|Number 524||February 6, 2013|
This Week: How The Media Distorts Reality, Part I
I continue to be fascinated with the various ways in which the structures of our media system affect how we think about issues. And that includes the things about which we do not think. I know from experience that I am an unusual person in that I spend a good part of my day seeking out good sources of news and analyzing poor sources. Most of us, if we pay attention to news at all, are very passive about it. We take what is given us, for the most part. So, if something is on the front page, we assume it is "important." If we haven't heard of something, we don't worry, since it must not be important. Or we would have heard of it.
Lately I've been noticing a pattern that appears to explain. at least in part, how and why our news system pays so much attention to certain things and so little attention to others. I've come to focus on four sub-systems of our media system that, together, work to distort our thinking about the world in predictable and unfortunate ways. The current furor about gun control offers a perfect opportunity to talk about this pattern. This week I discuss two of the sub-systems, and the other two I'll discuss in NN #525, which will come your way next week if we're lucky.
Until then, don't believe everything you read.
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A front-page article in the New York Times of January 29th was headlined "U.S. Weighs Base for Spy Drones In North Africa." The lengthy article spoke of plans, noting that "For now, officials say they envision flying only unarmed surveillance drones from the base, though they have not ruled out conducting missile strikes at some point if the threat worsens." The word "law" never appears in the article (as in: Are drone strikes legal?) Nor does the word, or the concept, of blowback (as in: Civilians killed leading to increased ability of Al Qaeda to recruit new members).
But I think the most chilling words appeared in the fourth paragraph, which read:
"A new drone base in northwest Africa would join a constellation of small airstrips in recent years on the continent, including in Ethiopia, for surveillance missions flown by drones or turboprop planes designed to look like civilian aircraft."
Despite the obvious danger to real civilian aircraft that results from such spy games, coverage of this program—and thus the outrage it deserves—has been sparse. For an admirable exception, see a June 2012 article in the Washington Post.
When I was on vacation last month I looked at a lot of front pages of newspapers in various cities. In the wake of the appalling news of the shootings in Newtown, Connecticut on December 14, it's not surprising that gun control was on many of those front pages. Then, on January 10th, I picked up a New York Times and noticed an article that was not on the front page, an article that had to do with another appalling reality: the state of our nation's health. This Page Three article was headlined "For Americans Under 50, Stark Findings on Health." It was a deeply troubling article, and it got me to wondering why it was not on the front page, since death from poor health is a far greater risk than death from gun-wielding attackers.
This train of thought led me to look up some numbers and to ponder the nature of our news and how it gets us to worry about some things, and not others.
First, some facts about safety in our schools. Back in 2000, on the one-year anniversary of the mass killings in Columbine where 13 people died at the hands of teenagers Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, I published a piece called "Kids Are Safe in Our Schools," in which I pointed out that "The actual chances of any child meeting a violent death at school is about the same as their chance of being struck by lightning. Literally. (About a 1-in-two-million chance.)" I also noted that, at the time, nearly two thirds of poll respondents (62%) believed that juvenile crime was on the increase. This was at a time when there had been a 56% decline in juvenile homicides from 1993 to 1998, and a 30% decline in overall juvenile crime. Not only that, 71% of respondents in a poll from the time said they thought a school shooting was 'likely' to happen in their community.
Our schoolkids have gotten safer since then. In a December 2012 report entitled "Measured Responses: Why Increasing Law Enforcement in Schools Is Not an Effective Public Safety Response to the Newtown Tragedy," The Justice Policy Institute reports that "Within the last 20 years, the rate of self-reported incidents of violence or theft in schools per 1,000 students has decreased 69 percent, from 155 in 1993 to a rate of 47 in 2008." So now the chance of a kid dying at school is about one in three million. The good news is that polls show that we're getting more realistic about it. The bad news is, we're still not very realistic. A Gallup Poll from last month shows that now a mere "52% believe it's very likely or somewhat likely that such an incident [a mass shooting] could happen in their community."
In fact, as was the case 13 years ago, school is about the safest place our kids can be. The Justice Policy Institute notes that "the percentage of youth homicides occurring at school is less than 2 percent of the total number of youth homicides" in recent years. Furthermore, that outside-of-school rate of violence is also continuing a long-term decline. According to a report released on December 20th, 2012 by the Justice Department's Bureau of Justice Statistics: "The overall rate of serious violent crime against youth ages 12 to 17 declined 77 percent from 1994 to 2010, falling from 61.9 victimizations per 1,000 youth to 14.0 victimizations per 1,000." Supporting evidence is provided by the Justice Department's Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, which reports that "The juvenile Violent Crime Index arrest rate reached a historic low in 2009 and is down 12% since 2006" to "its lowest level in the 30–year period."
My citing of these facts is in no way intended to minimize the horror of the mass shootings of little children and innocent adults at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in December. My point is not that these killings got too much attention from the media. Just the opposite, in fact! They got an appropriately-huge amount of coverage, which raises the question: Why do other, far more common, threats to public health and safety get so much less coverage than they deserve? Which brings me back to the state of our nation's health.
What Is Killing Us?
Please bear with me while I offer some numbers for comparison. According to the National School Safety Center, a total of 468 children met with violent deaths while at school or somewhere "associated" with school, between 1992 and 2010. Horrifying. We must do everything we can to see that this rate goes down, hopefully to zero. 468 schoolkids killed by violence in schools! But consider...
