All the fear that’s fit to print: How the media distort our perception of danger

“We don’t like bad news, but we need it. We need to know about it in case it’s coming our way.” — The Bad News by Margaret Atwood

Our brains are hardwired in such a way that we are naturally more receptive to negative news than positive news. According to Yuval Noah Harari, the author of the book Sapiens, we are “full of fears and anxieties over our position, which makes us doubly cruel and dangerous.”

Negative news is dramatic (natural disasters, wars, and stockmarket crashes), its sudden, and its spectacular. Positive events on the other hand (longer life expectancy, higher standard of living and cures for diseases) tend to be more gradual, unnoticed and dull.

The media focuses on the extraordinary, rather than the humdrum and the mundane. The charge against the media of course is that misrepresenting the risk of something bad happening means more newspapers are sold, more viewers and more advertising revenue. In short fear sells. It gets more retweets and more shares too. We’re also to blame.

The issue is also on the supply side too. Journalists are under greater pressure to write more and more stories. Lack of time and resources means that they are less able to go to the source, to verify facts and to provide the proper context from which people can digest the real risk of something bad happening.

Once established, the media’s anxiety fueled based narrative on a extraordinary issue often grows stronger and stronger. As Dan Gardner, author of Risk: The Science & Politics of Fear highlights:

“The media reflect society’s fear, but in doing so, the media generate more fear, and that gets reflected back again. This process goes on all the time but sometimes — particularly when other cultural concerns are involved — it gathers force and produces the strange eruptions sociologists call a moral panic.”

Science related stories, especially ones about our health have become fodder for media misinformation and sensationalism. They have also been at the centre of a number of moral panics. Misinformation and sensationalism has its cost. It can divert resources (our empathy and money) to the wrong causes: silent killers like cancer and malnutrition are just two that suffer from the lack of attention.

Bogus stats

It is often said that there lies, damned lies and statistics.

News stories routinely say there is a possibility of something bad happening without providing a meaningful sense of how likely that bad thing is. According to Dan Gardner the media suffer from a “denominator blindness”:

“The media routinely tell people ‘X people were killed’, but they rarely say ‘out of Y population’. The ‘X’ is the numerator, ‘Y’ is the denominator. To get a basic sense of the risk, we have to divide the numerator by the denominator — so being blind to the denominator means we are blind to the real risk.”

Natural frequencies as they are called are much easier to understand (1 in 10,000 people for example), but the media rarely use them.

Another way the media often mislead the public with statistics is by using relative risk. For example, a 2013 article in The Guardian reported that “Cancer risk 70% higher for females in Fukushima area, says WTO”. This was actually drawn from statistics showing an increase in absolute risk from 0.77% to 1.29% in the aftermath of the Japanese nuclear disaster of 2011. However, as the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) reported the absolute increase is ‘tiny’ — about 0.5%. In contrast, the WSJ headline read, “WHO: Tiny Cancer Risk After Japan Nuclear Accident”.

Presenting risk accurately and in a way that you and I can understand is important. We base our daily decisions on our prior beliefs about risk, and if those beliefs have been heavily influenced by bogus stats presented in the media then our decisions are also likely to be poor. If a person or organisations advice is followed by a very large number of people then any misrepresentation of the risks (whether deliberate or not) are magnified by the changes in behaviour they encourage.

Risky images

Images have a powerful impact on our perceptions of risk. No image and there is no emotional hit to the gut. Add some emotionally charged images to an article and suddenly it seems much more real. This was vividly demonstrated by Rhonda Gibson of Texas Tech University and Dolf Zillman at the University of Alabama. The researchers invented a fictitious disease to gauge what the presence of images in media reports does to perception of the risk. The disease — “Blowing Rock Disease” — was said to be spread by ticks in the American southeast with children particularly vulnerable.

Participants in the study were presented with one of three versions of an article about the disease. Each version had the same text. The first had no image, the second had a picture of ticks while the third had an image of some ticks plus that of a child said to have been infected. Those who got the second article thought the risk was significantly higher than those who were presented with the first. The third article (the one with an image of those nasty ticks plus an infected child) sent the perception of risk higher still.

We’re all part of the same world but that doesn’t mean we are all exposed to the same type and degree of risk. Whether through an emotionally charged image or video, or a statistic designed to alarm, both distort our perception of what to pay attention to outside our homes — from the mundane to the dramatic and from the likely to the unlikely.

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