I knew that from the start. What I’ve read in the popular spider press seems like a lot of scary stories – it’s not news unless it reaffirms people’s fears. I wondered how bad the reporting was, and now it’s quantified: just under half are sensationalized. It’s a bit better than my impression, but still awful.
Overall, the quality of reporting was poor: 47% of all stories contained one or more errors and 43% were sensationalized. Stories with photos of spiders or alleged bites were more likely to be sensational, as were stories with errors. While quotes from medical or other experts were not linked to sensationalism, stories containing quotes from spider experts were much LESS likely to be sensationalized.
If it’s bleeding, it leads — or if it’s got fangs, too many legs and eyes, and it’s poisonous, that warrants a panic on page 3. What to do about it?
We then performed an analysis to describe the flow of spider news around the world and to determine what may be causing (mis)information about spiders to be spread online. Not surprisingly, countries with shared languages and with higher proportions of Internet users were more likely to be connected to the global network. The number of medically important spider species present (i.e. those capable of harming and potentially killing humans) has also increased the connectivity of individual countries within the network. More specifically, we have identified sensationalism as a key factor underlying the spread of (mis)information.
This study provides insight into what drives the global flow of information about spiders specifically, but can also teach us more general lessons. Our findings make us optimistic because they suggest a way to improve spider reporting and, therefore, change the quality and dissemination of information online more widely. News stories are less sensationalized when they consult appropriate experts, and reducing sensationalism can help reduce the spread of misinformation. We have found that even local events published by regional media can quickly be broadcast internationally, which means that improving the quality of local information can have positive effects that spread through the global network.
Journalists, you know you can pick up your phone and call your local university or extension service and contact someone knowledgeable about the species you are considering defaming, right? It’s not difficult, it makes your story better, and it doesn’t compromise your integrity. It would be less sinister and melodramatic, however.
Plus, everyone knows that spiders are really cute and playful.