When the news gets you down

Reading, watching, or listening to the news can convince you that the world is getting much worse, that the long arc of the moral universe is bending ever less toward justice. It’s easy to lose hope.  Please don’t.

First, it helps to know what news is and isn’t.  “News,” my favorite journalism school professor liked to say, “is exactly what ain’t happening.”  News is news because it is unusual, rare–something other than what usually happens most days and most places for most people.  For instance, we report on plane crashes because most planes take off and land safely.  A wry smile would cross his face and he’d add, “So if you get up in the morning and the news is good, go back to bed!”

Second, the news industry focuses on single events–plane crashes, terrorism attacks, natural disasters, election outcomes–that are usually bad and fearful. Positive developments usually happen very slowly over long periods of time, rather than in single events, so they don’t make headlines.  When the news ignores quantitative information on long-term developments and plays up alarming events, we are left ignorant about global developments that can give us a more accurate view of our world.

Third, it helps to keep in mind the business model of today’s news industry. “If it bleeds, it leads,” is a phrase that first appeared in my J-school days.  It’s a short way of saying that the news industry is selling fear.  News is no longer a race to break the story first or get the facts right; it’s a race to acquire good ratings to get more lucrative advertisers to increase profits.

The more viewers, listeners or readers print and broadcast news outlets can get, the more they can charge advertisers for their time and space, and selling advertising is how the industry makes money.  The industry now believes that the best way to get “eyes on the screen” is to make us afraid.  To make us afraid, they emphasize stories that involve violence, destruction, and conflict.

The selling of fear even corrodes your weather forecast. The TV meteorologists’ job isn’t to get the forecast right, it’s to to get our eyes on the screen so the stations can sell more advertising, so they make the weather sound more threatening, which typically means more rain or snow.  This is known as the “wet bias” in the industry. For years, when the Weather Channel said there was a 20 percent chance of rain, it actually rained only about 5 percent of the time. And, of course, the names they give their shows and radar equipment are sometimes silly in their obvious intent:  Storm Shield 16, Weather Trek Super Scan Monster Doppler 7000, Storm Team, First Alert, etc.

When you know the news business is trying to scare you and that news is what is not happening, the news is less able to warp our view of the  world and our lives.

What is not reported is equally important, because its absence from our awareness also damages how we perceive and feel about our world and our lives. Because news sells conflict and fear, it has no incentive to tell us about the many important ways in which the world is better now than it ever has been before.

Life. In 1950, global life expectancy was 47. Today, it’s closer to 70.

Violent crime in the U.S.  It’s fallen sharply over the past quarter century. The FBI says  the rate fell 50 percent between 1993 and 2015, and the Bureau of Justice Statistics says it fell by 77 percent during that span.

Gun violence. Since 1993, the U.S. gun homicide rate has dropped by 49 percent.

Death in war.  This death by war rate fell worldwide by a factor of 100 over a span of 25 years.

Racism in the U.S.  It’s in decline:

  • In 1960, nearly half of all Americans said they would move if a black family moved in next door. In 1980, that number fell to 8 percent. Today, only 6 percent of Americans hold such an intolerant viewpoint.
  • Interracial marriage was approved by just 4 percent of Americans in 1958;  by 2013 that number was up to 87 percent.
  • In 1958, just 38 percent of Americans said they would vote for a black presidential candidate; by 2012, that number was up to 96 percent.

Infant mortality. In 1800, about 43 percent of the world’s children died before their fifth birthday; in 2015, it was down to 4.3 percent — a hundredfold lower. Put more brutally,the number of kids dying before they hit age 5 has fallen from 12.1 million in 1990 to 5.8 million in 2015.

Extreme poverty. The number of people in extreme poverty has shrunk to 705 million from that 2-billion high in the 1970s, according to a recent Gates Foundation newsletter.

Hunger.  Around the world, people are eating more than earlier generations did.

Illiteracy.  In 1800, nine of 10 people could not read; today, more than eight out of 10 people can read.

Education. In 1970, 307 million people worldwide had the equivalent of a high school diploma; in 2015, that was up to 1.4 billion.

Polio. Thanks to vaccinations, polio is nearly wiped off the face of the Earth.  Only three nations on the planet have yet to eradicate polio.

Malaria. Global mortality rates for malaria fell 60 percent between 2000 and 2015.

Child labor.  It is fading away.

Freedom. In the early 1800s, less than 1 percent of the world lived in a Democracy. By 2015 most people–56 percent--lived in a Democracy.

Over population.  Global fertility has more than halved in the past 50 years, from more than five children per woman in the early 1960s to below 2.5 today.

Let’s not be sucked in, let’s not allow our view of our lives and our world to be tainted by news of what’s not happening.  Here at the Christine Center, when the horizon begins to cloud, we look for the light in each other. It helps dispel the darkness. It my be a useful tool wherever we are.

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