Good News Makes Bad Stories
by Ken Adams (e-mail: KAdams@liberator.net) [July 3rd, 2003]
It seems to me that most people do not understand the purpose of the media. Perhaps, even the media itself is not completely clear of its function. This sounds like a strange statement, so let me back up a step and explain where I am coming from.
Up-to-the-minute news is a relatively new phenomenon. For most of human history, news traveled slowly. Early civilizations received news only when a personal messenger traveled to the area, bringing news of the outside world. As time progressed, more sophisticated news distribution mechanisms came into use. But, even as recently as 100 year ago, newspapers were filled with hand gathered information, slowly printed, and even more slowly distributed. The advent of radio speeded up the process considerably.
“Is there anyone foolish enough to actually believe that news reports provide a balanced view of life?”
Today, we live in a world where news events are gathered by sophisticated teams of professionals, using the latest technology, and distributed to us instantly. This means that we can receive accurate coverage of events occurring on the other side of the planet, as they happen.
So, what’s not to understand?
Well, when I turn on the TV, I see reports of crime, war, and disaster. Occasionally, human interest stories are thrown in for relief. If I build my world-view based on what I see on the news, I will come to the conclusion that there is nothing but badness going on in the world.
What many people fail to appreciate is that the news does not report what is normal. It reports what is abnormal. That is why it is news. The events of my day, although normal and enjoyable, are not interesting to anyone but me. The news does not report events in proportion to their occurrence. It does not report on the millions of people who were not murdered today; it reports on the one who was murdered. It does not report on the millions who drove home safely; it reports on the one who was in a fatal accident; it does not report on the people who did not die of SARS today, it reports on the one who did.
Additionally, the news quickly tires of events. Legionnaire’s Disease made the news regularly in the 1970’s. Today it is unheard of. Yet, as many people die of legionnaire’s disease today as did in the 70’s. Why is it not reported? Because it is no longer news. It is no longer abnormal.
This year, 750,000 people will die of the measles. A few hundred will die of SARS. Why are the measles deaths not reported, while SARS dominates newscasts? Because, although tragic, the number of measles deaths is not abnormal. We are used to it.
Although the events reported in the media are true (at least within a reasonable standard of error), they are not proportional. So, a world-view built around the contents of news reports would give a person an unnecessarily pessimistic outlook.
Additionally, it seems that the media occasionally sensationalizes the news – trying to squeeze a story out of events that really do not want to cough one up. We can’t really blame the media. After all, they are only giving us what we want, and in fact, what we demand.
But, is this a real danger? Is there anyone foolish enough to actually believe that news reports provide a balanced view of life? I can answer emphatically, “Yes”. I was raised as a Jehovah’s Witness, and I can testify that, as a minimum, this group of six million people thrives on the disasters reported in the media. Crime, war, famine, disease, and natural disasters are considered to be evidence of the impending end of the world – an event that Jehovah’s Witnesses look forward to with glee.
But, they are not the only ones. Numerous other religious sects have similar outlooks. Even those who do not have an agenda often become unbalanced in their viewpoint. I live in Canada, and I visited Toronto at the height of the SARS panic. A quick calculation showed that I had a greater risk of being killed in a car accident on my drive to the airport, than I had of contracting SARS. Yet, I was a pariah for ten days after returning home.
So, what’s my point? Well, it’s this: Instantaneous news coverage is a great thing, but we need to keep it in perspective. The news reports only what is abnormal. We must fill in the normality ourselves.
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