Television – an alternate reality.

25 02 2013

Photo on 11-11-12 at 2.46 PM

Well, here it is almost March, and I’m only getting to my second post of the year.  I’d planned on starting the year off with a number of more positive, uplifting posts.  I’d also intended to avoid writing about the terrible tragedy in Newtown, CT, along with all the predictable, explosion of dramatic media coverage. However, with the equally predictable debate regarding guns in America currently being held in the public forum, I can no longer refrain.  Perhaps it’s just not in my nature to be that upbeat.  Or maybe I’m moved enough to write only by the things that frustrate me.

Firstly I have to state what I would consider obvious: the death of all those people in Connecticut was a horrendous tragedy.  As a parent, and fellow human being, my heart goes out to all of those who had to suffer so terrible a loss. Although any such act and it’s results are immeasurably awful, it seems especially acute when it involves children and those we would consider innocent.

With that said, the all-too-typical media spectacle that followed, along with the current public debate regarding gun control are completely disproportionate, emotional, knee-jerk reactions to the tragedy.

The headlines were bold and eye-catching, using words like “slaughter” and “massacre,” and articles about a mass shooting “epidemic.”   The 24-hour bombardment of visceral images, gripping live footage, and heart-wrenching testimonials surely kept the viewers glued to the t.v., gawking morbidly like passers-by at a car crash, and thereby getting the ratings broadcasters need to make a living.  However, as they attempted to wring every last drop of opportunity out of such a tragedy, did they help us gain a healthier, more enlightened, realistic, or reasonable perspective of our world?

I would argue, “not at all.”

This entertainment disguised as “news” is only a more deceptive form of “reality t.v..”  It helps create a distorted perception of reality under the guise of being informative.  By airing hour after hour of in-depth coverage, live footage, personal interviews, and “expert analysis,” media outlets are able to turn a 10 minute story into a two week mini-drama.  In so doing, they create a bigger-than-life version of reality, thereby warping our sense of perspective.

If the amount of time the media spent were proportionately representative of the frequency, or statistical significance of the events being reported, we would see a much more broad spectrum of subject matter, and given what goes for entertainment these days, it would be pretty boring by comparison.  We would see hours upon hours of discussion about such exciting topics as heart disease, strokes, respiratory infections, bronchitis, and diarrhoea. (the top 5 killers worldwide)

WHOdeath

from: The World Health Organization

If we wish to focus on the national level….

U.S. death stats

from: Centers for Disease Control

Watching the “mainstream media” would be more like watching CSPAN, and, except for policy wonks, how many people would be interested in spending hours watching that?  Sure, these are very serious issues that need to be discussed, studied, and remedied, but let’s face it; they’re so boring! How is a news anchor supposed to spice up the subject of heart disease or cancer?  Compare that to a psycho shooter in an elementary school.  Now THAT”S a made for television hit!

Mass shootings, as tragic as they may be, DO NOT happen that often, and although Columbine and Newtown are fresh in our memories, they happen in public schools even less.  Nor are they on the rise.  This is just our own cognition playing with our minds. (pun intended)  Just as our confirmation bias reinforces those preconceived notions we believe to be true, the Availability Heuristic also clouds our ability to make sound judgements.  The Availability heuristic is the tendency to asses the truth or frequency of something based on our ability to recall similar examples.  With these two forces at play, and the deluge of information from the media, it’s no wonder that people feel like these types of crimes are happening all of the time, and are on the rise.

Accidental death pie

But that simply is not the case.  Just look at the numbers.

As per the 2011 U.S. Census, the U.S. had a population of 311,591,917.  According to the FBI Uniform Crime Report (2011), there were 12,664 murders.  Of that number, 8,583 were caused by firearms, or just .0028% of the total population.  The tragic deaths in Newtown account for but a small fraction of that, at .21% of the total murders in that year, or .0000083% of the total population.

For a comparison, look at this breakdown of the “accidental deaths” category from the CDC. Nearly 35,000 of the 37,275 transportation deaths were automobile accidents. That’s over four times the number of gun related homicides, yet I don’t hear a national discussion about it, nor do I see anybody discontinuing, or at least modifying their driving habits. (and trust me, there are plenty of people here in the burbs of Norcal who need to)

Here’s some more perspective on”rise” of mass shootings in the U.S.. Clicking on this chart will take you to a really good op-ed piece by James Alan Fox, the Lipman Family Professor of Criminology, Law, and Public Policy at Northeastern University.

Mass Shootings 1976-2011.jpg

The bottom line is, mass shootings are not on the rise.  As repugnant as these crimes may be, there is no epidemic.  Only our perception of these atrocities has ballooned, with the aid of the media, and cognitive psychology.

Perhaps if the media actually meant to educate instead of entertain, we wouldn’t be as ignorant as we are.  As much as we would like to criticize mass media, however, the final blame rests with us, the consumer.  The media coverage is what it is because that’s what sells, not because of an “epidemic” in gun crime that needs reporting.  Television is a market driven enterprise, and the mass media is just providing what the market demands.  Apparently, the masses only wish to be entertained.








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