Opinion | You’re worried about the wrong things

By Lucas DiBlasi, Senior Staff Columnist

This column is the first in a three-part series exploring the urgent and existential threats to humanity and how we can best respond to them.

Unless you’ve carefully curated your interactions with social and news media to contain nothing but videos of cats, it’s likely that a perusal of trending topics will show you a disproportionate amount of violent, negative stories. Wars, extreme weather, crime, plane crashes, mass shootings and the pandemic are splashed across the front pages of newspapers and Twitter feeds.

As the old journalism saying goes, “if it bleeds, it leads.”

National news coverage and social media algorithms trend toward negativity and outrage, which skews Americans’ ideas of which issues society actually faces — and which it doesn’t. This skewed perception leads to unnecessary stress, as well as confusion about how to correctly address the most dire issues of our time.

Reporters for news organizations go out and find stories about flashy, attention-grabbing current events in order to interest their readers, but unfortunately, gripping current events tend to be negative. Reporters cover things that are happening right now, and crucially, bad news happens quickly, while good news happens slowly.

Infant mortality decreased by 14% in Louisiana between 2008 and 2018 — good news — but there were no reporters reporting live on cable news that a slow, good thing was happening. Now — bad news — Hurricane Ida has arrived in Louisiana, leading to reporting on the death and destruction of the storm, at least for a few days, at which point most news coverage will move on to the next gripping current event.

That’s not to say that news organizations are malicious, just that their readers want to read timely and engaging stories that generally skew negative. We’re psychologically primed to be more engaged and interested in negative news, and journalism needs people to be engaged to make money.

Furthermore, we’ve become much more likely to share stories on social media when they make us feel outraged, according to a study from Yale University. The study found that social media’s incentives “create positive feedback loops that exacerbate outrage.” 

The prevalence of these negative and outrageous stories also preys on an unfortunate tendency called the “availability heuristic,” originally discovered by psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman. The availability heuristic is a bias in which people estimate the chance that something will happen based on how often they see it, instead of on some objective measure.

Given that terrorism and homocide can make up more than half of news coverage in a given year, you’d expect that there would be some tendency for people to overrate their risk of dying from those sources due to the availability heuristic. The extent to which they overstate these risks, though, is downright delusional.

About half of Americans are “somewhat” or “very” worried that they or a family member will die from a terrorist attack, when — between 1996 to 2017 — the average amount of deaths attributable to terrorism out of total deaths was 0.006%.

Furthermore, Americans appear to have no idea how much crime there is, or in what direction it’s trending. Since 1993, more than 60% of Americans have consistently said that crime is rising nationally, with 78% claiming that was the case in 2020. However, crime has fallen by more than half in the same time period, especially violent crime and robbery.

Americans’ skewed perceptions of how bad certain issues are matter for two reasons — their mental health, and the actions that they take regarding these issues.

More than nine in ten Americans say they regularly keep up with the news, according to a 2017 study, but more than half of them said that doing so causes them stress. Additionally, a 2020 study found that two-thirds of Americans feel “worn out” by news coverage. Chronic stress, besides being uncomfortable, is linked to various health problems, including panic attacks and even heart disease.

And much of that stress isn’t even warranted. The negative skew of news and social media also obscures some remarkably good news. Often, good news goes overlooked in fast-paced media environments because good things often happen very slowly.

Life expectancy in the world has increased by half and 87% fewer children die before their fifth birthday compared to 1950. In the same time period, income rose an inflation-adjusted 359% and the average food supply per person, per day increased by 31.7%. Negative news and outrage on social media doesn’t just induce stress, but obscures these accurate, positive numbers.

The way that current events take up so much attention can also leave some terrifying existential crises lurking in the shadows. Many people do worry about climate change, but responses to the crisis can falter when less than half of the country thinks climate change is a “very big problem,” including only 14% of Republicans. The way that climate change unfolds slowly without directly impacting many people’s lives has allowed many to live in denial.

Furthermore, while climate change has slowly garnered more media attention as extreme weather events increase, there are other issues that get little to no coverage or political action due to their slowly-unfolding nature. Nuclear war, a potential engineered pandemic and “powerful, uncontrollable new technology” are all risks that are rarely covered. While unlikely on any given day, these risks are the few possible things that could bring civilization to collapse within the next century, an eventuality that philosopher and existential risk expert Toby Ord put at one in six.

The way that our negativity-biased media environment can stress us out and obscure both good and bad news leads to the question of what to do about it. How should we interact with news and social media, and what steps should we take to remedy the actual issues facing society? Before we get there, we need to look at what steps people are currently taking, which, on the whole, are ineffective or even counterproductive.

Lucas DiBlasi writes primarily about politics, music, and crises. Feel free to email your opinions on Weezer (or whatever else) to him at [email protected].