Most people believe that the media is biased and untrustworthy. A Gallup poll taken last year showed that the percentage of Americans who believe the mass media can be trusted “to report the news fully, accurately and fairly” has been steadily dropping for 20 years. Now, only 32% of people have confidence in the news, with the number being even lower among certain demographic groups (such as Republicans, who are at 14%). That lack of confidence is simultaneously worrying and reassuring. It’s worrying, because in a world where people shun mainstream information sources, they may be more susceptible to lies and conspiracies. Yet it’s also reassuring, because it means people are being quite sensible. They’re right to believe that the mass media has no credibility and is unreliable, because both of those things are true. Of course, they’re wrong if they think Alex Jones is better. But hating CNN is a healthy and rational perspective.
Even though everyone can agree the media sucks and is biased, people still disagree on the ways it is biased. Republicans think it has a liberal bias (which is true, although since the spawn of FOX News, right-wing media has more than successfully made up for this). People who believe in chemtrails believe it has a bias in favor of covering government mind control projects. Donald Trump thinks it has an anti-Donald Trump bias (also partly true, though the media also loves Trump because he brings ratings). And those of us on the left correctly perceive that the news’s real bias is generally toward sensationalist nonsense rather than toward a particular well-defined political agenda.
But one of the most easily provable forms of media bias, one that shouldn’t really be up for serious debate, is its biased weighting of the importance of different people’s lives. Throughout the mainstream media, people’s suffering becomes news not on the basis of how bad it is, but on what the victim’s demographic characteristics are. Some people’s deaths are news, some people’s aren’t, and the question of who matters reflects nothing more than the purest kind of subconscious prejudice.
I don’t think I am saying anything new here. Everyone knows about “missing white woman syndrome.” Everyone knows that a missing Ivy League college student will be far more of a news story than a missing high school dropout. Everyone knows that two people getting shot on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange would receive far more coverage than five people getting shot on the streets of Baltimore, and that a much larger terrorist attack in London will be front page news while a terrorist attack in Baghdad won’t be.
Yet even though this is universally understood, I don’t think it’s nearly discussed enough. To me, it seems totally morally reprehensible and without justification. Since I believe that all human lives are of equal worth, the idea of having worthy and less worthy victims horrifies me.
And the numbers are incredibly stark. Our World In Data recently discussed a 2007 study that looked at the relative weight afforded by news networks to different kinds of deaths. The study looked at over 5,000 natural disasters and 700,000 news stories that ran on the major news networks such as ABC, NBC, and CNN. It concluded “that networks tend to be selective in their coverage in a way that does not adequately account for the severity and number of people killed or affected by a natural disaster.” That’s an understatement. In fact, the study found that the loss of 1 European life was equivalent to the loss of 45 African lives, in terms of the amount of coverage generated. Deaths in Europe and the Americas were given tens of times more weight than Asian, African, and Pacific lives:
The study found that networks “cover less than 5 percent of the disasters in Africa and the Pacific.” Africa was particularly neglected. This may partly have been due to the differing types of catastrophes that affect people in different continents; stunningly, the study found that it would take 38,920 deaths from a food shortage to generate equivalent coverage to a single death from a volcano:
(Note: there are disputes about how to measure global hunger statistics in particular, which could have an effect on these numbers, but the same patterns would show if we expanded beyond “disasters” to look at “deaths”; when people die (1) through long-term and comparatively more invisible causes or (2) in Africa they are paid far less attention than if they die violently and/or in a major Western city.)
The study’s authors point out that there are serious implications to this kind of coverage disparity across types of people and types of deaths. Because the news shapes our opinions on what matters, what kinds of issues are urgent and what policies we should pursue, differently weighting different kinds of deaths leads to a skewed view of what is going on in the world. This is precisely why we end up paying so much attention to terrorism and so little attention to disease, and so much attention to mass shootings and so little attention to “everyday” violence. Even in the category of everyday violence, coverage is skewed: “Chicago” has become a stand-in for street violence even though it is far from having the highest murder rate in America (that would be St. Louis, followed by Baltimore, Detroit, and New Orleans. Even Memphis is higher than Chicago). And violence around the U.S.-Mexican border is currently “worse than ever seen before,” but almost entirely ignored even by the “liberals” in the press. And yes, of course, the Afghanis killed by U.S. airstrikes and the Yemenis killed by Saudi bombing are given far less attention than anything that happens to an American. The bias toward sensational events and away from high-status victims helps generate a completely irrational public understanding of the world.
