How Even "Responsible" News Can Mislead

I find it interesting that, in the "Age of Information" we should all be so hideously uninformed. There are several causes of this to be sure. Causes which range from the educational system, to parenting, to the media in general. However, I'd like to focus specifically on the news media in this article.

The problems with the ever increasing pseudo-news and fake documentaries are bad enough, but there is a particular form of information distortion that goes on in the "serious media". I'm not speaking of the continuous line of the right wingers about the liberally biased news media here. This is something that seems to effect all news outlets be they liberal, conservative, local, national, print, television, radio, or web. It is a very subtle problem, but at the same time one of the most widespread and damaging.

What I am speaking of here is the inevitable distortion of reality one gets from watching or reading news of any type. Oddly enough, this is the exact opposite effect of what one would expect the purpose of news to be. This doesn't happen through inaccurate or biased reporting, but rather, it is an emergent effect that occurs on the level of the programming as a whole. Simply in the selection of which stories to run, and their frequency, news sources can create the overall impression of a world that is drastically different than the one we actually live in.

Probably one of the most common examples mentioned is in the case of airplane crashes. Fortunately, it is fairly common knowledge that, when taking a flight, the most dangerous portion of your trip is the drive to the airport. But because the news only reports planes that crash, this barrage of stories is constantly creating the impression that planes are dangerous, and even more dangerous than the driving we take for granted every day.

Other examples include juvenile delinquency and crime, which are not as bad in general as one would think watching the local news. In the case of multiple births from fertility drugs, we almost exclusively hear about the situations where the couple "stuck it out" and the babies are either fine, or they have problems but make it. The truth is that, in the vast majority of cases, the babies die.1 We also hear a lot about Priest molestations but well over half of all molestations happen within the family.2 After the Columbine shootings, there was a big push to control guns. In this push we heard a lot about the large numbers of child deaths caused by guns. Even one death is too many, but what we didn't hear is that most child deaths occur for other reasons and even if all gun deaths were removed, the U.S. would still have the highest child death rate of any industrialized nation.3

In 2001, before September 11, one of the biggest stories going around was about shark attacks. In June there were only 58 shark related stories in the U.S. media, but in July the number jumped to 592. In August the total went to 684 and in September it was at 624 but that was only up until September 11, when another obvious news story stopped the trend. The overall impression created was that shark attacks were mysteriously on the rise. People were speculating on explanations involving global warming. One conservative commentator suggested the whole thing was Bill Clinton's fault because of tighter shark fishing regulations passed during his presidency.

In actuality what happened was that one child was attacked in June. Then two people were killed in another area within a few days. The last time two people had been killed in one year from shark attacks was in 1994. But with such small numbers, the occasional year when one or two more people are killed is nothing but a random fluctuation, and their occurrence close together in time is just a coincidence. In the 1990's a total of five people were killed by sharks while 28 children were killed by falling TV sets in the same decade. The New York Times summed up the situation well when it said, "watching 'Jaws' on TV is more dangerous than swimming in the Pacific."4 There is no reason to believe that a "rise in shark attacks" is occurring, but the sheer magnitude of stories presents this impression, even though none of the facts involved in their reporting are actually wrong.

And one of the most egregious examples is for pollution. Every time we turn around there is a story on the news about pollution. Either it is a story about which city is the worst polluted, some company getting into trouble for dumping, or some people complaining about a health risk in their neighborhood. None of these stories is false or reporting incorrect facts but their sheer magnitude, along with selectivity factors, reinforces the myth that the pollution problem is getting worse. In fact, pollution in nearly every measurable area has been drastically and consistently improving for throughout the century.5 This runs directly opposite to common impression which, no doubt, has been heavily influenced by the content of news media reports.

So why does this happen? The central point I am making here is that the problem cannot be identified by pointing to any one particular set of stories or reported facts and finding them to be false. Many people complain about biased or even false news reports. But this, again, is simply a matter of paying the most attention to the most extreme of cases. In reality, the problem of which I am speaking is a far more pervasive one, which speaks directly to what the purpose and effect of the news is and should be.

Part of the problem is that, by reporting exclusively one side of the coin, it presents the impression that such side is the larger portion of what is happening at large. Ideally, if one were attempting to educate, one would spend the most time on those things which are the most common. In the news industry though, it is the uncommon which generates ratings. As it turns out, the very thing that makes an item newsworthy is the very reason why it should not be newsworthy, if the goal were to present an overall picture of the world that was accurate.

