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Selling fear and the role of the media

Written by on June 16, 2016

You know when you hear about someone selling something crazy, and then you think about it and you realize that it's 10 times worse than that?

Let me give you an example.

I came across these tweets by Fortune Magazine writer Erin Griffith the other day:

This is pretty crazy.

But it gets even worse when you realize that this workshop is based on the combination of survivor bias, the selling of fear, and having no accountability as to if it actually works or not.

Let's talk about the survivor bias first. Survivor bias is when the only data you have is from the winners, which Derek Muller from Veritasium explains well in this video:

But I want to point you to another explanation, from Neil deGrasse Tyson. Back in 2012 (I think), he did one of his many talks during which he talked about analytics.

And one example was this.

Note: You can watch the whole talk here. This part is 40:40 into the video.

At first this sounds really good. This shows that studying the exit locations will improve your chance of surviving a crash, right? That's what people think when they see this data. It was 80% of those who survived!

But then you take a step back and think about what it's actually telling you, and you realize not only is this data completely useless, the study is also a massive waste of time, and should never have been done in the first place.

Why? Because it doesn't tell you what percentage of the people who died had studied the locations of the exit doors.

We don't have this data, because (sadly) those people are no longer alive, but without knowing the other percentage this entire study is meaningless. What if 86% of the people who died had looked at the exit doors?

Suddenly, the conclusion you formed before is now completely invalid. Because, with this data, more people had died after studying the exit doors than the people who survived. Or more to the point, whether or not you look at the exit doors has no correlation to your chance of surviving a crash.

You see how this works?

Survivor bias can be incredibly misleading, because it gives you data that doesn't actually prove anything either way.

So back to the "how to survive someone attacking you with an assault rifle" workshops. Those are basically a scam. It's someone who has come up with a way to defraud people, because when their students are later killed they don't ask for their money back. And if someone happens to survive a mass shooting, they might claim it was because of the workshop, even though we have no way of knowing whether that is true or not.

The worst part of this, though, is that nobody needs such a workshop in the first place. It's yet another example of the increasing industry of selling fear.

Let's look at the data.

As you can see below, the rate of firearm-related homicides is in decline, and it's down a lot from 1993. The rate of non-fatal violent firearm-related crimes is down even more. In 1993 it was 725 per 100,000 people, today it's about 180 per 100,000 people.

Source: PEW / CDC

People are much safer than ever, so why would people today feel the need to go to a workshop about surviving an attack by a person with an assault rifle? It's an irrational fear because the risk of you being in that situation is incredibly small.

You are statistically more likely to be killed by falling furniture than by a terrorist with an assault rifle, but you don't see people going to "how to avoid being crushed by a falling couch" workshops.

This, of course, doesn't mean that there isn't a problem. The firearm-related deaths in the US is at an insane level. The US obviously has a problem with guns, which we all know the answer to.

Source: Small Arms Survey (2007-12 average); World Bank / New York Times

But there is a difference between having a problem and thinking that it is getting worse. And in the western world, people are consistently misinformed about how dangerous the world really is.

In a study from Gallup, we see that people in America have become significantly more fearful since 2014.

Source: Gallup

In another study compiled by VOX, we see just how massive a disconnect there is.

Compiled by VOX. Sources: Gallup and FBI Uniform Crime Report / Credit: Dara Lind

First, look at the two lines at the bottom. What you will notice is that both property and violent crimes have remained fairly steady since the late 1980s, and have actually dropped slightly. The level of crime today is no worse than what it was in the past.

But then look at the top line which illustrates the percentage of people who think that crime has gone up. It's crazy high.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, more than 80% of the public believed that crime was going up, when it was actually going down. Then came what I will call the age of enlightenment, between 1994 and 2001, where people realized that they were misinformed. And for seven glorious years, we saw this consistent trend of people feeling more and more safe.

In 2001, it was all the way down to only 40% of the public who thought (wrongly) that crime was getting worse. It was absolutely wonderful.

But then came 9/11 (and the internet), and the politicians, the press and everyone started chanting about how bad everything was. And suddenly, people once again started believing that crime was getting worse.

