The Media Biases Towards Fear

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One of the surefire ways to start a panic is telling people not to panic. Another surefire way to start a panic is to shout “PANIC!!!!!”

I was thinking that as I was catching up on CNN news coverage here in Des Moines. It seems that whenever we travel, some big news story breaks. Whether it’s the Boxing Day tsunami, or the arrival of Hurricane Dean, or Russia invading the nation of Georgia, checking into a hotel is invariably accompanied by a soundtrack of breathless news reporters offering up a plethora of breaking tidbits and idle speculations on the Great Big News Story of the Day™.

Today, the news story is the market reaction to S&P’s downgrading of the United States’ credit rating. Lots of doom laden music, lots of pundits, lots of numbers flashing back and forth (all of them, intriguingly, up, since people appear to be buying bargains after yesterday’s big drop). Accompanying this were graphics that said “Markets in Turmoil!” “Plunge!” and “Degrading America!”

And I can’t help but wonder, when they tally the financial losses that result from this week, how much can be directly attributable to the climate of fear the news media inadvertently and not-so-inadvertently contributed to.

You know, an economic crisis is more complicated than a hurricane. Yes, news coverage of natural disasters can lead one to wonder if the news reporters are cheering for the hurricane, but the natural reaction to such a climate of fear is to get out of the hurricane’s way, and ultimately that’s not such a bad idea.

But you can’t get out of the way of an economic crisis. You take it with you wherever you go, since you’re a part of the economy. If people panic, they contribute to the crisis of confidence in the very economy they are part of. And if the news media is already portraying the economic worries as a bad thing, it’s more than ironic that they themselves contribute to those worries by worrying about them.

I don’t know what the media can do about this. S&P did downgrade American credit. This means billions in additional interest payments on American debt. This means tighter credit, a slower economy, job losses, and so on. These are all true things that Americans need to know about, and the media has an obligation to report about them. But do they have to report about them in ways that increase panic?

The mainstream media takes a lot of heat, particularly from conservatives, about its alleged political bias. I think that’s silly, personally. The presence of Fox News, the National Post and Sun TV would appear to negate any “liberal” bias in the media (and then some), and all objective studies have shown that, outside of the aforementioned news outlets, there has simply been no coherent bias towards any one political point of view.

However, I will acknowledge that the media has a bias, and it is this: make profits. The media, almost all of which is corporately owned and operated, have the job of selling papers, increasing ratings and commanding attention. And how do they do this? By shocking us. By pointing us to the most exciting news. By presenting information that we react to on a visceral level, and there are few emotions more visceral than fear.

In many ways, the profit-driven media simply can’t help itself. Those that turn away from the leading bleeding story don’t command as much attention. They lose ratings, make less money, and eventually get run out of business.

So, ultimately, the fault is our own. Too often, we react viscerally by failing to choose to react rationally.

As I’m writing this, I’m heading up I-29 past Sioux City. Weeks after the flooding of the Missouri made the news, properties near the Interstate are still deep underwater. You don’t hear much about that these days. And yet traffic still moves. People are still going about on business. The fields of corn inland from the Missouri look lovely. Two days ago, the first crops of sweetcorn came in from Adel, and we bought a dozen for $3.99. Life goes on.

In spite of the fears of Wall Street, people continue to live and love and make money. And if we approached this current economic crisis rationally, there are ways we can get around these challenges. We only have to think rather than react.

And approaching the news in similar fashion is probably the only way we can save ourselves from this intellectually bankrupt scare machine. We need to ignore the breaking news and concentrate on the facts behind the news. We need to think for ourselves what the implications really are. And then we need to step back, take a deep breath, and think again. We need to give time to those news agencies which don’t just report the surface, but tell us rationally what is really happening. We need to take more time to not panic, and give space to the media that doesn’t try to panic us.

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