Wednesday, July 8, 2009

News Diversions

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As I write this, there is discussion between President Obama of the U.S. and Prime Minister Putin of Russia on how our two countries will interact. There is a proposal being floated to spend yet more taxpayers’ money for “bail-out” purposes. Al Gore, in his effort to get yet more government control over our lives, is comparing his fight against “global warming” to the fight against the Nazis. There are many other significant happenings in the world, but we hardly hear about them. Why? Because the news media is tied up with the funeral of an entertainer whose influence on the world will be insignificant within a short time.

Of course Michael Jackson’s family and fans have a right to mourn his passing, but should that dominate the news to the near total exclusion of everything else? That is an example of how the news media distorts the reality of our world. The picture they present handicaps us with what is technically called “accessibility bias.” We tend to think that event importance is proportional to how easily we can remember them – and the press makes it easy to remember what they headline. This distorts our thinking to our detriment.

Within a few weeks, I doubt Michael Jackson’s funeral will have any importance to any but his family and a few fanatic fans. However decisions between the U.S. and Russia may affect our lives for decades. How the country deals with economic problems will do likewise. Yet this media-generated accessibility bias crowds those issues from most people’s minds, replacing them with something trivial in the long term. Our disregard of the important issues can harm us in the long run – we cannot solve our problems by paying attention to entertainers.

Everybody should understand some facts about the news media and why it is so likely to mislead us:

First, the news people do not work for readers, listeners, or viewers. They work for the advertisers who pay their salaries and expenses. Advertisers demand an audience and that forces the news to emphasize what attracts people instead of what is important.

Second, news people are quite as subject to bias as anyone else, probably more so. Studies have repeatedly shown that the news is biased leftward in the U.S.,* but that is probably not the most important bias they have. A more damaging effect is media bias toward the spectacular of which the Jackson funeral is only one example. I’ve seen this in my time in search and rescue; reporters regularly emphasize the spectacular and perceptions of danger. They ask leading questions in interviews, intended to elicit responses of how dangerous the rescue is. This bias toward the spectacular is a consequence of their dependence on a large audience to attract advertisers.

Third, every reporter and editor lives with a tyrant called the deadline. Most news organizations regard it as preferable to get the news out quickly than to get it right. That is a requirement imposed by their boss, the advertisers. If the competition gets the story out sooner they, their audience will decline. Of course that militates against accuracy.

Forth, Reporters and editors are seldom very knowledgeable in the areas they cover. The field does not pay enough to attract many scientists, lawyers and other such experts. That is compounded in many cases by a misguided belief that it is unethical to allow a source to review a story for accuracy. If the reporter misunderstands, his error is likely to get published. While it makes sense to not give the source veto power over the story, allowing that source to correct misunderstandings when time permits would only improve accuracy.

Here’s an example from the local newspaper, an article about a rescue in which I participated. According to the paper, the victim fell off a cliff, landing near the Sandy River. Rescuers rappelled down a 200-foot cliff to reach him, then called in a helicopter since it would be very difficult to get him out without an air evacuation. It was a daring and dangerous rescue. That story was probably the result of a combination of bias toward the spectacular and a rush to meet the deadline. Nearly every detail was wrong

Nobody fell over any cliff, nor did anyone rappel off one. There were no real cliffs in the area. In fact there was a good trail down to where the victim was and it would have been impossible to fall very far because of thick brush beside that trail. In fact the victim got drunk and fell in camp, hitting his head on a stump. The sheriff’s office called the helicopter only because of suspected head injury; it looked like he needed to reach a hospital quickly. The news was not even close to the truth.

Of course not all news organizations are equal. TV and radio face the most stringent deadlines and so are most affected by that problem. Daily newspapers have a bit longer to submit their stories so they can be more accurate if they chose to do so. The weekly magazines are even better in that regard, but still a long way from perfect.

What to do? There is no easy solution. However individuals can dig a bit deeper into the news, asking themselves what they are missing and just how important those celebrity stories really are. Both our individual lives and our wise participation in the political process depend on good information. We must seek out that information.

*The most prominent of those was probably done by UCLA and Missouri researchers showing that the media is significantly to the left of congress. A summary can be found at

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