If there’s been a common thread amongst the dozen or so posts that I’ve published related to COVID-19 over the past several months, it’s been that the public perception and policy reaction of this virus has not been at all proportional to its objective threat. In my post On coronavirus vs the flu pandemic of 1968 I explored why that might be the case, and most of my hypotheses can be traced back to a single root cause: an extreme media environment causing what I’ll dub a reality distortion field
Thanks to digital communication technologies, we live in a time when information is more readily accessible than in any time in history, yet ironically our perception of reality is more heavily distorted than ever. So in this post, I’ll explore this issue and what we can do about it as individuals.
But let’s start by acknowledging the problem.
The non-profit, open-access project Our World in Data published an article Does the news reflect what we die from? that quantifies the massive gaps that exist between what kills Americans and what the media reports on (I also explored the former in On coronavirus and what actually kills Americans). Cleverly, they also quantify what causes of death Americans search for the most on Google as a proxy for what worries us the most. Here are their results:
If the media were accurately reporting on the topics that Americans should care about, at least from a survival standpoint, then the 1st, 3rd, and 4th bars would look about the same. And if we were immune from worrying disproportionately about the things the media over-emphasizes, then at least the 1st and 2nd bars would look about the same.
What this study proves is that the media distorts the reality it presents to us, and this distortion impacts what we worry about in a significant and quantifiable way.
The study authors then calculate how underrepresented or overrepresented each cause of death is in the media:
Notice how the big standouts for overrepresentation are Suicide, Homicide, and Terrorism — especially the latter, which was nearly 4000x over-represented! The old journalism motto “If it bleeds, it leads” rings true, especially when it comes to a novel and invisible threat.
Our World in Data published this study in May 2019, but I bet if it was conducted again a year later, COVID-19 would easily unseat Terrorism as the most heavily reported cause of death in the media. It would also be one of the most overrepresented causes of death, given how few Americans will actually die from COVID-19 this year relative to other causes or even previous recent pandemics.
While this is interesting data from an academic perspective, its implications are far from academic. The media we consume quite literally shapes our perceptions of reality, and those perceptions shape our attitudes and behaviors, our mental health, the candidates we select at the polls and the policy decisions that they make. The media doesn’t just report our reality, it ultimately bends many aspects of it. I needn’t go into the social, political, and economic implications of the COVID-19 reality distortion field because we’re all living with them today, and may be dealing with their aftermath for years.
Now that it’s hopefully clear how much the media distorts our reality, at least when it comes to fatal threats, let’s talk about what we can do about it.
Step 1 — Be aware of the problem
The insidious thing about a reality distortion field is that you can’t see it from the inside. You have to pull yourself outside of the bubble to see the bubble.
Hopefully this post helps make some people aware of the media-induced reality distortion field who weren’t already, which is the first step in escaping it.
Step 2 — Understand media incentives
The media doesn’t exist to give us an accurate understanding of the world around us — like any for-profit business, it exists to make a profit. Since the vast majority of media outlets are supported by advertising revenue, they must attract huge numbers of eyeballs to stay in business, and most eyeballs are attracted to sensational, attention-grabbing headlines.
So, whenever you read a headline or see a ‘breaking news’ announcement on TV, remember that the goal is to get your attention so the publisher earns ratings and ad buying dollars, not to give you a more accurate and useful understanding of the world around you.
Step 3 — Look for emotional triggers
Sometimes I play a game where I try to “reverse engineer” headlines to figure out the emotional triggers the media is using to compel me to click on it. For example, let’s take today’s front page from the New York Times:
‘Get Your Knee Off Our Necks,’ Sharpton Says at George Floyd Memorial — This headline sparks outrage at the treatment of blacks in America and sympathy towards their plight (most headlines related to George Floyd’s murder target similar emotions)
As de Blasio Defends Police Response, Even Ex-Allies Denounce Him — This headline sparks feelings of moral superiority (How dare the mayor defend the police!) and political drama (Even his ex-allies denounce him!). Also notice the highly emotional words like “still reeling” and “sharp criticism” in the subheads.
