Teaching How To Sensationalize News

Whatever else how about this story, the principal is brutally honest about what was going on.  Fact: news is sensationalized everywhere.  Why?  Because it sells.  Such being the case, why shouldn't future 'journalists' be taught how to sensationalize the news?  This will increase their marketability as well as overall market efficiency, for such is the logical consequence of the free market.  (Note: this is the point where the teachers of ethics in journalism will roll their eyes in despair).

Via Peacehall, this the translated story:

On March 17, 2005, Hunan Normal University began to offer a class on how to sensationalize news (新闻炒作学).  After two sessions, this course has now been suspended due to the public outcry.

Our reporter contacted Professor Tian at the School of Journalism and Communication at the Hunan Normal University.  

Reporter: Did the school approved the course on sensationalizing news?

Tian: Sensationalizing news is a common occurrence, but our university has never blatantly offered such a course, and no teacher has ever proposed such a course.  Our university is very strict about offering new courses.  A proposal must go through the department, the school and the university and be evaluated in terms of both politics and academics as well as scientific validation before being approved.  This report about the course on "sensationalizing news" is actually something that is sensationalized by the media, spreading from one to ten, from ten to a hundred, thereby giving a bad name to our school.

Reporter: So what did Teacher Wei started to teach on the 17th?

Tian: Wei is a young lecturer at our school.  He has written two books: "Business Planning and News Sensationalism" and "How to Win By Sensationalizing -- Business Strategies in An Era of Personalized Economy".  This semester, he started a new course about news planning, and he used those two books as textbooks in order to help students analyze the sensationalization of news.

Our reporter also contacted Professor Guo, who was the Vice-Dean at the School of Journalism and Communications at the Hunan Normal University in charge of operations, as well as being a news critic for the HUnan provincial propaganda department.

Reporter: Did the school agree to establish "the study of news sensationalization"?

Guo:  To be precise, the course is titled "Enterprise Planning and News Operations."  When the course began in the middle of March, I happened to be out of town on business.  If I were here, I would not have agreed to offering this course.  This matter has not ended yet, and I will continue to talk to people until this course is cancelled.  Last year, the media reported that our school was going to offer "the study of news sensationalization."  I told the reporters that while we permit individual research investigation, offering a course would be impossible because I won't allow it.  Thus, this course was not offered last semester.

Reporter:  What do you think about "News Sensationalization"?

Guo:  It is inaccurate to denigrate this course as "News Sensationalization."  Certain media have exaggerated this as "News Sensationalization" and that is quite unfortunate for journalism.  In a market economy, the phenomenon of "sensationalizing news" is become more frequent and causing consternation.  "News sensationalization" is a bad thing, and there is no need for us to popularize it.

Teacher Wei was on a business trip to Wuhan, but he still agreed to be interviewed by us.

Reporter:  What is your definition of "News Sensationalization"?

Wei:  Here is my definition of "news sensationalization": During the occurrence and reporting of a news event, the news provider or disseminator intentionally inserted himself/herself to lead or amplify certain news elements for the purpose of attracting public attention in order to directly or indirectly obtain commercial gains.  The basic elements are that it is planned, shocking and commercialized.

Reporter:  What can be commercialized?  And what cannot be commercialized?

Wei:  I don't encourage that everything be sensationalized.  Sensationalization is only a means.  The ancient ones said, "Tools are used by people."  We must learn to distinguish between good-intentioned and bad-intentioned sensationalization, and between effective and ineffective sensationalization.  Right now, sensationalization exists objectively.  Precisely because of this, the study of news sensationalization has practical implications.

Reporter:  There have been many criticisms of "the study of news sensationalization" posted on the Internet.  Have you seen them?

Wei:  I saw them.  But there are also those who supported "the study of news sensationalization."

Our reporter also interviewed Professor Tung at the School of Journalism at Fudan University in Shanghai.  He said clearly that news should not be sensationalized.  Sensationalized news does not meet the criteria for news, and is directly contrary to the Hu Jintao's Three Closeness: Close To Reality, Close To Live, Close To The People (三贴近,=贴近实际、贴近生活、贴近群众), and that to treat "the study of news sensationalization" as a theory is absurd.

Personally, I had an even more extreme example in mind.  As a graduate student in statistics, I went through some reading about how certain people were determined to be cheating on their data.  Thus, other researchers ran the datasets through a series of statistical significant tests and then show that the data were too perfect to be plausible.  For example, the pea plants dataset from the father of genetics, Gregory Mendel, was determined to be statistically implausible ("one in a million") by statistician R.A.F. Fisher.  In search of a future research topic, I jotted down an interesting idea: How to create fake datasets that could fool the professional statistician.

I even had a title for my project.  The standard textbook on regression analysis was titled "Fitting Equations To Data".  My proposal would be known as "Fitting Data To Equation."  Thus: Give me a pre-determined outcome (such as an equation), and I can create an artificial dataset for you that will pass all the standard significant tests in a professional statistician's toolkit.  Thus, if you want to cheat (and it is happening all the time), you might as well as learn to do it right (as in 'undetectable').  On a technical note, this is not a trivial problem and involves some complex and intricate high-dimensional geometry.  In fact, it cries for technical attention because nobody understands the interrelationships among concurrent tests of significance.  But the ethical implications of this idea have discouraged any investigation so far, and I have yet to come across anyone who has broached this subject to date.

After I left school, I got a real job and I never went back to this idea.  That was probably a good thing, because it could have gotten me expelled from a few professional societies.  But then I could have made a bundle of money with a consulting service too ... okay, I'm just kidding, because there is obviously criminal liability in aiding and abetting others to commit fraud, over and above being able to sleep well at night with a good conscience.