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Don’t use news media to understand the world

This is in Swedish, but there are English subtitles.

Hans Rosling points out what too many people seem to be completely unaware of – if you get your news from the media, you will have an extremely distorted view of the world. In a few cases this distortion is intentional (cough, Fox News) but even without malicious intent there is an implicit and overwhelming distortion in the news.

News, by definition, reports on events. Events like war, death, and disease. Things that catch your attention. Things that change slowly are not news (again by definition). Most people think the world is becoming worse, but by almost all measures (life expectancy, number of wars, violent death) the world has been and continues to improve dramatically. But that isn’t news, it is just facts.

Take one example, transportation. Every time there is an airplane crash it is all over the news, with photos and much wringing of hands by survivors and the relatives of casualties. But 1.3 million people die in car crashes every year (and an additional 20-50 million are injured or disabled). Do those make the news? Usually only if it is someone famous. As a result, far more people are afraid of flying than they are of driving. Even though flying is a hundred times safer than driving, and has been steadily getting safer over time.

I doubt that there is any deliberate conspiracy to make people more afraid of air travel (even at Fox News). However, airplane crashes are news, and car crashes are usually not. The result is the same.

Rosling’s point is that war and revolutions are news, but peaceful elections are not. Famine and disease are news, but steady improvements in living conditions are not.

Many Americans think the world is a scary and dangerous place. We are afraid of immigrants, calling them criminals and rapists. We go to war based on the flimsiest of excuses, against people and governments we are afraid of. We don’t trust Iran to honor the agreement to not develop nuclear weapons, because we think they are state sponsors of terrorism. When in reality our fear drives us to sponsor far more terror than Iran does.

Yes, we are surrounded by terrorism and terrorists, but much of it is self inflicted. We have met the enemy, and he is us.



  1. ebdoug wrote:

    I rarely disagree with you.
    Since I read only AP Raw news, I get both sides. Also on-line put there by some daily newspaper are videos, many of them feel good videos.
    Also, for instance I get to see James Blake slammed up against the wall, thrown to the ground and cuffed while he was waiting for his ride to the US Open, and I later read that the cop has been cited often for rough behavior. Little did the cop know that James Blake spent a year in the middle of his tennis career paralyzed from Gillian-Barre Syndrome.
    The news is there if you don’t watch the sensational news.
    And often AP is doing the exposure of newsworthy items like the contaminated water in Rio.

    Saturday, September 12, 2015 at 4:32 am | Permalink
  2. Yudith wrote:

    Thanks Ebdoug, I was about to think that my only chance to get informed about what is happening in the world was to take a complete advanced statistics course. So to have good news, we need two things; statistics and some trashy tabloid newspaper, because they report every bloody car crash. But then, some statistics are biaised, some are made with a tiny sample and some are paid for by the coal industry, the Koch Brothers or any other corporation with a vested interest in the results. In short, statistics are not an oracle either. And everyone of us is not a trained statistician. So how do we get our news?
    The tiny conspirationnist websites? The grapevine? Some guy’s Tumblr? See why so much Americans don’t believe that Obama is American, or that Hawaii is either, for that matter?
    The thing is, we need news media. Okay, they only show the bloody bits. Okay, they often have some bias. But when you know what the bias is, you can correct by getting your info from various sources. You can check the credibility of your source by reading a report about a reality that happened where you live. If you wonder if the reporter investigated with his eyes closed and earmuffs on, you know that this particular news media is a bad one. So you search for the same story in a better media.
    When you feel that even though you don’t like the bias of the news media you are watching or reading, the story about your hometown is accurate, you know that you have a good news source. And you can stop poring through endless graphs and pie charts and relax while being informed.

    Saturday, September 12, 2015 at 6:40 am | Permalink
  3. Michael wrote:

    Beautifully written, IK.

    Ebdoug, I think you missed the central point of the post. It’s not arguing that all news organizations have an agenda that they are trying to push and we need to seek out unbiased raw news sources like the AP. Rather, the point is that the entire concept of the news itself is biased. The medium is the message. By definition, things that get reported as “news” (even in raw form by the AP) are outside the norm.

    Somebody crossing the street isn’t news; unless they get hit by a car. Somebody walking inside a building isn’t news; unless the building is attacked by terrorists. Somebody taking a walk in the park isn’t news; unless they’re attacked by some idiot’s Rottweiler (I actually like those dogs…the problem is generally their owners…). A surfing competition isn’t news; unless one of the surfers is attacked by a shark. The entire notion of the “news” shows a bias for the unusual over the mundane. All news events are statistical anomalies and are not representative samples of life.

    The problem is that our minds are more likely to remember these unusual news events than boring daily life. People are notoriously bad at actually comprehending and remembering statistics. Thus, when we apply an availability heuristic while discussing an issue or debating a policy stance, our views are more shaped by the things we remember (unusual news events) than our day-to-day experience. This is why people are more concerned about terrorism than they are about dying from slipping and falling (~20K deaths per year in the U.S.).

    The more exposure anyone has to the news, regardless of the source, the more their implicit biases will be skewed in favor of rare risks. Study after study after study shows that we overestimate the occurrence of rare events and underestimate the occurrence of common risks.

    Saturday, September 12, 2015 at 7:15 am | Permalink
  4. Ralph wrote:

    There was an interesting episode of the Freakonomics podcast last month about “Why Do We Really Follow the News?”

    One conclusion was that we tune in simply to be entertained (or politically validated), which helps explain the news divisions at the major networks being folded years ago into their entertainment divisions (see the 1979 movie “Network”). What came first, the breaking news or the propaganda? Or the titillation? Clearly, Fox has taken this concept to dizzying new lows, but the notion clearly has some validity. Practically no one tunes in for the weather, unless it’s a killer storm. And what better way to get your daily dose of political self-validation than tuning into your favorite right or left wing cable news network or blowhard radio personality? Ah, that felt good sir, may I have another?

    “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damn lies and statistics.” -Benjamin Disraeli (maybe)

    Saturday, September 12, 2015 at 9:30 am | Permalink
  5. rk wrote:

    The bias is only part of the story. What I was looking for is that, if the root cause of the problem isn’t interesting or comes too late, we don’t get that either.

    How many political issues are raised, only to be found false at a later date. It isn’t valuable to report those data, but it is still important.

    Monday, September 14, 2015 at 10:16 am | Permalink