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Traditional Media: Keep Calm and Look Away

Traditional Media and Our Brains

Humans are an amazing animal. Our ability to create and use tools has gone from clubs and stone blades to the World Wide Web and iPads. Our ability to record experience and pass it from generation to generation has allowed us to evolve in a way no other animal on this planet has. In less than 10 generations we went from a steam powered tricycle to rocketing into space and walking on the moon.


Interestingly enough the brains in our head are essentially the same brains in the heads of humans living in about 50,000 years ago. While we have evolved in behavioral sophistication, our brains still process information in much the same way as those humans 50,000 years ago. That means that memories that we experience either first hand or from hearing a story tend to be believed over facts. Much of these experiences are lingering in your subconscious and we lovingly refer to the decisions spawning from them as gut instincts.

This worked out well for our survival 50,000 years ago, when the world was full of danger and many decisions needed to be made instantaneously. Understanding tigers are dangerous because Bob gotten eaten a month ago was vital information. Certainly it was much more pressing then surveying all your cave neighbors on how many people died from eating birds last year. It aided our survival to put a lot of weight on gut instinct.

If a tiger showed up, average Joe cave man would run while cave man Nate Silver was busy etching his bird data into a wall. In that situation Joe would live to tell his children the danger of tigers while the rest of the world would have to wait to understand that you really need to make sure you thoroughly cook chicken. So you are probably thinking what does this all have to do with the traditional media? Well, times now are much safer (in the 1st world). We have more time for contemplation.

We have limitless information at our fingertips. We have the time to find data and know our world. Instead, the major news outlets continue to just show Bob getting eaten by a tiger every night. I’m starting to think it’s best to ignore the traditional media all together.

I know ignoring traditional media sounds crazy, but what information are we really gaining. When is the last time you saw an in depth report on a major news outlets’ TV channel or website? Can you remember a news segment from traditional media that actually presented facts and data helped you reach a conclusion?

Facts and rational conclusions exist. For instance, recently a bunch of people were stuck on a roller coaster at a major amusement park because of a ride malfunction. Thankfully no one was injured. I would link one of the countless stories that hit traditional media, but they really don’t give you any important information. They concentrated on the people on the ride.

They interviewed people about being stuck. They talked about how little federal regulation exists on amusement parks. None of this gives us any useful information, and provides little aside from voyeuristic entertainment. You know what is important for everyone to know that wasn’t talked about? How often does this happen? How many people are injured on this type of ride every year? Should I be concerned letting my loved ones get onto a roller coaster? These questions are important, and these are the answers that would most likely be helpful to you in your life.

Information exists to answer all these questions and I was able to find studies and data to show that if you’re brave enough to drive to the amusement park, you shouldn’t be concerned about getting on a roller coaster. If I just watched the news I would have walked away from the story knowing that it really sucks to be stuck 50 feet in the air for 3 hours. I might have well just watched a 20 minute segment to learn that water is wet.

Traditional media rarely provides you with valuable information you can use. Their main objective is to keep you in your seat the whole time so they can sell commercial spots to advertisers. One of the main tactics they use to do this is scare you. It’s because fear, or more importantly knowing what to fear, is of extreme interest to our 50,000 year old brain. It wants to know where the tigers are. So when newscaster tells you that after the commercial break they will report on how you may be the next victim of this new danger, you pay attention. Then you watch 3 minutes of advertisements about the drugs you can buy for ailments you now have, but didn’t know existed, because your brain needs to know about the certain peril the nice news person just mentioned.

When they return from commercial they show you a random video of a teenager punching an unexpected passerby in the face, and report on it like it’s happening every minute. They fail to tell you that the chances of this happening to you are next to zero because they aren’t interested in giving you information. They are interested in you staying tuned in to watch the next set of commercials.

Traditional Media Effects on Our Perception of Crime

Take violent crime for instance.  If you turn on local news you would think that there is a war going on outside and, at any moment, you could be randomly gunned down in cold blood.  If you ask people if they think our society is more violent than it was 10 or 20 years ago a majority would say yes. This is completely understandable.  Your brain has been constantly consuming data every day that shows people getting mugged, stabbed, or shot on a reoccurring basis.  Just look at this poll from Gallup on people’s living in the US  perception of violence.

The streets aren’t that dangerous

People, on a routinely consistent basis, will tell you about how dangerous our streets are getting and how it’s not even safe to go outside anymore. This graph reflects that sentiment. There is one exception however where people were split on their perception of crime.  In late 2001 a slight majority perceived a drop in crime.  Interestingly enough this coincides with the September 11th attacks.

This is a time when the traditional media took a break from scaring us,  and rallied behind the idea of a diverse group of united Americans standing as one.  That was only for a little while though, and by 2003 traditional media was once again a fear factory and conducted business as usual.  Our brains ate it up and a majority of us went back to thinking we were living in something out of Mad Max.

Traditional media rarely ever gives you any information you can actually apply to life. For instance a valuable take-away from watching the news would be knowing if my city or town was getting safer.  This would inform us to whether we  should raise or lower our safety concerns based on whether crime rates are increasing or decreasing.

I would think they would tell us if crime was increasing because that’s scary and we’d pay more attention to their next crime story.  However since they aren’t saying much on crime trends, I was suspicious.   So I went on the web and compiled data from the FBI Uniform Crime Reporting showing the number of homicides in the US per 100,000 people.  Here is a look at that data.

