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Shooting the Messenger: Why the Media Can No Longer Safeguard Democracy
“We love, as a culture, to attack messengers when the message is something that makes us feel uncomfortable,” says journalist Wesley Lowery.
Wesley Lowery is a national reporter for the Washington Post who covers law enforcement, justice, race and politics. He previously covered Congress and national politics. Prior to joining the Washington Post in February 2014, he worked as a breaking news and local politics reporter for the Boston Globe, and has also reported for the Los Angeles Times and the Wall Street Journal. In 2014, he was named the National Association of Black Journalists' "Emerging Journalist of the Year." Follow him on Twitter @WesleyLowery.
Wesley Lowery: I think that we’ve seen an unprecedented assault on our media. We’ve seen a deep villainization of our free press. And, in fact, a war on objectively true information that when something is reported that someone does not like you can just say it’s not true whether it is or not. You can try to undercut the messenger and talk about how these are just biased reporters, don’t listen to them. When, in fact, often these are fair reporters who’ve worked very hard to get things right. That has real ramifications. I mean we’re facing the prospect of living in a world that is post truth where there are no objective truths. Where you can tell me the sky is purple, the sky is green when in fact we’re looking at it and we see that it’s blue. That becomes very dangerous potentially for democracy, right. Because in a world in which the truth is unknowable how do we make governing decisions and then also how do we hold people accountable? How do we demand better of our elected officials if our elected official do not have to acknowledge reality at any point in time, right. They can just tell us that no, they did not say the thing they said. No this policy would not do the things we know it would do. I think that’s particularly dangerous and I think that it’s difficult.
I mean I don’t think that there’s any coincidence in the fact that our press freedoms are one of the first things that our founders enshrined in our constitution. I think there’s a reason for that because what they saw through their own experiences, their ability to tell the truth, their ability whether it be through the Penny Press or through spoken word was what sparked their revolution. And they knew that safeguarding that potential and those outlets where what would one day give the United States of America the capacity to deal with an existential threat. And I think that’s what we face now is the potential of having our press so undermined that it can no longer be a safeguard over democracy.
We’ve seen this going back several years. This idea that somehow the media must be held accountable instead of the elected officials being held accountable. We saw this in Ferguson. We saw, because we love as a society, as a culture to attack messengers when the message is something that makes us feel uncomfortable. So reporters who reported on things like police shootings and race and justice became the targets because if only you could discredit them, if you could prove they had some vendetta or some bias that they were really just some liberal operative then you didn’t have to engage at all with what they were saying. And so what we’ve seen is reporters being attacked personally whether it be through threats, whether it be through their addresses being published, whether it be through smear campaigns trying to undermine things. People not approaching their work or their correspondences in good faith. Again I think this is particularly dangerous because it allows this undermining of the norm of journalists by and large being good people trying to do good work, who get it right more often than they get it wrong. And that is the reality. But when the public stops believing that it’s the reality it raises real questions about our ability to do our job.
It’s no coincidence, says Wesley Lowery, that freedom of the press was one of the first things that the U.S. founders enshrined in the Constitution. It was people of that time’s ability to report on and openly discuss their situation that sparked the revolution. It became clear then that a free press is the ultimate safeguard for democracy.
So what happens when that press is undermined? The 2016 election was unprecedented in its bending of the truth. The emphasis on fact-checking during the debates, the clear Twitter evidence and past-interview quotes that were exhibited but still denied, and the disregard for accountability of past actions came into direct conflict with what is known to be the truth. The media was delegitimized in a very public way – there are big ramifications to that, says Lowery. He fears we are entering a post-truth age, where fact is no longer objective – one where elected officials can point-blank say their bill will do something it definitely won't, or deny something they are on record saying. The media becomes the villain in the wake of this, accused of bias – a big enough distraction for some to let the official shimmy away without repercussion.
