John W. DeFeo Profile picture
Feb 16 30 tweets 6 min read
The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare many shortcomings and frailties in our society, but for me, none has been more damaging than the collapse of objective journalism.

I've worked in newsrooms for most of my career; I'd like to share how my experiences explain my view:

1/30 🧵
First, let me say that this thread is not an indictment of journalists, but rather an indictment of a system that produces bad journalism. The strange thing about systems is that they perpetuate and defend themselves, even when the participants of the system do not agree.

Yes, there are bad journalists. I should know: I was one of them. But, I had the benefit of good role models early in my career. I'll never forget the time I presented a single-source article to my editor. He said "What the fuck is this, an advertisement?"


Bringing me to:
Unreasonable Story Counts:

On average, the journalists that I've worked with had an expectation of producing 3-4 stories per day and one editor had 4-5 writers beneath.

This was a corporate demand, not an editorial one, and it does not allow time for top quality work.

Lack of Technical Editors:

Editors with a STEM background or a specific technical speciality are expensive and in short supply. I've seen a single technical story that required approximately one week of editing time. Many publications cannot afford this.

Words Edited, Numbers Not:

In the absence of a technical editor, many stories are edited for clarity, but not for data integrity. The results are most often seen when millions/billions/trillions are confused, or when bad metric conversions slip by.

Pageview Targets:

In addition to story counts (see #4 above), many journalists are encouraged (or directly incentivized) to reach pageview targets. Doing so has an impact on story selection (see #8 below).

Inefficacy of Straight News:

A story that is a plain statement of facts presented without sensationalism, will, on average, receive 400-1,200 visits. This is a guaranteed financial loss for an ad-supported news website.

Efficacy of Emotional Manipulation:

To increase readership of a straight news story, there are emotional triggers that can be leveraged. E.g. Headlines that include "Why You Should..." or "Why We Must..." Writers learn these tactics by exposure, or are taught directly.

Search Engine Optimization:

Many organizations rely on search engine traffic to sustain financial viability. I worked in this field for years and I believe that it is diametrically opposed to accountable journalism. Two major reasons listed below:

Confirmation Bias in Story Selection:

People who use search engines are, with their search data, broadcasting what they want to read. It is reverse broadcasting. News organizations get the message and prepare content with higher odds of success.

Rewrites for Marketability:

Reporters and editors are losing control of their own words, even within the body content of articles. Some of the articles that I wrote years ago have been edited to include marketing buzzwords and dubious links.

Make What We Sell:

A media sales team, left unchecked, will close almost any deal that will result in financial benefit for the sales team (not the news organization). As a result, journalists are forced to create content to fulfill questionable campaigns.

Bullying From Sales:

I once assigned a story that, unbeknownst to me, called into question the business model of an advertiser. The head of sales screamed at me in front of the entire newsroom. Luckily, my editor defended me. Not all do.

Bullying From External PR:

I once published the compensation packages of highly-paid CEOs. It was a matter of public record, yet a powerful PR executive (who represented one of those CEOs) demanded that the story be retracted and for me to be fired.

Bullying From Big Tech:

I've seen companies like Google threaten to remove major revenue sources from a news organization unless a particular story was unpublished. The reasons were often silly (like an elbow that looked like a breast), but the implications are sinister.

Bullying From Lawyers:

Some of the best journalism that I've seen firsthand was responded to with massive 8-figure lawsuits. Not every news organization has legal protections, insurance and a general counsel who stands behind good journalism.

Violent Threats:

In addition to lawsuits (see #17 above), some of the best journalism that I've seen firsthand was responded to with threats of death or rape. Credible or not, these threats are terrifying and they take an emotional toll.

Threat of Revoked Access:

Invitations to conferences and press briefings are in short supply. It can take years to earn an invite. On the other hand, a single critical story may result in revoked credentials and a complete blackballing of a journalist or publication.

Literal Lack of Boundaries:

Many newsrooms have open floor plans that can result in undue (and often, unintended, pressure).

E.g. A CEO leans on the desk of a 21-year old reporter and asks why hasn't __ been covered yet.

That story is often written, like it or not.

Removal of Comment Sections:

To mitigate threats and abuse (see #18 above), many websites have removed comment sections. There are unintended consequences. Almost every major error that I've corrected was first exposed to me in the comments on an article that I published.

Corrections Kill Momentum:

When a correction is added to the top of a story (even something as innocent as mis-spelling of a name), the velocity of pageviews and social sharing falls precipitously. I have measured this directly.