The latest from New York: Mayor Bill de Blasio defended the Police Department’s aggressive enforcement of a curfew — This one includes a common media tactic of instilling novelty with the word “latest” as they knew our brains are attracted novelty. As with the previous headline, it also attempts to spark outrage and moral superiority over de Blasio’s defense of the aggressive police enforcement of a curfew during George Floyd murder protests.
These are just a few random examples from the NYT, but one can repeat this exercise with any headline from any media outlet. The important thing isn’t which emotional triggers you identify, but rather that you take the time to recognize and think about the media’s triggering tactics in the first place.
Recognizing these triggers doesn’t necessary mean that a news story isn’t relevant or important, because some are. We’ll get into filtering tactics later.
Step 4 — Look for misleading headlines
Another trick the media uses to attract your attention is writing misleading headlines and stories. For example, here’s one I just pulled from CNN:
If we reverse engineer it, there are several tactics at play here:
Out of context statistic — “Over 1,000 coronavirus deaths” is alarming enough to trigger fear, but less so if you think critically about the context of this statistic. With a population of 330M, this represents just 0.0003% of our country’s population. Another way to put this number in context is that about 647,000 Americans die of heart disease each year, which is an average of 1,772 deaths per day (and what’s worse, the heart disease deaths continue steadily day after day and year after year, whereas infectious disease deaths spike and then pass). So while 1,000 coronavirus deaths is certainly significant, it’s far less than a mostly preventable disease that very rarely makes headlines despite its steady toll on American lives.
Implied causation — The second sentence “Officials fear protests will drive up numbers” implies a link between the coronavirus deaths and protests, triggering a feeling of alarm that protests are making an already-scary situation even worse. However, there is no evidence to support this hypothesis.
Appeal to authority — The term ‘officials’ is used to lend credibility to the claim that protests will cause more coronavirus deaths. I’ve often seen the media cite ‘officials’ and ‘experts’ without even saying who they are, but at least in this article, CNN goes on to quote US Surgeon General, Jerome Adams. We then need to think about the motivations and biases of the authority figure being cited. Dr. Adams is a Trump appointee, which means that he serves at the pleasure of the President, and thus we need to ask ourselves whether his statement is based more on medical science or his boss’s political interests.
As with identifying emotional triggers, identifying why a headline might be misleading is less about which reasons you come up with than taking the time to think critically about this in the first place.
Step 5 — Setup a filter
Once you recognize the reality distortion field that surrounds us and the misaligned incentives between media producers and consumers that causes it, it’s tempting to just shut out media altogether. The problem with this approach is that we still need to be informed about the world around us, not only for the sake of our health and safety, but also to be good citizens and informed voters.
So what I recommend isn’t a media boycott, but rather a filter. What I do personally is ask my wife (who is a media junkie) to filter for me the news stories that warrant my attention, which she enjoys doing. While this approach obviously isn’t scalable, I can share some of the media filtering “rules” we’ve come up with. Perhaps one day a brilliant entrepreneur can build an automated media filtering platform around these!
Relevancy — I’m only interested in stories that are directly relevant to my life. Since I’m a venture capitalist, stories related to startups and people I know in the tech industry pass this test. As an American citizen and voter, some political stories pass this test as well, but I don’t need a play-by-play account of current events — I just need to know what will one day appear in history books (and at history book level of detail). Topics I’m interested in personally also pass this test. Topics that can impact my health and safety are also important, but these should be ‘toned down’ to include just the facts.
Perspective — Everything should be communicated from a neutral perspective, without any appeals to tribalism or sensationalism. For political stories, both the liberal and conservative perspective should be included. Health and safety related stories should be presented within a realistic context, relying on statistics rather than anecdotes, and weighted according to their applicability to my age, health status, lifestyle, etc.
Timeliness — While everything is ‘breaking news’ on CNN, I’m only interested in stories that are timely to my current life decisions. Every political twist and turn doesn’t matter when elections are months or years away. Speculative health and safety threats don’t matter to me, but proven and immediate threats do. This doesn’t mean that long-term threats (like global warming) should be filtered, so long as there are immediate decisions that I can make based upon them.
I believe there are structural issues with how information flows around society today, and those issues have a serious impact on our mental, political, and economic health. While we can’t put the media technology genies that caused these issues back in the bottle, we can at least be consciously aware of them, and arm ourselves with the ability to resist them.