‘I saw this terrible news today.’ My friend, a sensible person, is distressed. ‘A terrorist group is breeding babies to be brought up as fresh soldiers for their cause. How can we resist such fanaticism?’
‘Don’t worry,’ I say. ‘It’s probably a mix of propaganda and sensationalism.’
I’ve written before about how the Internet is filled with misleading nonsense (“a vortex of vacuity; a crisis of kaka; a whirlwind of piss-poor polarisation”) in one of my most popular blogs: The Internet. 7 reasons why it will destroy civilisation.
Lesotho: one of the most beautiful countries on earth has the lowest life expectancy – Photo RP
I’ve also written about the elegant Tuchman’s Law (hit the link for the full article), which says: “The fact of being reported multiplies the apparent extent of any deplorable development by five- to tenfold (or any figure the reader would care to supply)”.
So I was delighted this week to come across a learned article in Austrian newspaper ‘Der Standard’ (in German) which rates, on the basis of 7,000 Facebook postings by Austrian newspapers, the proportion of each journal’s online posts as “positive”, “neutral”, or “disturbing”.
What they found was that the more sensationalist the newspaper, the higher the proportion of “disturbing” articles – up to 39% in one case, compared with around 5% in the least alarming media.
Why? Because, according to the study, “negative news attracts more attention than positive news”.
In other words, on-line reporting tends to follow the following cascade: REPORT LOTS OF BAD NEWS→GET MORE HITS→MORE ADVERTISING REVENUE→MORE MONEY
The findings of the Austrian study back up with statistics the arguments set out in my two earlier blogs. Media outlets are filling their pages with worrying, often misleading, news, in order to generate cash.
Result: people are worrying more than they should about the state of the world. The world population is growing out of control, right? Wrong: see Hans Rosling’s brilliant DON’T PANIC: a communications masterclass. But everyone’s getting worse off? No, the opposite: look at this incredible chart of life expectancy (a good surrogate for living standards) from 1800-2015 for all the countries of the world, produced by Rosling’s statistics institute, Gapminder. You can see changes over time by hitting the “play” button underneath the chart; or select different countries on the right-hand side.
According to this data, sadly, the lovely country where I lived for six years as a child, Lesotho, has the shortest life-expectancy at 47 years, having tumbled from over 60 years in 1991 partly as a result of having the highest rate of AIDS in the world.
But overall, in the past 20 years, while living standards have been static in many “developed” countries, increased living standards in India, China and parts of Africa have lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying everything is rosy. Humankind possesses the technology, and the stupidity, to change those positive trends for the worse (i.e. screw everything up big time – Ed). Climate change, pollution, social issues and conflicts provide plenty we can, and should, be concerned about. While things may be getting better for most people, for some countries, groups or individuals they are catastrophic.
But the global picture is far from bleak. Don’t let anyone convince you otherwise – particularly if they’re trying to make money by doing so.