Why watching the news is a bad idea

Many people are convinced we live in the worst of times.  

Writing in 2018, Harvard Professor and Enlightenment Now author Steven Pinker wrote: “At the time of this writing, my country is led by people with a dark vision of the current moment: ‘mothers and children trapped in poverty . . . an education system which leaves our young and beautiful students deprived of all knowledge . . . and the crime, and the gangs, and the drugs that have stolen too many lives.'”

The pundits and politicians believe we are in an “outright war” that is “expanding and metastasizing,” Steven observes.  These ideas are “widely shared among intellectuals and laypeople, on both the left and the right.”  There is “pessimism about the way the world is heading” and “cynicism about the institutions of modernity.”  

Steven’s thesis?

This bleak assessment is wrong.

“And not just a little wrong—wrong wrong, flat-earth wrong, couldn’t-be-more-wrong.”

In past Rise With Drew posts we’ve looked at the sensational increase in worldwide prosperity and a corresponding decrease in worldwide poverty over the past 200 years.  By 2030, the United Nations intends to end extreme poverty.  Think about that goal for a moment. 

Later this week, we’ll take a look at the dramatic increase in life expectancy.  We will also examine the incredible decline in infectious disease, starvation, war, homicide and accidents.

With all this compelling data regarding human progress, why do so many people believe the opposite? 

“Intellectuals hate progress.  Intellectuals who call themselves ‘progressive’ really hate progress,” writes Steven.  “The idea that the world is better than it was and can get better still fell out of fashion among the clerisy long ago.”

In The Idea of Decline in Western History, Arthur Herman shows that prophets of doom are the all-stars of the liberal arts curriculum, including Nietzsche, Arthur Schopenhauer, Martin Heidegger, Theodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin, Herbert Marcuse, Jean-Paul Sartre, Frantz Fanon, Michel Foucault, Edward Said, Cornel Eest and a chorus of eco-pessimists.”

But the pessimism is not limited to the intelligencia.

“The skepticism regarding Western progress that was once confined to a very small number of intellectuals in the nineteenth century has grown and spread to not merely the large majority of intellectuals in this final quarter of the century, but to many millions of other people in the West,” writes sociologist Robert Nisbet in History of the Idea of Progress.

“Yes, it’s not just those who intellectualize for a living who think the world is going to hell in a handcart,” writes Steven. “For more than two decades, through good times and bad, when Europeans were asked by pollsters whether their own economic situation would get better or worse in the coming year, more of them said it would get better, but when they were asked about their country’s economic situation, more of them said it would get worse,” Steven notes.

“A large majority of Britons think that immigration, teen pregnancy, litter, unemployment, crime, vandalism, and drugs are a problem in the United Kingdom as a whole, while few think they are problems in their area.”

This belief has become so widespread, it now has an official name: the Optimism Gap.  

“In almost every year from 1992 through 2015, an era in which the rate of violent crime plummeted, a majority of Americans told pollsters that crime was rising.  In late 2015, large majorities in eleven developed countries said that ‘the world is getting worse,’ and in most of the last forty years a solid majority of Americans have said that the country is ‘headed in the wrong direction,'” Steven writes.

So, what explains this mismatch of reality and people’s perception of reality?

The news.  

“Every day the news is filled with stories about war, terrorism, crime, pollution, inequality, drug abuse, and oppression,” Steven observes.  “Magazine covers warn us of coming anarchies, plagues, epidemics, collapses, and so many ‘crises’ (farm, health, retirement, welfare, energy, deficit) that copywriters have had to escalate to the redundant ‘serious crisis.'”

Positive and negative news unfold over dramatically different time lines.

“News is about things that happen, not things that don’t happen. We never see a journalist saying to the camera, ‘I’m reporting live from a country where a war has not broken out’—or a city that has not been bombed, or a school that has not been shot up,” notes Steven.  

Researcher Johan Galtung observed that if a newspaper came out once every fifty years, “it would not report half a century of celebrity gossip and political scandals.  It would report momentous global changes such as the increase in life expectancy.” 

The news isn’t so much a “first draft of history,” but rather a “play-by-play sports commentary,” Steven writes.  “Bad things can happen quickly, but good things aren’t built in a day, and as they unfold, they will be out of sync with the news cycle.

“As long as bad things have not vanished from the face of the earth, there will always be enough incidents to fill the news, especially when billions of smartphones turn the world’s population into crime reporters and war correspondents.”

So, what’s the big deal?  Why is all this bad news bad news?

Our brains fall sway to the “availability bias” whereby we overestimate the probability of an event based on how easy instances come to mind.  Through our exposure to the 24/7 news cycle—”because it is recent, vivid, gory, distinctive, or upsetting,” we  overestimate how likely it will happen in in the world.  

The availability bias is why first-year medical students “interpret every rash as a symptom of an exotic disease,” writes Steven.  It’s why “vacationers stay out of the water after they have read about a shark attack or if they have just seen Jaws.  

“Plane crashes always make the news, but car crashes, which kill far more people, almost never do.  Not surprisingly, many people have a fear of flying, but almost no one has a fear of driving.  People rank tornadoes (which kill about fifty Americans a year) as a more common cause of death than asthma (which kills more than four thousand Americans a year), presumably because tornadoes make for better television.”

The bottom line?  

“Make a list of all the worst things that are happening anywhere on the planet that week, and you have an impressive -sounding case that civilization has never faced greater peril,” notes Steven.  

All of this negative news has an impact on those who watch and read.   Instead of being better informed, heavy newswatchers can become “miscalibrated.”

“Consumers of negative news, not surprisingly, become glum: a recent literature review cited “misperception of risk, anxiety, lower mood levels, learned helplessness, contempt and hostility towards others, desensitization, and in some cases, . . . complete avoidance of the news,” Steven observes.  

“And they become fatalistic, saying things like ‘Why should I vote?  It’s not gonna help,’ or ‘I could donate money, but there’s just gonna be another kid who’s starving next week.'”

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Reflection:  How much news do I watch?  Why?

Action: Share this information with a friend or colleague who is convinced we live in the “worst of times.”

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