The Real Reason You Shouldn't Trust the Media

The Real Reason You Shouldn't Trust the Media
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The mainstream media is absolutely biased, but not in the manner you might be thinking. Ideology sways reporting at some news organizations, but far more pernicious and pervasive is the modern media's penchant for reporting anecdotes.

These one-off stories are amazing, attention-grabbing, and extraordinary, newsworthy precisely because of their rarity. But seeing and reading about them each and every day with little to no context systematically warps our perception of everyday life. Nobel prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman recognized as much after decades of studying human cognitive biases.

"The world in our heads is not a precise replica of reality; our expectations about the frequency of events are distorted by the prevalence and emotional intensity of the messages to which we are exposed," he wrote in his best-selling book Thinking, Fast and Slow.

With that in mind, let's take a look at cable news. Whether it's MSNBC, CNN, or Fox News, you'll watch everything from dueling pundits spouting conspiracies to terrorism, crime sprees, weight loss miracles, and shark attacks, always shark attacks... Assaulted with these fabulous events on a regular basis, we unconsciously keep them at the front of our minds.

"People tend to assess the relative importance of issues by the ease with which they are retrieved from memory–and this is largely determined by the extent of coverage in the media. Frequently mentioned topics populate the mind even as others slip away from awareness," Kahneman wrote.

What are the effects of the media's systematic misleading? Here are a few examples: The public thinks that college campuses are rife with trigger warnings and political correctness, when in fact, they are not. A survey conducted last year showed that a mere 15 percent of professors had students request trigger warnings. The vast majority of Americans believe that crime has gone up or stayed the same since the 1990s. In reality, it has plummeted to all-time lows. Sharks prompt widespread fear, while deer, which kill more than 200 Americans annually and cause approximately 10,000 injuries, do not.

And what about politics? By and large, the electorate considers politicians to be corrupt, unscrupulous, and even criminal. But data collected through 2007 shows that fewer than one percent of the 12,000 people to have served in Congress had been expelled, indicted, or tried for crimes. Moreover, analysts insist that corruption was far more common in the past than it is today.

Veteran reporter Garrett Graff has spent a good chunk of the last ten years trying to root out political malfeasance. But as he told This American Life's Sean Cole, he hasn't turned up much of the sinister behavior he originally suspected was rampant.

"Whenever you hear a government conspiracy theory, the almost universal truth is that the explanation is more likely either bureaucratic bungling or outright incompetence," he said.

No malevolence, just everyday human stupidity.

The same ineptness is widespread within the popular media. After all, their inability to provide the public with a clear picture of reality is clearly incompetence and maybe even negligence. When an entire populace is misinformed, when we cannot even agree on what is real and what isn't, we cannot move forward.

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