Violent crime has plummeted

I chose to look at homicides because of all violent crimes,  those are most likely to be reported. But almost all crimes follow the same decreasing pattern shown above. The graph paints a very clear picture of the crime situation.  Crime started a free fall in the middle of the 1990’s and continued on the slight downward trend it’s still on today. Ironically the downward homicide trend leveled off around September 11th.

So when a majority of Americans perceived a decrease in crime,  the downward trend was almost non-existent. However when around 80% of Americans saw the crime rate as increasing, it was actually in free-fall. Traditional media doesn’t want you to know this though.  If you knew things were getting better  you wouldn’t sit through the commercial to hear about drugs for restless leg syndrome because your brain cares about dangers to avoid.  If they told you everything was smooth sailing you might get up and play with your kids or something.

Traditional Media Plays to Our Fears

Murder is usually their go-to tactic to scare you,  but occasionally things are slow or they need a break from the murder watch.  If they reported murder 24/7 then your brain would start to tune out the murder and it would be less scary.  A fun summertime trick they love to pull is shark attack reports.  Many of us go to the beach every summer.  Sharks have been especially scary ever since Jaws was released in 1975.

If there is a shark attack anywhere in the country you can guarantee that the shark isn’t the only animal that smells blood in the water.  The feeding frenzy that ensues with traditional media will put any school of Great Whites to shame.  Sightings alone garner a ton of coverage.  According to Media Matters, for the two weeks between June 27th and  July 12th 2012 the nightly news for traditional media televisions outlets dedicated about 1 hour and 5 minutes to shark sightings.

To get some perspective on the amount of coverage consider that was the time that Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes announced they were getting divorced.  They were the story with the most coverage and they came in at 1 hour and 30 minutes of TV coverage.  News that was actually important occurred at that time as well.  That was the week that news of the Barclay’s LIBOR scandal broke (one of the biggest banking scandals of modern times).  That got 12 minutes of coverage from traditional media over that same time.

That is to be expected though as your brain sees sharks as much scarier than bankers, and just slightly less frightening than Tom Cruise.  But how reasonable and necessary is all this shark coverage? Well, the Florida Museum of Natural History keeps statistics on shark attacks.

U.S. Shark Attacks per Year

Where are all the sharks?

Again it looks like the media is more interested in scaring you than giving you information you can use.  Looking at the data it looks as though about 1 person per year is killed in shark attacks.  The data also shows that there are around 40 attacks per year making the fatality rate of a shark attack at about 2.5%.  This tells us that not only are shark attacks extremely rare,  but chances are you will survive if you are ever attacked.

Judging by U.S. summer traditional media coverage I would expect bloody arms and legs to be washing up on every shore of U.S. beaches, but like most people I’ve never even seen any sharks at the beach.  Jellyfish kill scores of people every year, but I don’t recall seeing many traditional media reports on them.  Perhaps someone will make a movie called Jellyfishnado striking fear in the hearts of millions and our summer news coverage will make a drastic shift to the more worthy terror of the sea.

Traditional Media Warps Our View of the World

These are just a few examples of traditional media misleading the American public out of fear, but this pattern is repeated in most everything that’s reported. Instead of taking the news angle that would provide us with the most information, they approach a story that would garner the biggest reaction.  This is why during the 2009/2010 U.S. healthcare debate stories of “death panels” were on hourly.

I don’t recall any mention of the countless studies that exist on the pros and cons of private and public medical insurance.  Traditional media used to be the public’s means of obtaining information and facts.  Journalists of yesteryear like Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite would use teams of  investigative journalists,  present facts, and lead us to logical conclusions on an issue.  Viewers would walk away with an understanding of the world.

Today traditional media concentrates on playing to our fears and emotions in order to appeal to our base instincts. The nightly news no longer paints a realistic picture of the world we live in.  The view we get is one based in cynicism and fear.  Only two extreme views of a story are painted and any facts in the middle are ignored.

Traditional media has turned our system of government into a sporting event where you can tune in nightly to see who is ahead.  Sports segments in nightly news casts  have always done well which is why they are always the closing segment.  Why not use that approach when reporting on our political system to keep everyone tuned in? It serves their goals of selling those commercial slots.

They don’t seem to care that this leaves us with a deep mistrust in our fellow citizens and our most fundamental public institutions. Traditional media outlets no longer serve the public interest or provide us with information to aid us in decision making.  With the ease of access to information there is no excuse for U.S. traditional media’s abandonment of its civic responsibility of informing the people.  But this is the state of traditional media in the U.S.

Traditional media  serves little more value than reality TV.  It’s there to entertain while salesmen pitch you products.  If you want to be entertained then by all means kill some time watching traditional media telling you the same things you can hear from your uncle at family cook-outs.   If you want information though, then you are on your own.

Is all traditional media bad?

Of course not. As a commenter pointed out, many print newspapers still report important facts and information on a daily bases. There are also plenty of well researched long form articles to be found in numerous magazines and publications.

My ire is mainly directed to many Network and cable TV news programs, as it’s the most abundant and accessible form of traditional media. These are the sources that you have to question, as their focus isn’t in delivering information, but keeping you in your seat. There are a few exceptions of course, but for the most part you’re better off just tuning out altogether.

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