Lowery has first-hand experience in the villainizing of the media – he was one of three journalists arrested in 2014 while covering the Ferguson protests. What the Black Lives Matter movement brings to light for him, besides the core message, is that here is a case of the media being held accountable for the actions of others. "We love, as a society, as a culture, to attack messengers when the message is something that makes us feel uncomfortable," says Lowery. "So reporters who reported on things like police shootings and race and justice became the targets because if only you could discredit them, if you could prove they had some vendetta or some bias that they were really just some liberal operative then you didn’t have to engage at all with what they were saying."
When the public stops believing that reported journalism is the truth, learns to cry "bias" as a knee-jerk reaction to bad news, and is jockeyed into a habit of mistrust and 'blaming the messenger' by elected officials, it guillotines journalism as a democratic protector.
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A new coronavirus vaccine on display at the Nikolai Gamaleya National Center of Epidemiology and Microbiology in Moscow, Russia.
Credit: Alexander Zemlianichenko Jr/ Russian Direct Investment Fund via AP
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Credit: Russian Defense Ministry Press Service via AP
A report from the New York Times raises questions over how the teletherapy startup Talkspace handles user data.
- In the report, several former employees said that "individual users' anonymized conversations were routinely reviewed and mined for insights."
- Talkspace denied using user data for marketing purposes, though it acknowledged that it looks at client transcripts to improve its services.
- It's still unclear whether teletherapy is as effective as traditional therapy.
Talkspace.com<p>Former employees also questioned the legitimacy of certain interventions by the company into client-therapist interactions. For example, after one therapist sent a client a link to an online anxiety worksheet, a company representative instructed her to try to keep clients inside the app.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"I was like, 'How do you know I did that?'" Karissa Brennan, a therapist who worked with Talkspace from 2015 to 2017, told the Times. "They said it was private, but it wasn't."</p><p>Other former employees said the company would pay special attention to its "enterprise partner" clients, who worked at companies like Google. One therapist said Talkspace contacted her for taking too long to respond to Google clients.</p><p>Talkspace responded to the Times with a Medium <a href="https://medium.com/@founders_22883/talkspace-founders-respond-to-a-new-york-times-article-78d6f5c45c59" target="_blank">post</a>, which claimed the Times report contained false and "uninformed assertions."</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Talkspace is a HIPAA/HITECH and SOC2 approved platform, audited annually by external vendors, and has deployed additional technologies to keep its data safe, exceeding all existing regulatory requirements," the post states.</p>
HIPAA concerns<p>However, if the claims in the Times report are true, Talkspace may have violated the <a href="https://www.hhs.gov/sites/default/files//hipaa-privacy-rule-and-sharing-info-related-to-mental-health.pdf" target="_blank">Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) Privacy Rule</a>, which prohibits providers from disclosing patients' medical data for marketing purposes, unless the patient gives <a href="https://www.hhs.gov/hipaa/for-individuals/guidance-materials-for-consumers/index.html" target="_blank">authorization</a>.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"If it is true that Talkspace used information from private therapy sessions for marketing purposes, that is a clear violation of trust with their customers," Hayley Tsukayama, Legislative Activist from the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told <a href="https://www.salon.com/2020/08/10/therapy-app-talkspace-allegedly-data-mined-patients-conversations-with-therapists/" target="_blank">Salon</a>. "All companies should be very clear with their customers about how they use personal information, make sure that they don't use information in ways that consumers don't expect, and give them the opportunity to withdraw consent for those purposes on an ongoing basis. Talkspace trades on its trustworthiness and mentions privacy frequently in its ad campaigns. Its actions should be in line with its promises."</p><p>(It's also worth noting that Talkspace recently threatened legal action against a security researcher who wrote a blog post outlining the potential discovery of a bug that allowed him to get a year's subscription for free. A report from <a href="https://techcrunch.com/2020/03/09/talkspace-cease-desist/" target="_blank" rel="dofollow">TechCrunch</a> notes that Talkspace rejected the findings, and that the company does not offer a way for researchers to submit potential security bugs.) </p><p>Beyond privacy concerns, the report also raises questions about the efficacy of teletherapy, especially within a corporate model.