Media bias is currently a hot topic and hardly a day goes by without accusations of “fake news” flying around. Ideological biases are definitely a problem, but here I want to talk about a deeper, more fundamental shortcoming of news media that distorts our perception of reality to an even greater degree than politically biased reporting.
As the name suggests, news is about what is new, that is about what has changed recently. When you read a newspaper, watch a news report on television or browse an online news site, you are told about some of the major ways the world has changed since yesterday. There are several problems with this: First of all, if you didn’t understand the world yesterday, knowing what has changed won’t help you understand today’s world. Secondly, news reports lack proper perspective due to the pressure to report everything as quickly as possible. Thirdly, the news media tends to focus on rapid changes and to ignore slow and gradual change. And lastly, bad news is much more likely to be reported than good news.
Many people imagine that after having gone to school for over a decade, they’ve learned most of the important things there are to learn and have a pretty good grasp on what’s going on. Nothing could be further from the truth. The world is an enormously complicated place and no matter how educated you are, you only understand a small part of it. To really benefit from knowing what changes happen from day to day, you have to already have a reasonably good grasp of the issues involved. So if your goal is to become more informed about the world you live in, reading up on already established knowledge is usually much more fruitful than following the news.
This is especially the case because “old” knowledge – whether it comes from a text-book, a documentary, or a wikipedia entry – has the benefit of perspective. It’s authors are able to look at the world from a richer context and have had time to think about, discuss, and ideally test the ideas they are presenting.
Perhaps most devastatingly, news reports are, by their very nature, concerned with rapid changes. With things which have measurably changed between yesterday and today, or at least within the last few weeks or months. Small, incremental changes and trends that persist over years, decades, and centuries are by and large invisible to the news media.
The reason this is so pernicious is that it leads to the over-reporting of negative stories. Although there are of course exceptions, the general pattern is that improvements are slow and gradual, while set-backs are sharp and noticeable. Economic advancement tends to be slow and not noticable from day to day and thus not a topic well suited to news reporting. But throw in a nice financial crisis and the headlines write themselves. Never mind that we’ve experienced two centuries of utterly unprecedented economic growth, you will still find far more news items about recessions and various economic crises than you will find about the economy running smoothly. Or take medicine, where we’ve had similarly tremendous advances that have contributed to tripling our life expectancy. And yet we read far more stories about epidemics, health crises, and medical malpractice than we do about people recovering through getting competent care.
Paying too much attention to the media can give you a drastically distorted picture of reality. If you look at stories about Third World poverty, you might think things are worse than ever. In reality, the last few decades have seen the greatest reduction in poverty the world has ever seen. But you wouldn’t learn about it by following the news media.
If you actually want to become a little better-informed, my advice is to cut down on your news consumption and spend the time you saved on reading about history, economics, science, philosophy, etc. How about you just spend and hour here or there browsing Wikipedia and read a few articles that interest you? It won’t turn you into an expert, but at least you’ll know more than if you had just spent that time watching the news.