Friday, March 18, 2016

Perspective in the News

Here is a good illustration of what I mean when I warn about not depending on the news media for a sense of perspective.

On the same day, early in the morning and around noon, I caught two news reports.  The first came from CBS This Morning.  It was promoted as, “what the car companies won’t tell you that may be a danger to your family.” Later, when the story aired, the headline read:  “’No excuse’: Safety experts say this car defect puts kids in danger.”  It featured a family whose child was severely injured when their car was rear-ended; and the father, who was driving, was propelled back into his son in the back seat.  The force of the crash caused the front seat to fail and break.  Although the seats met federal safety standards, the auto company was found partially liable for not having stronger seats and faces a verdict of over $120 million.  (Included in the video but omitted from the text was that the father was not wearing his seatbelt and the child was not riding in a safety seat.)

The report went on to say:  “CBS News investigation has identified more than 100 people nationally who were severely injured or killed in apparent seatback failures since 1989. The majority were children. Seventeen have died in the past 15 years alone.”  At the end of the piece the father urged viewers to contact their representatives demanding stricter standards.

The second report was a national story presented on the local news.  They reported that the number of pedestrian fatalities was up in 2015 partially as a result of texting while walking. 
“The [Governors Highway Safety Commission] report showed one of the biggest factors in the past few years, has been smartphones. More and more people are texting or on social media while they’re walking.”  They showed pictures of several people walking down the sidewalk while absorbed with their cell phones and conducted a few interviews.  The whole presentation was serious but had some light-hearted notes with people saying they weren’t surprised because nearly everyone was paying less attention while walking.  One interviewee joked about walking into a garbage can once while he was distracted by his phone.  According to the Associated Press, “2,368 pedestrians [were] killed in the first six months of 2015.”

So we have two news stories on the same day:  one with people wringing their hands and demanding changes to federal regulations to avoid about 100 deaths or injuries in 25 years, while the other calmly presented how we should try to reduce over 4700 deaths per year.  Now deaths and serious injuries, especially to children, are sad and important, but look at how out of proportion the first story is to the second. 

The lesson here is that we only have enough time and energy to worry about a limited number of things.  Don’t rely on the news media to help us sort these things out or set priorities.  They want us to be equally upset by everything they present, whether a problem results in a couple of deaths a year or thousands they are given the same import.  The exception is that deaths or injuries to one or two Americans usually get much more attention than to hundreds of Africans or Arabs.  Their job is to inform and entertain in such a way that allows them to sell viewers to their sponsors not to sort things out.

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