The Media Marketplace for Garbled Demography



Differences in cultural norms and incentives provide a powerful marketplace for garbled demography in the mass media. Journalists are attracted to expectation of dramatic shifts in politically and socially controversial domains that can result from long-term population projections. Demographers routinely caution against interpreting such projections as forecasts, and emphasize the complexities and uncertainties of demographic analyses. Yet such caveats are often lost in the sequence of translations from demographic study, to press release, to journalistic treatment. In addition, advocacy groups often interpret such stories to serve their own interests, while headlines and article titles designed for general readerships are another source of miscommunication about demographic studies. Two recent cases offer object lessons of how careful demographic analyses addressing politically controversial trends can suffer from such confusions: media coverage of the 1997 National Research Council report entitled The New Americans, and the 2000 report by the United Nations Population Division entitled Replacement Migration: Is It a Solution to Declining and Ageing Populations? The essay suggests procedural changes that might moderate the level of garbled reporting and commentary that commonly characterize coverage of such studies in the mass media.