There is also the problem with "bandwagon reporting". If one paper does a full page story on something, other papers look like they're dropping the ball if they don't feature either the story, or the issue it touches on, as well. This creates a snowball effect of stories that can seemingly generate out of nowhere. So the viewer/reader is left with the impression of a "current issue" where there is none.

In addition, reporters are always looking for the "personal angle" to a story. More people watch a story about, say, health insurance, if you can get them emotionally involved with one family's plight. Therefore statistics are viewed as dry and not conducive to ratings. Unfortunately, what this equates to is anecdotal evidence, and people end up forming opinions about entire large scale programs based on what might be the extreme rarity of cases.

Another problem that occurs is in science reporting. Often, the lone quack scientist will make the news with some bizarre claim. It is hardly mentioned that this scientist is in the extreme minority in the scientific community and that his ideas have yet to be substantiated. Nevertheless, the public is left with the impression that "scientists have now discovered" this or that. They will go to work the next day and tell their co workers things like, "Scientists have discovered Atlantis - I saw it on the news." Very little effort is made by reporters in stressing the "place" of the story in the overall picture of reality.

Some reporters have the impression that 50/50 exposure is "unbiased". But there is a difference between unbiased and accurate reporting. For example, if one preacher comes out saying that whites should dominate blacks. It may be unbiased to put him up next to a preacher that stresses equality of all people and give them equal time. But the impression given is that there is some real sense of controversy within the clergy over the matter when, in fact, the vast majority of preachers espouse equality of the races. Another example might be to put up one scientist who says that he has detected aliens in our atmosphere with another who denies it. The unknowing audience is left thinking that there is some serious debate among scientists. They do not necessarily know that one of these "scientists" is a quack and the other reflects the vast majority of respected scientists. I see this happen many times on the news. Unbiased reporting is not necessarily accurate reporting, and news agencies are doing a disservice to the public when they put the bizarre next to the common and attempt to give equal footing to both out of some perverted version of "fairness".

And finally, another problem with the news media is much larger than this issue, but certainly effects it. That problem is the conglomeration of so many news sources under vast corporate umbrellas. One of the valuable "checks" on the free press is that they will face competition. It is assumed that, in a free press system, news will report accurately and completely because if they don't, their competition will and they will lose credibility. When all the major newspapers and television news sources are owned by just a few major corporations, such a system of checks is not possible (or at least not as effective). Two or three major corporations might be enough to expose the other if there were a condition of outright fraud in reporting. But in this situation of "worldview building" through selective reporting, the problem is easily magnified by such a small number of companies.

What is the solution? Well, I'm not suggesting that the news start reporting every safe airplane landing or house that wasn't broken into last night. But the first step would be to recognize the problem. The founding fathers of this nation saw a free press as essential to an informed electorate, and therefore to democracy itself. As it stands, news ethics discussions commonly seem to recognize the importance of accurate and unbiased reporting. But they rarely address the overall impression they are creating by the choice of what to air and the frequency with which they air it. It appears that if a reporter is careful about mentioning all of the details of a shark attack accurately, s/he doesn't need have concern for the fact that, by not mentioning the larger picture, s/he will be creating a false impression of the overall danger of shark attack. So the first step is for the news media to recognize that reporting as a whole can lead to false impressions of the world, even when no facts have been misstated.

The next step would be to take greater care in the reporting of individual stories to include a reference of some type as to how this fits in with the larger picture. If you're making a report about someone being hit by lightning, wrap it up with a statistic on how likely it is to be hit, in comparison with some other dangers. If you're making a report about a new scientific theory, be sure to note how widespread (or not) it is accepted in the scientific community at large and include a proportionate emphasis on opposing points of view.

Thomas Jefferson once said that, "The man who reads nothing at all is better educated than the man who reads nothing but newspapers." This may be as true today for television and the web as for newspapers (if not more so). There really is no substitute for individual education and reading. But if the news media will begin to recognize what effect they are having on the overall accuracy of the public's worldview, they should be able to contribute more to its accuracy, even while maintaining their ratings.

1 - Multiple Birth: Epidemiology, Perinatal Outcomes, and Long Term Sequelae by Louis Keith, M.D.
2 - Harmful to Minors by Judith Levine
3 - "Juvenile Murders: Guns Least of It" by Iain Murray. Christian Science Monitor March 27, 2000
4 - Dubious Data Award 2001: The Summer of the Shark on www.stats.org
5 - The State of Humanity by Julian Simon