During that same period, studies show that there have been somewhere between 300,000 and 800,000 USAmericans each year whose "deaths are associated with lack of health insurance." Each and every year, more than 38,000 people in this country commit suicide. More than 4,000 people every year die from injuries sustained at work. The depressing list goes on, but the point is that there is something about shootings of schoolchildren that gets our attention and holds it long enough (hopefully) for us to take some meaningful action. While other things that are far more threatening are relegated to the inside pages of our newspapers.
The following article is Part I of my attempt to explain why this is so.
As a nation, we tend to think about things that are in the headlines. We're thinking about guns now. A couple of years ago we were thinking about nuclear power (for a while) after the disaster in Fukushima Japan. Other horrible accidents have left us thinking about airline safety, or railroad safety, or highway safety. A video of a police execution of a suspect will (sometimes) lead us to think about police accountability. And so it goes.
There are a few problems with this way of doing things, however. The obvious one is that the "latest disaster" agenda always has us reacting to something that has already happened. So we react instead of prepare. The second problem is that we tend not to think too clearly when we're all excited, as we tend to be after a spectacular disaster. While emotions are important to thinking, decisions based purely on emotion often lead us astray. And, perhaps most importantly, many problems don't unfold suddenly and dramatically, and thus don't constitute an "event." So we don't think about them too much.
Part of the reason so much of our public policy is reactive, emotional, and event-driven has to do with how we are as humans: We often have to get excited before we do something. But getting excited about a fire in your house—where the signals are supplied by your own senses—is very different than getting excited about something far away from you—where the signals come mostly from mass media. Media, after all, is the mechanism that tells us "what is going on" in the world outside of our direct experience. If it's true that much of our public decision-making is reactive, emotional, and event-driven, it's worth looking at whether our media system makes this situation better or worse.
As I said above, media provides the signals that get us all riled up about events outside of our direct experience. What isn't so obvious is that, in the process of doing so, media also ends up supplying some of the reasons that we end up using to justify all the excitement. Typically, those reasons are not openly advocated. Instead, they are usually assumed, which makes them largely immune from argument.
I think there are four systems at work in the media that drive this unfortunate process. I call them: The Gawker Syndrome; The Grabbing Eyeballs Mandate; The Story-Telling Format, and; The Chicken Little Tendency.
The Gawker Syndrome
What is it that tells the agenda-setting editors in our nation's newsrooms that one thing is "news" while another is not? In the journalism world, something is considered newsworthy when it surprises us, or violates a norm, or is otherwise unusual. The old saw in the journalism world is that it's not news when a dog bites a man. But, if a man bites a dog, now we're talking NEWS. This is not unique to media; it's what I call the "Gawker Syndrome." Why do we slow down in our cars to gawk at something? Because it surprises us, or because it's really bright and loud, or because it's otherwise unusual. A moose in the road. A fire. An accident. In this sense, Media Are Us. Like the things that get our attention in our immediate world, reporters stop to journalistically gawk at things in the larger world that catch their attention. And those things are the things that are surprising, "loud," or weird. And this becomes "the news."
This is part of the reason why school shootings make headlines; they are very unusual, indeed. We're all familiar with the sad list of school shootings in recent years—at Columbine High School in 1999, at Red Lake High School in 2005, at Sandy Hook Elementary in 2012, and more. We're aware of them, and they stick in our minds, precisely because they are unusual, as I pointed out in the previous article.
Yet, when news of school shootings is all over the front pages for weeks, a funny thing happens: School shootings begin to seem familiar. And if something is familiar it must be because we see a lot of it, which must be (our brains tell us) because there is a lot of it. And that's when we get the opinion polls telling us that more than half of respondents think that something which is more rare than being struck by lightning is "very likely or somewhat likely" to happen in their community. We begin to think that the world resembles the things at which the media encourages us to gawk. The unusual becomes, in our minds, the norm.
The Grabbing Eyeballs Mandate
The survival of a mass media organization depends on its ability to get people to look at the advertising that it sells. So it shouldn't be surprising in the least that the news is filled with stories that grab our eyeballs. That is, stories that get our attention, that get us to look. Since the human eye is drawn to bright colors, to movement, to dramatic things, to arresting graphics, these are the things that attract the eyes of reporters, and therefore are the things that are more likely to end up on our front pages. The horrible accident. The fire. The suicide bombing. The mass shooting.
Remember that advertisers don't really care what we think. They will pay to place their ads in whichever newspaper, or on whichever TV show, that attracts the most eyeballs. (A 30-second ad seen during the Super Bowl, for instance, cost about $4 million this year.) Here we need to make a distinction between what interests the EYE versus what engages the MIND. While reporters and editors are undoubtedly concerned with trying to inform us about the world, the media as an institution is not. The media system selects for survival those news organizations that get the most people to look. If they do that by doing good journalism, fine. If not, that's fine, too. The media's primary mandate is not to inform people. The primary mandate is to grab as many eyeballs as possible. So we are fed a steady diet of hard-to-ignore spectacle, some of which we categorize as "news." And public policy is shaped by the spectacular, not necessarily the important.
In addition to The Gawker Syndrome and The Grabbing Eyeballs Mandate, 21st-Century Media is plagued by two more characteristic patterns that are built into its structure: The Story-Telling Format, and; The Chicken Little Tendency. I'll explain how those work in Part II of How The Structure of Media Distorts Reality, in the next issue of Nygaard Notes.