There are times when our media can be toxic, so here are some concepts to “inoculate” yourself and increase your “immunity” to toxic and unhelpful news.
FYI, some of this might be helpful for the current virus news, but it also applies to anything involving technical future predictions or discussions of science based conditions in the popular media.
Good news is no news, but bad news means clicks. So here are some ways the media try to make sure that your news is as bad as possible.
Beware of Percentages
News organizations love to present percentages in the most dramatic way possible. One of the most common ways they do this is to report percent change without providing actual numbers or context. You should always be suspicious when presented with only a percentage.
“Murders up 200%” in River City this year!” Terrible, unless you know that River City had a historically low two murders the year before, and now has had six, which is still below its average of 12.
Here is a real-world example from the recent virus news. A news show prepared a chart to illustrate nursing home involvement in coronavirus. In big bold letters at the top “West Virginia 81% of coronavirus deaths are nursing home residents.” That sounds terrible! What wrong with West Virginia nursing homes? Nothing. West Virginia has very few coronavirus deaths, and most are the elderly. Since hardly anybody else died, the percentage of nursing home residents made up more of the (low) total. The low death toll is actually good news, but remember good news is no news. Gotta keep people engaged, and angering or frightening them is the quickest and surest way to do so.
Beware of Bare Numbers, too.
Bare numbers are numbers presented without context. “800 murders in Metropolis this year!” Wow, that’s scary! Better pack up and move to River City, where they only average 12 murders a year. But 40 million people live in Metropolis and little old River City has only 10,000 residents. That works out to about a one in a thousand chance of being murdered in River City in a year and a one in fifty thousand chance in Metropolis. Numbers without context don’t tell the whole story and are often used to scare you and court your clicks.
The Year Span that Should Trigger Your B.S. Detector
Anything that it is announced “might’ happen in twenty-thirty years should set off your B.S. detector.
Why? Because it’s the perfect time span for making consequence free predictions, but still getting people’s attention. If you say something dramatic is going to happen in six months to a few years; “the world will run out of oil in six months,” or “Miami, Florida will be under water in two to three years,” for example, that time frame is short enough that people might remember your prediction and call you on it if it doesn’t come true. On the other hand, you could say something that’s perfectly possible, such as “Miami might be under water in 500 years,” but no one will care, because, obviously, we will all be long dead by that time.
Twenty to thirty years is the prediction sweet spot. It’s far enough away that nobody will be able to tell right away if you were wrong, or even remember that you said it, but most people think they, or at least their children will still be around in twenty to thirty years so it has relevance for them.
You’re going to click on that headline.
Is it an anecdote?
Be careful not to assume that one person’s tale means more than it does.
Anecdotes may or may not be true. People lie, exaggerate or have their own agendas. Even if what they relate is factually true of their own experience, it can only reflect their own, small segment of a greater whole.
If you’ve ever held a job you have met the coworker who lets it be known, in discussions, or staff meetings, or emails, that something at the workplace is, in their opinion, urgently a problem and needs to be addressed, right now, with extreme measures. And you know, if you’ve ever been employed somewhere, that 99 times out of 100, you, or most of your co-workers, are not of that first person’s opinion. Instead, the real problem is….
And then there is the voracious malcontent. Every workplace has at least one. Any discussion about the workplace with this person turns into an endless litany of managerial shortcomings, work flow inefficiencies, the powerlessness of anyone to change this, and so on.
News organizations love anecdotes. They put a “human face” on what otherwise might be an abstract and therefore unengaging story. (Politicians do this too.)
But the person most likely to get quoted is the one with an axe to grind.
So, when you see a headline like “Amazon workers upset over x” you have to mentally translate this to “AN Amazon worker is upset over x.” They may be right, but you can rest assured that no scientifically designed survey has ever been done of Amazon worker opinions. “Nurses report being overwhelmed” is actually “ONE OR TWO nurses feeling overwhelmed.” No handful of nurses can speak for a profession involving millions of workers and hundreds of thousands of facilities.
The Worst Quality of Evidence is “Expert Opinion”
“Expert opinion?” Emphasis should be on the opinion. You may or may not be aware of this, but there is a consensus ranking in medicine of the validity and import of different kinds of information. The gold standard is a study mathematically correctly done, large enough to matter, double blinded, and placebo controlled. The lowest item on the list; the least important, and the least valid, is “expert opinion.”
The reason is right there in the name. It’s an opinion, and thus not backed by specific facts. In truth, it’s a speculation. Who hasn’t read a news story about some panic de jour that quotes an expert in relevant field? For example, the other day this writer read a column on childhood obesity that contained a quote from some character or other with a nutrition related job, ascribing the alleged increase in child-weight to playing video games. Now the person in this case, did not, simply by virtue of having a nutrition related degree, have any knowledge at all about video games. He had done zero research on the prevalence of playing video games among the relevant youth. He was simply parroting a common age versus youth prejudice. The unfortunate aspect of this is that if you do not understand this, you might think he was actually saying something meaningful.
Another example. This writer has an acquaintance who is a big Pittsburgh Steelers fan. One might call him an expert on the Steelers, especially compared to someone who does not follow this team. However, recently, as he bemoaned the lack of skilled back-up quarterbacks to take over following their starter’s inevitable injury, it was pointed out that Colin Kaepernick was available. Unfortunately, this particular fan is also a member of the “alt-right” and a racist. So his “expert opinion” was that Mr. Kaepernick was not a suitable choice. My acquaintance’s familiarity with the rosters and schedule of the Pittsburgh Steelers did not insure that he was a good source of thoughtful recommendations on Steeler’s related topics, because a person’s preconceptions and personal agendas complicate and often override factual interpretation even in an “expert.”
But no news story on a medical or science topic is considered complete unless it contains a quote from at least one “expert.” News organizations can always hunt around until they find the most exciting opinion. They usually don’t have to look far.
Common Things are not News
“The Sun Rose in the East Today” is a headline you'll never see.
If you came from another planet and devoted a day to reading news sites, you might be excused for thinking that the population of Earth spends their time being murdered, shooting each other, going on racist rants on social media and dying in car accidents. In reality, the vast majority of humans live their whole lives without doing any of these things. But ordinary, common things are not news. This tendency can distort the appearance of what’s actually happening outside of your physical life, as you become the “alien” only hearing and reading what you hear/see on the news.
For example, in the recent viral outbreak, many Americans have died from infection with COVID-19. But the “usual” death—a person in there 70s or 80s, probably with health problems and living in some kind of assisted living facility, is too ordinary for America’s media. You wouldn’t engage with that! They have to find a twist to make it interesting—something rare and exciting. It has to be a “sob story” to go viral. So, all your death stories are about rare deaths—people under 45, or someone that worked an exciting job, or more than one person in a family dying, and so on. This gives the spurious impression that these are the kinds of deaths happening all the time, when in truth they are very rare. On an individual basis all deaths are meaningful, but from a public health perspective it’s a problem, because if people react to wrong information, they may do harmful things or fail to do useful ones.
All these media tricks are not limited or employed by only one side of the political spectrum. Be on the alert for numbers and percentages with no context, anecdotal reports that may or may not represent majority experience, “experts” being quoted, and “sob stories” that don’t reflect the usual, common place experiences of a situation. You will find that these techniques are everywhere, on the “right” and on the “left.” Once you know, you can be inoculated, and cut down on your developing fear, anxiety and dis-ease from your media exposure.