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"The app-ification of mental health care has real problems," Hannah Zeavin, a lecturer at the University of California and author of an upcoming book on teletherapy, told the <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2020/08/07/technology/talkspace.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer dofollow">Times</a>. "These are corporate platforms first. And they offer therapy second."</p><p>The main problem with judging the efficacy of teletherapy is the lack of solid research — it's too new to comprehensively compare it with in-person therapy. Still, some <a href="https://www.theraplatform.com/blog/284/is-telemental-health-effective-how-does-it-measure-up" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer dofollow">studies</a> suggest it could be useful for at-risk populations, or for people in the wake of a disaster.</p>
'It's just not therapy'<p>But others remain skeptical.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Maybe [teletherapy] products and services are helpful to certain people," <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2020/08/07/technology/talkspace.html" target="_blank">said</a> Linda Michaels, a founder of the Psychotherapy Action Network, a therapists advocacy group. "But it's just not therapy."</p><p>Proper therapy or not, it's worth considering how platforms like Talkspace use — and possibly even depend on — user data. In a 2019 <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/02/opinion/health-care-data-privacy.html" target="_blank" rel="dofollow">opinion piece published in the Times</a>, Talkspace co-founder Oren Frank wrote:</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"The vast amount of information each of us possesses is far too important to be left under the control of just a few entities — private or public. We can think of our health care data as a contribution to the public good and equalize its availability to scientists and researchers across disciplines, like open source code. From there, imagine better predictive models that will in turn allow better and earlier diagnoses, and eventually better treatments.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">Your health care data could help people who are, at least in some medical aspects, very similar to you. It might even save their lives. The right thing to do with your data is not to guard it, but to share it."</p><p>Would you?</p>
A new Harvard study finds that the language you use affects patient outcome.
- A study at Harvard's McLean Hospital claims that using the language of chemical imbalances worsens patient outcomes.
- Though psychiatry has largely abandoned DSM categories, professor Joseph E Davis writes that the field continues to strive for a "brain-based diagnostic system."
- Chemical explanations of mental health appear to benefit pharmaceutical companies far more than patients.
Challenging the Chemical Imbalance Theory of Mental Disorders: Robert Whitaker, Journalist<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="41699c8c2cb2aee9271a36646e0bee7d"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/-8BDC7i8Yyw?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p>This is a far cry from Howard Rusk's 1947 NY Times editorial calling for mental healt</p><p>h disorders to be treated similarly to physical disease (such as diabetes and cancer). This mindset—not attributable to Rusk alone; he was merely relaying the psychiatric currency of the time—has dominated the field for decades: mental anguish is a genetic and/or chemical-deficiency disorder that must be treated pharmacologically.</p><p>Even as psychiatry untethered from DSM categories, the field still used chemistry to validate its existence. Psychotherapy, arguably the most efficient means for managing much of our anxiety and depression, is time- and labor-intensive. Counseling requires an empathetic and wizened ear to guide the patient to do the work. Ingesting a pill to do that work for you is more seductive, and easier. As Davis writes, even though the industry abandoned the DSM, it continues to strive for a "brain-based diagnostic system." </p><p>That language has infiltrated public consciousness. The team at McLean surveyed 279 patients seeking acute treatment for depression. As they note, the causes of psychological distress have constantly shifted over the millennia: humoral imbalance in the ancient world; spiritual possession in medieval times; early childhood experiences around the time of Freud; maladaptive thought patterns dominant in the latter half of last century. While the team found that psychosocial explanations remain popular, biogenetic explanations (such as the chemical imbalance theory) are becoming more prominent. </p><p>Interestingly, the 80 people Davis interviewed for his book predominantly relied on biogenetic explanations. Instead of doctors diagnosing patients, as you might expect, they increasingly serve to confirm what patients come in suspecting. Patients arrive at medical offices confident in their self-diagnoses. They believe a pill is the best course of treatment, largely because they saw an advertisement or listened to a friend. Doctors too often oblige without further curiosity as to the reasons for their distress. </p>