The bias toward and against coverage of certain deaths, then, is both hideously racist/elitist and directly harmful to human lives. Trillions of dollars are spent on national security, billions on prisons, because we are far more terrified of dying from street crime or terrorism rather than from high blood pressure. And because we don’t appreciate other lives as having similar worth to our own, we are likely to pursue policies that disproportionately sacrifice the well-being of others for the sake of a small improvement in our own (such as the Iraq War, in which an entire country was destroyed and 500,000 people killed over a hunch that a man might have had a weapon that could someday possibly hurt us.) The media’s hierarchy of victims is dehumanizing and reinforces our worst moral tendencies, in that it views Europeans as worth 45 times as much as Africans. But it also turns us stupid and causes a lot more people to die than would if we were presented with information on human deaths in a fair and even-handed manner.
Journalists have a bunch of pitiful excuses for differential coverage. First, they defend the concept of newsworthiness: a killing in Chicago isn’t as newsworthy as a killing in Times Square, because the former happens far more often. Notice, however, that this is an indictment of the entire concept of “newsworthiness” rather than an actual defense of journalistic practice. It actually tells us that “news” is precisely what we shouldn’t be interested in, because news is going to prioritize aberrations rather than things that are commonplace and ongoing. People think that reading the news is a good way to stay “informed.” But it isn’t at all, because it is biased toward paying excessive attention to things that happen the least often. The entire concept of “newsworthiness” is in tension with giving people an accurate impression of the world, and journalists should ditch it and focus on trying to educate people on what matters in the world, “newsworthy” or not. Taken to its logical endpoint, would this radically alter the way we present the world, with just as much attention given to cancer, malaria, and traffic deaths as terror and freak accidents? It would. But that’s exactly what we should be doing.
I’ve also heard journalists defend the disparate coverage of people in different places, by suggesting that what matters in Paris actually matters more to an American than what happens in Nigeria. I don’t buy this. Frankly, what happens in either place is generally fairly limited in its direct consequences for what happens to me in Louisiana. But I don’t see why Paris should matter to me more than what happens in Lagos. Journalists might justify this by saying that, as a matter of fact news consumers are more interested in Paris than Lagos, but this is just a defense of peddling prejudice because there is a market for it. And while the impulse to spend more time thinking about a dozen people being killed in a school shooting than 5,000 per day who die from dirty drinking water is understandable (one of these involves a more direct and brutal kind of violent trauma, something it’s impossible not to react to), the job of the news should be to help us curb our instinct toward caring more about those closer to us than those far away, or those killed violently versus those killed by disease (or by capitalism).
In fact, so many journalistic justifications for the profession’s worst practices center around the preferences of news consumers. News organizations are strongly concerned with their popularity, and they pay far more attention to stories that they know people will be interested in. At some media outlets, this reaches extremes; page hit-counts are tracked in real time, with writers praised whenever they write things that bring the outlet a lot of hits and attention. Keeping eyes fixed to the screen is everything, and since the American public’s preferences are colored by prejudice against poor people and non-Westerners, poor people and non-Westerners are simply going to be disproportionately left out.
It may sound absurd for me to talk about “producing things that people like to read” as if it’s a bad thing. But it is a bad thing. (Nobody could ever accuse Current Affairs of it.) The more you defer to preference, the more you’re going to end up simply reflecting whatever feeling people happen to hold already, rather than what you think is actually justified and necessary. This is often a problem with markets; they just give people whatever garbage they happen to think they want, or can be convinced to think they want, regardless of whether it’s actually any good for them or not. If a media company decides to “give the public what it wants,” and what the public wants is racist or trashy, then the company will end up producing things that are racist and trashy. It’s actually important for an organization committed to informing people to remove itself from market incentives as much as possible (this is one reason why this magazine doesn’t monitor its numbers of page views or carry advertising).
Mostly, journalists avoid discussing the rationale behind differing coverage of different victims. This is because it makes them profoundly uncomfortable; they are liberal in their sensibilities, and the idea that they are reproducing a bigoted and irrational view of the world is distressing. But when they do discuss it, many of them will defend it by pointing to differing levels of newsworthiness or public preferences. These arguments simply assume the conclusion: producing sensationalism for ratings is justified because news is inherently about drama and this is what the public wants. Those things are just a description of the problem, though. I wish journalists would conduct a lot more self-scrutiny rather than instantly leaping to defend their role in perpetuating an obviously bigoted and harmful hierarchy of human values. We need more detailed studies on exactly how victim differentials work and the variables that shape coverage, and then we need news organizations to totally reshape the way they determine what people ought to hear. (I am skeptical that this could ever happen until the profit motive is taken out of news.)
Everyone knows the media is biased, but this particular bias is both universally known and rarely discussed. It’s past time that changed. All human beings are equal, and having a fair-minded and well-informed understanding of the world depends on not prioritizing those who happen to live on the correct continent or die in the most shocking and unusual way.
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