Corrections Are Embarrassing:

"Soft corrections" are a way to avoid retraction. I did it early in my career. E.g. I made a mistake in my bond math; a reader writes "This doesn't make sense unless it's a zero-coupon bond." Me: "Er, yeah, that's what I meant." I didn't.

Corrections Therefore Buried:

Should a reader be so lucky that a story is corrected, the new information is likely to be viewed 1-2% as often as the misinformation. (I have measure this directly). I.e. Bad info gets 50-100x the exposure that the good does.

Inability to Hire Talent:

I have twice tried to hire someone who was significantly more talented than I was. I had no problem with an employee earning more than me, but my company did. It makes no sense: Winning teams don't pay their coaches more than MVPs. Media does.

The "Shock Jock" Exception:

Top-notch reporters and data journalists struggle for competitive pay (see #25 above), but many newsrooms will offer big bucks to blowhard columnists. It may result in reporters taking harder (and less objective) stances.

Sensational Feedback Cycle:

Sensational stories often get sensational pageviews, which triggers more rewards from related content algorithms via companies like Outbrain and Taboola.

When sensationalism is rewarded, objectivity is punished.

Effects of Apathy:

This thread shows how journalists have suffered abuse by a thousand cuts. It's no surprise that cheap sourcing results in sensational stories that are too bountiful to correct:………

The U.S. press has rushed, flubbed and left uncorrected many COVID-19 topics: Origin thesis, aerosols, masking, comorbidities, seasonality, natural immunity, With/From, scientific dissent, clinical trial parameters, censorship, bias risks, myocarditis, kid's mental health.

This thread is about reasons, not excuses.

Journalists have printed and amplified demonstrably false statements made by politicians and public officials. Yet, to my mind, it is journalists who have the best platform and incentive to set the record straight.



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More from @johndefeo

Feb 14
Tonight, 70,000 maskless adults are shoulder to shoulder, enjoying life together in California.

Tomorrow, approximately 7,000,000 California school-children will be forced to wear masks and keep apart from each other.

Politics are a disease. End the cruelty. Unmask the kids.
Two years into this pandemic and the *latest* CDC case for masking relies on data that is "subject to at least eight limitations" and "not statistically significant."

Meanwhile, the percentage of a child's life lived during the pandemic:
Age 3 - 67%
Age 4 - 50%
Age 5 - 40%
Developmental prosopagnosia has no cure.

I only recently learned about this disorder and its lifelong consequences.

Millions of young children are forcibly masked in states like New York and California, and I fear that parents do not know what is at stake.
Read 5 tweets
Feb 6
My governor, @GovKathyHochul, touted a maskless NY school visit via Facebook. Then she restricted the post. The next day, the rules changed. Now, she requires 24-month olds to wear masks while she routinely appears maskless in a crowd. This is not leadership in any form.

Stacey Abrams is a popular politician. She visited a Georgia grade school without a mask. Rather than speak to concerns of hypocrisy, the school principal (a PhD) deleted her tweet, then deleted her 13-year old Twitter account.

Neither action is leadership by example.

Around the world, political leaders are having gatherings that violate their own lockdown rules and are putting on masks only for the brief moment that TV cameras are rolling:… - They travel freely, wine and dine like VIPs and bask in their celebrity.

Read 11 tweets
Feb 4
The percentage of a child's life lived during the pandemic:

Age 1 - 100%
Age 2 - 100%
Age 3 - 67%
Age 4 - 50%
Age 5 - 40%
Age 6 - 33%
Age 7 - 29%
Age 8 - 25%

Segregation, inequity, forced dress, anti-socialization and "us vs. them" thinking is being presented as "normal."

History may not repeat, but it echoes.

The 1918 pandemic claimed 50,000,000 lives.

The civil unrest that followed it claimed 75,000,000 more.

In between, there was 20 years of addiction, blame, resentment, dehumanization and self-righteous morality.

Major conflicts over the last 200 years have a commonality: They were heralded by a rise in the use of the word "enemy" within literature. Today, it happens on social media.


Read 4 tweets
Jan 18
A chronology of my COVID-19 bookmarks: It highlights the missed moments, the reversals, the inconsistencies, the false sense of control, and the gaslighting that we've endured over two years.

Note: Endorsement/refutation not implied by tweets in timeline.

July 2019 - The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) grants continued funding to EcoHealth Alliance, in partnership with the Wuhan Institute of Virology, to conduct "in vitro and in vivo infection experiments" of bat-origin CoVs:…

Dec. 2019 - Promotional video for the Wuhan CDC shows a technician without appropriate protective gear: -…

Read 133 tweets

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