find such a title scary.
- Dramatic fake descriptions - like the Telegraph fake tweets. Though it may seem ridiculously over the top to a journalist, with many absurd giveaways to show that they were joke tweets, this humour is much harder to spot for these easily scared people.
- Exaggerated images. Many stories about asteroids picture Don Davis's artist's impression of a planetoid hitting the early Earth in a story about a rock of a few hundred meters up to 10 kms or so in diameter. The cratering evidence suggests such impacts haven't happened for over 3 billion years in the inner solar system inside of the asteroid belt. More examples here (half way down the page)
- One sided presentation not giving any details of the scientific debunking - when it's often easy to do so.
- Titles that suggest the end of the universe or the Earth is imminent. Example, the Mirror saying: "Universe WILL tear itself apart with a 'Big Rip" destroying all life in seconds, scientists say". Many people read the title first and don't pay too much attention to the details of the story, in this case that it won't happen for 22 billion years (and is only one theory of many)
- Short statement saying that NASA has said it is false - without explaining why and without a link to the NASA page - if there is any. The sensationalist journalists just add this as boiler plate, even if NASA has nothing to do with it and haven't written anything about the story. It's a standard one sentence thing at the end of the article which the target readers ignore. This does not count as debunking it.
Many conspiracy theorists portray NASA as a world spanning astronomical dictatorship with immense powers, able to hide a second sun in the sky with giant mirrors in space, hires jets world wide to fly around in the sky to hide the second sun with contrails, and murders astronomers who speak up, to keep us in ignorance about what's happening in the night sky above us.
All this may seem absurd to you - but many people have bought into this and seriously believe these things, with endless questions to me about it - so this actually reinforces the fear in vulnerable people. Please debunk properly and don't just add a boilerplate "NASA says ...". And link to a proper debunking page.
That's just by way of examples. Do bear in mind that your story will be read by vulnerable easily scared people such as the ones David Morrison describes. If you want to help with this, do take a little care over these details.
TELEGRAPH COVER IMAGE
The cover picture for the Telegraph article and others reporting this "world ending on 29th July story" is an example of these dramatic but inaccurate images. It shows a blurred out image of Cassiopeia A, a supernova remnant 11,000 light years away.
It is no conceivable threat to our solar system. Nor can our sun go supernova, even in the distant future (it's too small for that). It was originally used as a cover image for stories about the "Big rip" theory. The only connection is that the research for that theory involved study of the red shifts of distant supernovae.
NEED FOR ACTIVE DEBUNKING BY THE MEDIA
As well as not running such stories, there is also a need for more debunking to counteract all this publicity in the papers. There are many excellent debunking articles and videos from 2012 by Phil Plait (of "Bad Astronomy" fame), David Morrison (now retired, senior NASA astrobiologist and expert on asteroid impacts and former head of the Sagan institute) , and several others - but I get scared people asking me, who is debunking these stories now?
Of course, the 2012 debunking articles are still valid, and changing the date makes no difference. The ideas are as nonsensical in 2016 as they were in 2012. But some readers of news stories will feel they can't evaluate any astronomical and geometrical ideas for themselves. They are impressed by the large number of recent media stories promoting these various doomsday ideas, and an almost complete lack of any stories debunking them, which creates the very false impression that the majority opinion is that these stories are true.
Thankfully there are some debunking sources now, including
If you are a journalist,
- Please consider writing a debunking article instead of an article that publicizes these ideas.
If you don't have a strong scientific background, any astronomer can help you write it. These debunking articles can also be entertaining and engaging as I hope I've shown with my own articles. See my Debunking Doomsday blog - list of the articles here, debunks the most common doomsday myths.
Then there's the online / kindle book (free to read online and if you buy the kindle editions, all proceeds go to suicide prevention charities) Doomsday Debunked.
It also has many more examples of over dramatic images used frequently in asteroid impact reporting - some showing complete destruction of Earth, along with other scientifically accurate, and still dramatic images which are often used for these articles. You can help a lot by opting for the more accurate image to illustrate your article.
CAN WE DO ANYTHING?
First, better education can help. But these stories themselves are part of the education of the general public. People don't just learn at school, they learn throughout their life, not just from their teachers but also from each other, and indeed, from journalists, for better or worse.
There's probably not much we can do about "Before it's News" - or blogs or YouTube videos (apart from petitioning YouTube to stop ad revenue) - those are covered by right for free speech I'd imagine.
But I think there is some hope of doing something about the articles that run in responsible mainstream newspapers, online or in print, like the Telegraph, Independent, etc. And - maybe, just maybe, we can also get the authors of doomsday stories in the red top tabloids to think a bit about how they present these stories too...
I don't know if legislation is possible for the mainstream papers. I welcome suggestions if anyone knows if it is possible, and can start a separate petition if there is some legal change we can petition for. If not, surely raising awareness with the publishers and journalists can help.
WHO TO SEND THIS TO?
This petition is mainly to raise awareness. If If it gets to some high number like several thousand, I might send it to editors of newspapers as a starting point? I think a lot of it is that they are not aware of quite what an impact their articles have on vulnerable people.
Meanwhile it's helping to spread awareness whenever someone signs it and shares it. If you have any ideas of people or organizations to send this petition to, I welcome suggestions! Any comments - you can comment on my science20 article, or email me
Note to media, or anyone else who wants to contact me, email firstname.lastname@example.org