Image: Illustration Forest / Shutterstock<p>While medicalizing mental health softens the stigma of depression—if a disorder is inheritable, it was never really your fault—it also disempowers the patient. The team at McLean writes,</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"More recent studies indicate that participants who are told that their depression is caused by a chemical imbalance or genetic abnormality expect to have depression for a longer period, report more depressive symptoms, and feel they have less control over their negative emotions."</p><p>Davis points out the language used by direct-to-consumer advertising prevalent in America. Doctors, media, and advertising agencies converge around common messages, such as everyday blues is a "real medical condition," everyone is susceptible to clinical depression, and drugs correct underlying somatic conditions that you never consciously control. He continues,</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Your inner life and evaluative stance are of marginal, if any, relevance; counseling or psychotherapy aimed at self-insight would serve little purpose." </p><p>The McLean team discovered a similar phenomenon: patients expect little from psychotherapy and a lot from pills. When depression is treated as the result of an internal and immutable essence instead of environmental conditions, behavioral changes are not expected to make much difference. Chemistry rules the popular imagination.</p>
Why Depression Isn't Just a Chemical Imbalance<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="fbc027c9358dad4a6d9e2704fc9ddb04"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/GAC9ODvSxh0?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p>Many years ago, my best friend tried to quit smoking. He asked for help. While I'm no addiction expert, I offered what I knew from my fitness toolkit: breathing exercises and cardiovascular training, methods for strengthening his body and mind that could, I hoped, inspire him to take better care of himself in general. He replied, "No, I meant something like a pill."</p><p>A few years later, he quit for good. After failing the cold turkey method a number of times, it finally stuck. Maybe it was watching his children grow up—the reason my parents quit when I was young. This method is not easy, however. It challenges you; it forces you to confront your demons; it drastically affects your brain chemistry. Yet, in the long run, it sometimes works. </p><p>Sometimes pills work, too. But often they do not. The journalist Robert Whitaker, author of "Anatomy of an Epidemic," discussed the clinical trial process <a href="https://bigthink.com/mind-brain/antidepressants-dangers" target="_self">during our recent conversation</a>. While the FDA process appears thorough from the outside, pharmaceutical companies only need to prove that a drug works better than placebo, not that it works for the most amount of people. He continues, </p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Let's say you have a drug that provides a relief of symptoms in 20 percent of people. In placebo, it's 10 percent. How many people in that study do not benefit from the drug? Nine out of 10. How many people are exposed to the adverse effects of the drug? 100 percent."</p><p>Even though some pharmacological interventions show little efficacy, and even though Xanax, an addictive and destructive benzodiazepine that only showed <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5846112/" target="_blank">short-term (four weeks) efficacy</a> in clinical trials, is being prescribed for many months and years, doctors continue to use the language of clinical neuroscience to describe mental health issues. If chemistry is the problem, people will turn to chemistry for the solution. </p><p>Perhaps we should, as psychiatrist Dean Schuyler <a href="https://bigthink.com/surprising-science/antidepressant-effects" target="_self">writes</a> in a 1974 book, recognize that most depressive episodes "will run their course and terminate with virtually complete recovery without specific intervention." The problem is that idea isn't profitable. As long as the gatekeepers continue to use the language of chemical imbalances to describe what for many is just an episodic case of the "blahs," we'll continue creating more problems than we solve.</p><p>--</p><p><em>Stay in touch with Derek on <a href="http://www.twitter.com/derekberes" target="_blank">Twitter</a>, <a href="https://www.facebook.com/DerekBeresdotcom" target="_blank">Facebook</a> and <a href="https://derekberes.substack.com/" target="_blank">Substack</a>. His next book is</em> "<em>Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy."</em></p>
Viewing art that doesn't look like anything makes your brain take extra steps to try and get it.
- A new study finds that viewing modern art causes real cognitive changes in the viewer.
- Abstract art causes the viewer to place more psychological distance between themselves and the art than with more typical works.
- Exactly how this works is not yet known.