Today, in 2016, 70% of the public in the US thinks that crime is getting worse. Just look at the difference before and after 9/11. This is a significant impact on public perception.

This is not unique to the US, of course. We see the same thing in Europe. In Germany and France, for instance, we are seeing reports of a boom in the self-defense industry, largely due to people being fearful of refugees who nationalistic politicians blame for all types of dangers.

But are they more dangerous? Do refugees commit more crime? No. The data consistently tells us that refugees don't commit more crime. In fact, in Germany, they experienced this:

Recent numbers from Germany's Federal Criminal Police Agency (BKA) suggest that the influx of refugees into the country this fall had a low impact on crime numbers relative to the natural uptick that would happen with any population increase: Although the number of refugees in the country increased by 440 percent between 2014 and 2015, the number of crimes committed by refugees only increased by 79 percent. (Source: BKA / The Atlantic)

In other words, the rate of crime per refugee is going down, not up.

Note: I wrote much more about this in "Refugees, rape and the data".

And mind you, it isn't just about crime either. We see this disconnect in many other areas as well. Just look at this discussion between Hans Rosling and a journalist last year.

So, we have a problem today.

The problem isn't just that there are now workshops for people who want training in how to survive a mass shooting (which is just insane). The real problem is the rate of people who are misinformed and our failure to fix it. And all of this has proven negative impact on society as a whole.

Try comparing the police in the US with the police in Europe, and you see how disruptive and damaging it is to live in a "what if..." society.

Another example is to look at how the US ended up with an incarceration rate that is 5-12 times higher than in any other country. As Marie Gottschalk explains:

The underlying causes of this are the political response to a spike in crime between the mid-1960s and the mid-1970s when homicide rates doubled. And then the politics became kind of like a broken thermostat where crime didn't keep escalating and escalating, but there was a perception that crime kept escalating and it was very useful for political purposes to exploit crime data and what we call law and order politics.

This intentional misinformation affects the government's ability to fix the problems as well. If 70% of the population in the US thinks that crime is getting worse, it's going to be exceptionally hard to convince people to not own guns. And instead, we are seeing a massive increase in gun ownership. The problem is getting worse, not better.

It's the same thing in Europe. The biggest problem with refugees is that we aren't integrating them well enough (and quickly enough), but that is only going to get worse if everyone wrongly believes that refugees commit more crimes. Businesses don't want to hire refugees if they believe they are bad people.

So, we need to do something about this. We need to fix this broken record, and I believe that it's the role of the media to do just that. It's our responsibility to ensure we don't end up with a misinformed public. That's our role as the fourth estate and as the protectors of democracy.

But only a few publications are really living up to this role. In Europe we see stories like this one. In the UK we see how the press is chasing pageviews while catering to the 'scary' world of the Leave EU groups. In the US, we see that TV news networks are predominantly using pundits as commentators rather than analysts. Whenever something bad happens, we see hundreds of stories inflating the misinformation, with only a handful of stories that take a step back and look at the real data.

After the shooting in Orlando, we saw thousands of stories focusing on Islamic extremism. But even if (as some would like) the US got rid of all the Muslims, that wouldn't stop the many mass shootings in the US; and besides, that focus only adds to polarization of the country. This then, in turn, leads to an increased level of racial and religious harassment.

We have a responsibility here.

We are constantly giving people with an untruthful agenda more airtime than those who just focus on the real world. And even if we point out that what was said is wrong (which is often just added as a sidenote), it doesn't make up for the massive amounts of exposure to viewpoints that don't represent the real world.

The media, who should be the solution to this problem, is actually facilitating its growth. And this has an impact on the media as well. Both sentiment and confidence levels in the media are at an all time low... and are still dropping. We are being dragged down by the people we focus on and their misinformation.

We will always have misinformation, our politicians will always try to misinform the public and the social world will always spread the conspiracies and the bigotry. It's not our role to just report that it happens and thus further accelerate how many are exposed to it. It's our role in the media to protect people from it.

