This is not exactly a media bashing column. Mostly, I seek to explain, with help from the research of renowned cognitive psychologist Dr. Steven Pinker, how our judgments become negatively biased by the frequency and topic selection of news coverage.
Often our world outlook is reminiscent of Eeyore, that pessimistic, gloomy, depressed, anhedonic, stuffed donkey who is a friend of Winnie-the-Pooh. We may feel this way because our daily news intake mainly involves stories about terrorism, crime, drug abuse, the dysfunction of our political system, and all types of domestic and international crises.
One reason for this predominance of reported bad news is the editorial dictum of “if it bleeds it leads,” which prioritizes spectacular stories that prey on our anxieties. Also, as Dr. Pinker points out, news coverage is about things that happen, and whereas bad things tend to happen quickly, good things unfold over time. Good news is not in sync with the daily news cycle.
Norwegian sociologist Johan Galtung helped develop the concept of “news values” to explain how editors and journalists decide which piece of information is news, and which is not. He notes that “if a newspaper came out every fifty years, it would not report half a century of gossip and political scandals. It would report momentous global changes such as the increase in life expectancy.”
This hierarchy and frequency of bad news reporting shapes our feelings and judgments. The work of psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman offers an explanation. Prior to their work, the predominant view was that we made judgments by thinking rationally. But Tversky and Kahneman showed that instead of reason, we use a mental shortcut that relies on examples that immediately come to mind. They called this cognitive bias “Available Heuristic.”
Available Heuristic means that our opinions rely heavily on the latest news. We form our judgments, not through a deliberate reasoned manner, but based on the frequency with which an event comes to mind. Rather that reasoning, we judge based on what comes to mind; and what comes to mind is a function of media coverage.
In experiments on Available Heuristics, subjects were asked, “If a random word is taken from an English text, is it more likely that the word starts with a K, or that K is the third letter?” It turns out that we quickly think of words that begin with the letter K (kitchen, keep). And we conclude that words beginning with K are more likely than words with K in the third position (ask, bake). We are wrong; a typical text contains twice as many words that have K as the third letter than K as the first letter.
Car crashes kill far more people than plane crashes. Yet, many people fear flying, and few fear driving. Plane accidents always make the news, but car accidents seldom do. This is the sort of distortion in our reasoning produced by the negatively biased topic selection of news coverage. On the basis of Available Heuristics we put aside thinking, and judge on topics based on the reported frequency of their occurrence. Bad news is what first comes to mind, thus we think that the world is falling apart. It is not.
In his work, Steven Pinker has shown statistically that humanity has made spectacular progress in every measure of human well-being. Today, we live longer, the world is healthier, better fed, wealthier, safer, more peaceful, freer, more literate, more knowledgeable, etc. But you would not know this by the relentless negativity of the news coverage. Smallpox, the infectious disease that killed over 300 million people in the 20th century, has now been eradicated. Polio is almost there, with just 37 cases reported worldwide in 2016. Where are the headlines?
The media may argue that it is compelled to focus on the negative to fulfill its role as watchdog. Perhaps; but to avoid media induced pessimism, we must take up Immanuel Kant’s challenge of Sapere aude; that is, we must undertake a program of intellectual self-liberation. We must dare to think for ourselves.
Dr. Azel’s latest book is “Reflections on Freedom.”