John Mulaney does a bit that goes, “You know those days where you’re just like, this might as well happen. Adult life is already so…weird.” The context of the bit, incidentally, involves anxiety and doctor visits. So, it fits the mood.

My news feed reads like a verse of “We Didn’t Start the Fire.” Murder Hornets? Checks out. Elon Musk? Whatever. 

The other day I saw the headline “The day after Thursday is now Sunday.”  

I reread it. 

“By Order of Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp: The day after Thursday is now Sunday.” 

I am accosted by my fair share of clickbait. Surely, I think, this is going to be what qualifies as a political think piece for a reporter who’s branching out from cataloging “people dermatologists hate” and “wedding fails.”

I squint at the source beneath the headline. 

The article is from the Washington Post. Tom Hanks played the Washington Post in a movie, which means it’s credible. 

I click. Somewhere in the internet’s great, sovereign, analytics calculators, a bead is moved on an abacus indicating that, in addition to Parks and Rec memes, I click for fundamental alterations to the calendar. And things remotely connected to Tom Hanks. 

For a second, I hear John Mulaney’s voice in my head. “This may as well happen,“ I think. “2020 is already so ludicrous. Executive orders happen all the time. We may as well reorder the days of the week in Georgia. Arizona doesn’t do Daylight Saving.” 

I spot a small, important word above the headline: “Opinions.”

While Dana Milbank’s article couldn’t pass for frank, unbiased journalism (the word “flimflam” is used), it’s not exactly a thoughtful societal critique either. Frankly, the headline is the most interesting part of the article. The rest is a rather ordinary relation of events told on a pretty obvious slant. I almost titled this post “Journalist Fumes About ‘Flimflam.’”

The flimflam in question is a graph released by Georgia’s Department of Public Health that appeared to show a steady decline in COVID-19 cases between April 27 and May 9. Upon closer inspection, however, the days on the graph are out of order, beginning with April 28, jumping back to April 29, followed by May 1, then April 30, then May 4, and so on. 

As only the final two days of the graph appear consecutively, it’s probably not a typo. In fact, it shows every indication of being designed to abuse the cursory way readers consume and accept visual information.

I now realize how little I scrutinize the graphs I believe every day. I don’t always read to see whether I’m looking at new cases in Michigan, current cases, or deaths. I focus on the line. I could not tell you the source of the particular graph I check every morning in the headlines Google provides. However, I’m as convinced of its credibility as I would be if Tom Hanks had played it in a movie.

Accessibility of information is the advantage that sets the COVID-19 pandemic apart from the 1918 flu or others, right? We can roll over every morning and hear that our families are well from their own mouths and see detailed metrics for our region. 

So, the Georgia graph feels like a particular betrayal of trust.

But is Milbank’s headline any better? Ironically, the headline sparks interest by strongly suggesting that the days of the week have been officially reordered by using words and ideas we’ve come to expect in our weird world—executive orders altering daily life. 

Milbank plays on how we’re consuming headlines now, and I honestly can’t tell if he is being tongue-in-cheek or if, like the graph he criticizes, he is manipulating a desired response through clever, attention-grabbing presentation of information. 

So, to the graduates, especially my fellow English majors, this flimflam and its critics are as good a life lesson as any on the occasion of your commencement. 

Adult life is really weird. We’re writing in a world where Tom Hanks cannot always be there to guide us, and readers blink through a kaleidoscope of headlines. The pressure to be clicked will be great. 

Journalists, played by Tom Hanks or not, are often portrayed with the heroic temperament of Captain America paired with the refined intellect that infuses the aesthetic of your favorite coffee shop. Consequently, the stereotypical young writer, setting off to tell the truth and change the world, fancies themself the poet-prophet-underdog-“everyman.” 

But in The Arts’ alleged divorce from “The Paying Fields” (i.e. STEM), The Arts got custody of the Cultural Mind. Even if we chose this work as math-adverse bundles of lofty ideals, we cannot be cavalier with numbers and scientific information. Journalists, bloggers, and the average Facebook user are gatekeepers of Information, that great weapon against the “darkness” as the Washington Post slogan puts it. Outside a classroom, I would be surprised if one scientific fact or statistic reaches the average person’s mind without first filtering through a journalist’s. 

Think about what this means for politics, sure. But also for climate science. For the vaccine upon which so many of our hopes depend right now. We are responsible for articulating data. 

Milbank’s article is an “Opinion” because the facts are filtered through his reactions. But what news outlet could not replace its slogan with, “We think like you, so we can think for you”? Even the most idealistic writers, at the most just publications, filter information through a sieve of opinions. I would argue that the line between specifically ordering days on a graph and splicing apart a quote for the juicy bits, or even picking which stories make it from pitch to print, is sometimes razor thin. 

We can’t be STEM-phobic or even casual. We have to know how to read a graph. We have to know how big an acceptable data set should be. Our ardor for the truth must extend beyond the craters great folk leave in the scope of human history. We must bridge the gap so that truth is conveyed in the stoic march of numbers and the significance of small changes in the chemical composition of water from local faucets. 

It is our responsibility to be truer than a Georgia graph even if our words are forgotten faster than a New York minute.

1 Comment

  1. Kyric Koning

    What a journalistic final line! Fantastic.

    It really is curious how we can take objective data and subvert them to subjective ones.

    Reply

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