It's not the role of the media to add to this by facilitating it even more, it's not our role to make people misinformed, not even if it creates more pageviews. It's our role to be the place the people go when want to get truly informed.

But today, we are doing it wrong.

Today we define this role as 'giving each side equal voice' and just stand back as a neutral party. But as you can see in this article, if this what you do, the misinformed wins because their side of the story is far more 'energetic' than the truth.

It's not about being biased to either side. It's about focusing on the real data, and to make sure that when people close the newspaper, this is the information they end up having, or what VOX calls 'explanatory journalism'.

We have failed when 70% of the public believes that crime is rising. We have failed when the public believes refugees are more criminal than the rest of the public. We have failed when we think there are Muslim no-go zones in Europe. We have failed if people think the homicide rates are increasing.

We have failed to keep our readers informed.

And it's not just about fact-checking the stories either. It's much more about the balance of news. It's about focusing most of the editorial time on what is really happening in the world, as opposed to spending it on what the pundits and politicians want people to think is happening.

Look at Trump. He has the lowest approval rating of any presidential candidate ever, and yet, the media spends most of their time on him. And while many would say that this is a good thing because it's important to fact-check Trump (which it is), you are also allowing him to completely dominate your editorial focus.

Even when you fact-check and challenge Trump on his rhetoric, it still means you are only focusing on the issues he wants people to talk about. When was the last time you saw a story about the problems with education and student debt? You almost never hear about this, even though it is a far more important issue than the number of Syrian refugees that enter the country per year.

It's not enough to just fact-check the misinformation, because if that's the only thing you do you are still adding to the exposure of those issues. It's the whole balance of news that is off.

We see the same thing in Europe. Over the past year, every political debate has been about the refugees, a group that accounts for a tiny part of what's really happening in Europe. Just last month, my government spent weeks, facilitated by hundreds of stories in the media, discussing how to punish what ended up only impacting about 68 refugees.

We have completely lost all sense of proportion, and the public is either getting misinformed, or annoyed when they see how unimportant those issues really are.

The result is this.

Just this week, Gallup released its latest survey into people's confidence in news (in the US), and predictably it's at an all time low. Just look at how the media has fallen since 2001. This exactly correlates with when people started thinking crime was again on the rise, and when the rise of the internet allowed misinformation to spread far more quickly and widely.

Also notice the sharp increase in people who feel 'no or very little confidence at all'. This illustrates the growing polarizing trend of people focusing on their opinions rather than actual fact-based data.

This is what happens when we fail to manage the misinformed and when the media fails to distinguish itself from all the misleading information.

It's not just society that is losing here. This is absolutely decimating the media industry. Since 2001, confidence has dropped to half of what it was. We are completely losing it here.

One way to think about this is in relation to how people interact with anything else. For instance, Microsoft did a study last year that looked at customer experience. And they found that more than 60% have completely stopped interacting with a brand after a bad experience.

Now translate that to the media industry. If you give your readers a bad experience, what do you think happens?

You see how this all comes together? We have the problem with the misinformed, combined with the increase in internet use where anyone can publish anything. This then directly correlates to the drop in confidence in the media, because we failed to stand out when the world started demanding more from us.

We have a responsibility to fix this. Not just because we have to to save our own industry (which we do), but also because that's why we are here. The purpose of a newspaper is to be the place where people turn to in order to get informed.

In the past, that role was mostly in the form of being the bringers of news because we were living in a disconnected world. Today, we are all 100% connected all the time, so now the role is to counter-point all the misinformation. We no longer need journalists to tell us what is happening, we need to understand it.

We don't need reporters anymore. We need journalists who can explain to us what is really happening, to put things into perspective, like Popular Science did in this article, and who can bring back the balance that we have lost.

We need to do this not just occasionally as an extra to all the other stories, but as the primary editorial strategy for all articles.

And we need to do this today.

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Also read: "The increasing problem with the misinformed" where I analyze the truthfulness of politicians and media personalities using PolitiFact's data.

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Thomas Baekdal

Thomas Baekdal

Founder of Baekdal, author, writer, strategic consultant, and new media advocate.

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