Spider journalism isn’t great

I knew it all along. What I read in the popular press about spiders seems to be a lot of spook stories — it isn’t news unless it reaffirms peoples’ fears. I’ve wondered how bad the reporting is, and now it’s been quantified: a bit less than half are sensationalist. That’s slightly better than my impression, but still awful.

Overall, the quality of the reporting was poor: 47% of all articles contained one or more errors and 43% were sensationalist. Stories with photos of spiders or alleged bites were more likely to be sensationalized, as were stories that contained errors. Whereas quotes from medical or other experts were unrelated to sensationalism, stories that contained quotes from spider experts were much LESS likely to be sensationalized.

If it bleeds, it leads — or if it has fangs, too many legs and eyes, and is venomous, it justifies a freak-out on page 3. What to do about that?

We next conducted an analysis to describe the flow of spider news stories around the world and to get at what may be driving the spread of (mis)information about spiders online. Unsurprisingly, countries with shared languages and with higher proportions of internet users were more likely to be connected in the global network. The number of medically important spider species present (i.e., those capable of harming and potentially killing humans) also increased the connectedness of individual countries within the network. Most notably, we 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 in particular, but can also teach us some more general lessons. Our results make us optimistic because they suggest a way to improve reporting on spiders, and in turn, to shift the quality and spread of online information more broadly. News stories are less sensationalized when they consult appropriate experts, and reducing sensationalism can help decrease spread of misinformation. We found that even local-scale events published by regional news outlets can quickly become broadcast internationally, which means improving news quality at the local scale can have positive effects that travel 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’re planning to libel, right? It’s not hard, it makes your story better, and it doesn’t compromise your integrity. It would be less lurid and melodramatic, though.

Besides, everyone knows that spiders are really cute and playful.


  1. says

    It’s not just spiders.

    Whenever I see stuff in mainstream media related to my area of expertise, it is often incorrect.

    One would expect that for example the periodical of our national society of engineers would be more conscious of the knowledge of their readers, and would check their articles accordingly, but no. Still, every time I read e.g. “GWh of power” it makes me cringe.

  2. birgerjohansson says

    In one of Heinlein ‘s children’s books, there is an ectraterrestrial spider analog that is kept as a pet.
    This is the only positive description of arachnids I have found in fiction.

  3. birgerjohansson says

    “It makes your story better”.
    För instance, the “daddy longlegs” are harmless detritivores and probably good for the ecology. Yet it is as if they do not exist as far as journalism is concerned. Here is lots of material untouched by science jornalism.

  4. Ridana says

    Doesn’t Charlotte’s Web provide a positive portrayal of spiders in fiction? I mean, she’s even the title character, and at least three of her children stick around to keep ol’ Wilbur company. She was some spider all right.

  5. birgerjohansson says

    I totally forgot the intelligent extra-terrestrial spiders in a recent novel by Adrian Tchaikovsky.

  6. bcw bcw says

    @1 Journalists often are the people in school who were OK at words but found math and the sciences too hard. What’s doubly weird is that no newspaper would tolerate a music reviewer who had no ear and knew nothing about music but it’s just fine for a science columnist to know nothing about the subject beyond what they got in their eighth grade biology and earth science course.

  7. silvrhalide says

    @5 Daddy longlegs aren’t actual spiders. Opiliones, not Arachnida. Unless you are talking about Pholcidae. In the US anyway, most people mean Opiliones when they are talking about daddy longlegs.

    Also not a spider:

  8. silvrhalide says

    @8 Sadly, wrong on both counts. Many editors are wildly tolerant of white hairsprayed males who know fuckall about anything., including music. Also, if you are a journalist and write scientifically correct articles, be prepared to have them dumbed down to general uselessness/pointlessness “so our readership can understand them”. Most newspapers are written on a 5th grade reading level. Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 afterword comes to mind.
    “Simplicity itself. Skin, debone, demarrow, scarify, melt, render down and destroy. Every adjective that counted, every verb that moved, every metaphor that weighed more than a mosquito–out! Every simile that would have made a sub-moron’s mouth twitch–gone! Any aside that explained the two-bit philosophy of a first-rate writer– lost!
    Every story, slenderized, starved, bluepencilled, leeched and bled white, resembled every other story. Twain read like Poe read like Shakespeare read like Dostoevsky read like–in the finale–Edgar Guest. Every word of more than three syllables had been razored. Every image that demanded so much as one instant’s attention–shot dead.”

  9. StevoR says

    @ 2. birgerjohansson : “This is the only positive description of arachnids I have found in fiction.”

    Ridana at #6 beat me to it with Charlotte’s Web which I loved as a kid so seconding that and also wasn’t there a good spider character in James & the Giant Peach too? Think I remember spider-like aliens that were portrayed at least neutrally in a couple of SF books read ages ago too & can’t properly recall enough details of now. However, yeah, postive descriptions of spiders and spider-like critters and aliens are indeed very few and far between and exceptions to the general rule.

  10. StevoR says

    Fictional SF spider-like aliens memory vaguely, hopefully, serving : One old art one with a lot of illustrations springs to mind. Like a future SF travelougue-y thing with lots of artwork in it if anyone else recalls it. Spider-liek aleins also had soem thing against religious humans barring them from visting with some odd misinterpretation of them if memory serves? Which wasn’t really portayed as bad just how they thought. Think I might have it on my bookshelves somewhere still but not sure & will have to check later..

    Posting as a comment now because otherwise I’m too likely to just forget completely.

  11. zygoptera says

    A couple of young children’s books with positive portrayals of spiders that come to my mind are The Very Busy Spider by Eric Carle and Be Nice to Spiders by Margaret Bloy Graham. The latter is a vintage book about a spider catching flies at a zoo which made the animals happy. I really like the concept of the helpful spider that wins the support of animals and humans, and the illustrations, although dated, provide good teaching moments about cages.

  12. birgerjohansson says

    One of those urban gothic novel series has the protagonist being best pal with a big arachnid living in a cave under a London park (no, it is not the Rivers of London series).
    BTW the elderly boss and mentor Thomas Nightingale in Rivers of London seems more sympathic than Angleton in the Laundry .