Hey, did you hear they’re not making typewriters anymore?

If you’ve been anywhere near Facebook, or the Internet in general, odds are you’ve seen the story. Supposedly, the last typewriter manufacturer in the world, in India, finally closed up shop. The news sent up waves of nostalgia among literary types.

Problem is, it isn’t true. As Gawker pointed out yesterday, you can still go to the Staples website and buy a typewriter. Swintec, a New Jersey company, says factories in Japan, China and Indonesia still build the things.

The company in India, it turns out, was the last one in the world making manual typewriters. Still an interesting story.

But the original meme – “they’re not making typewriters anymore” – which was picked up and repeated without question by news outlets all over the world, is simply wrong. And now, in its place, we have a wide range of muddled explanations.

The manual typewriter, actually, is a pretty good metaphor for the media. It’s really easy to make a mark on the page. But going back to erase it is much more difficult.

With that in mind, now’s a good time to go back and revisit Kate Sheppard’s excellent retrospective on “Climategate” in Mother Jones last week. While there aren’t any earth-shattering bombshells to be found, it’s a sobering lesson in how the media, working under the best of intentions, can wind up leave the public confused and misinformed on an important issue.

In a nutshell, the narrative – “climate scientists caught fudging data” – raced around the world before anyone took the time to look more deeply. News outlets were reporting the accusations, and so the stories, that people were making accusations, were in themselves factual. The subsequent investigations that found no wrongdoing didn’t make nearly the same splash.

So, just like correcting the errant typewriter keystroke, as we try to wipe away the ink, the indent in the paper remains. The narrative, despite having been proven false, keeps popping up over and over again.

When there is so much conflicting information over the simple, easy-to-prove fact that they’re still making typewriters, is it any wonder people are confused about climate science?

It’s tempting to blame the echo chamber of digital media for this, but that’s only part of the story. The process of unquestioningly passing along information from a trusted source predates the Internet, or even the printing press, for that matter.

The reality is, these things persist because people want to believe them. I’m only speculating, but my sense is that the typewriter story caught on because deep down, a lot of people are uncomfortable with the pace of technology and wanted a common touchstone from which to mourn the past.

Likewise, doubt about climate science is an easy sell. No one likes the idea that by driving their car or heating their house, they might somehow be contributing to widespread suffering of future generations. So anytime it sounds like the whole thing might not be true, people perk up and pay attention. I know I do.

In media, facts are only part of the equation. Whether they’re falling on receptive ears is arguably more important.

Photo by Lainey Powell via Creative Commons

Ken is the director of the Energy News Network at Fresh Energy and is a founding editor of both Midwest Energy News and Southeast Energy News. Prior to joining Fresh Energy, he was the managing editor for online news at Minnesota Public Radio. He started his journalism career in 2002 as a copy editor for the Duluth News Tribune before spending five years at the Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Washington, where he worked as a copy editor, online producer, features editor and night city editor. A Nebraska native, Ken has a bachelor's degree from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and a master's degree from the University of Oregon. He is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists and Investigative Reporters and Editors.

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