Media Focus: Irrational Fears, the Sensational

The media likes to create lists, and around this time of year, we will see lots and lots of them. Biggest news stories, the years best gadgets, top grossing films.

Anyone with even a passing interest in reality should read these lists skeptically. Indeed, those of us who depend upon our understanding of objective (rather than subjective) reality understand that most people, institutions and especially the media, presents a very subjective view of the universe. I am not discussing bias, but rather, am making the philosophical point about subjectivity. Simply stated, it skews people world views to their own priorities and needs. This is why I emphasize selective perception so often.

Here is a fascinating thought experiment:

Consider what the leading causes of (non natural) deaths in the USA. Think about the television coverage, what you read in print, hear on radio, etc.

Based on the media coverage, you would assume it would go something like this: Terrorism, Homicide, Poisoned Food/drug supply, etc.

But it turns out that relative to the coverage, the reality is quite different.The media covers issues that are exciting, sensationalistic or have good visuals. This leads them to present a very different view of the world, one that does not conform very closely to reality.

For example: Automobiles are a far larger cause of death than homicides. The way deaths are portrayed on the news is hardly proportionate.

Dramatic television is even worse. CSI: Miami is far more exciting than CSI: Someone ran a red light and the ensuing accident left 2 injured, one dead. Yet auto deaths far outnumber homicides.

Even within accidental deaths, there are approximately twice as many Suicides as there are Homicides. Not that an American watcher of TV would ever know that. Murder, She Wrote has far more intrigue and drama, and is probably a whole lot more watchable, than “A painful incurable disease of an elderly person led to a suicide, She Wrote.”

The actual list of deaths in the USA is:

Motor Vehicle Traffic
Act of War / Terrorism

Source: CDC Injury Data


click for larger graphic


The basic concept of this came from a quiz at Simple Complexity.

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