Mind over Media: How the News Legitimizes the Paranormal and Why It Matters

Article excerpt

SCIENTISTS ARE "MAD," "DANGEROUS," "useless" twits, often plagued, and ultimately destroyed, by their insistence on reason. At least this is how skeptic William Evans believes they are portrayed by the entertainment industry. That is, if they are not deemed entirely irrelevant. On television shows like the X-Files, for example, in which "the paranormal is portrayed as, well, normal," it is the scientists who are the aliens. (1)

In the six years since Evans' article, the television and film industries have continued to rely heavily on paranormal themes. (2,3) At the same time, the percentage of Americans that hold paranormal beliefs has been rising sharply. In 2000, a Gallup poll reported that 34% of women and 27% of men believed in ghosts; by 2001 the percentages had increased to 43% and 34%, respectively. (4)

Though Evans' concerns are warranted (exposure to science fiction has been associated with an increased likelihood of paranormal beliefs (5,6), science fiction is, after all, only fiction. Anyone who sees crop circles in their front lawn after watching the movie Signs is surely not blameless. Non-fiction media, on the other hand, begin with a premise of truth. In the news genre there is little excuse for ghosts and the afterlife, psychics and seers, pseudoscientists and parapsychologists. So why are purveyors of the paranormal and their alleged happenings popping up in places where we normally expect to find hard news?

News As Entertainment

When questioned about the Travel Channel's lean away from travel and adventure documentaries and toward paranormal-themed documentaries, senior vice president, Steve Cheskin, said, "I [was] at Discovery 15 years, six of those at The Learning Channel. I learned about what works in ratings. The word 'mystery' is a good word; 'secrets' is a good word. [They imply] that you're going to deliver something [viewers] didn't know before." (7) If it is true that mysteries of the unknown draw audiences, then science and reason are likely to ruin the effect.

Perhaps that is why investigations of paranormal Phenomena--phenomena that can be readily debunked--are often left unresolved. According to Michael Shermer author of Why People Believe Weird Things, people may believe that "if they cannot explain something, it must be inexplicable and therefore a true mystery of the paranormal." (8) The apparent stumping of investigative journalists can only strengthen this reaction.

Science: The Fantasy Killer

To introduce an NBC Dateline report on John Edward, host Stone Phillips said:

   Celebrated psychic John Edward says he can communicate
   with the dead. That the dearly departed
   are still with us. A Harvard trained scientist says
   there may be something to his claims. Now we're
   about to see Edward in action, claiming to channel
   the dead at the request of the living. Listen carefully,
   this medium has a message. Will you believe it? (9)

The emotionally provocative language used here not only hinders reason, (10) it creates a mood of mystery and intrigue that all but precludes scientific perspectives. William Evans notes that television and movies often bypass reason altogether, without "acknowledg[ing] that skepticism is an understandable first response to fantastic claims and wondrous events." (11) Incredibly, his complaint also applies to news programs. Maintaining a vaudevillian tone--like that established by Phillips--may require that practical reasoning be omitted. No one wants to be debriefed after a magic show.

On October 31st, 2002, The New York Times ran a profile on four ghostbusters from the Atlantic Paranormal Society. Their services include the detection and flushing out of ghosts (hence the expression "spirit plumbers"). Though the hygienists of the underworld admit, without irony, that ghost complaints rise whenever a scary movie is shown in theatres, scientific and skeptical perspectives on hauntings were not included in the article. …