The news is outliers

Clay Travis, a sports show guy, refers to shark attack and lottery journalism in this blog post of his.

I wrote about shark attack journalism back on March 29. I wrote about lottery journalism back in 2017 and how it was used in the Michael Brown case.

Travis identifies today’s main thrust in journalism:

The biggest power the media has is in choosing what events to cover and I believe the biggest flaw in the media by far is we now have journalism by anecdote. When you combine this largest power with this largest flaw, what you get is non-representative stories that reinforce your existing biases — you get mass media by anecdote.

Let me unpack this thesis: look, our country is massive and features an absolute ton of people, whatever you believe is likely true if you just look hard enough to find evidence of it happening. Significantly, that doesn’t mean it’s true on a statistical or probabilistic basis, but it can certainly be true on an anecdotal, individual level.

When most in the media choose which stories to cover they are often “picking sides” and then when they find a story that justifies their world view, they can cover it exhaustively to further fan the emotional response in viewership, which drives ratings.

He then uses lotteries and shark attacks to illustrate. Here’s lotteries.

Let me give you a couple of analogies that aren’t politically charged. Every lottery has a winner, right? And those lottery winners become fabulously wealthy. If the media covered lottery winners as if they were representative of what happens when you play the lottery, we’d all think we were going to get fabulously wealthy if we played the lottery.

But most of us, fortunately, know this: your probability of winning the lottery is minuscule. The lottery winner is an outlier, someone who is not representative of what most people experience when they play the lottery.

Here’s shark attacks.

Another example would be shark attacks. Every single time you enter the ocean you probably think, as I do, about shark attacks. (That’s why I’d argue that “Jaws” is the single most influential movie ever made. It truly changed our thoughts about the ocean forever). And I’m not alone. Every time someone is attacked by a shark it’s a lead story in the news. But the tens of millions of people who have zero issues with sharks never make the news.

This analogy is different because it plays on fear. Whereas my lottery analogy was about a positive outcome — winning the lottery — this one is about fear — dying of a shark attack.

Positive stories about winning the lottery don’t really have much of a negative impact. (Unless you believe people shouldn’t be able to gamble and are upset by the lottery selling hope.) But negative stories based on fear often have very negative societal results.

Fear is one of the primal emotions. When they share shark attack deaths the media is exploiting our fear by playing on our inability to understand probabilities. When anecdotal fear porn — that is, fear that is not representative of real danger — it becomes the focal point of news coverage it confirms the pre-existing biases that many viewers have. That’s why every time you see a news organization share data about the number of positive cases rising — even though the media almost always leaves out that testing has increased as well — the top comment beneath that news story is a coronabro snarkily responding, “Who could have foreseen this?”

In some defense of news, I will say that, by its nature, news is outlier events.  Representative stories aren’t news. They’re boring.

In my town, it’s not news that a couple million people were on the roads today. That’s representative and boring.

The handful of crashes that resulted in fatalities or major traffic delays, on the other hand, are news.

So I don’t knock the news for reporting news.

But, I knock folks for not understanding the nature of the news.



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