General hysteria from the media makes it tough to pay attention to the real issues?

On August 26 I wrote The End Times in Texas: media portrayal versus reality about the contrast between the tone of at least some media stories regarding Hurricane Harvey and what Houston-based friends were saying in email or on Facebook. My post sought to avoid the selection bias of typical media reports by seeking on-the-ground accounts from non-journalists.

Within about 40 hours of that post it became apparent that the scale of damage was close to the worst-case scenarios that had been painted. None of my on-the-scene friends had been prepared for it. Now I’m wondering if the media’s generally hysterical tone is partly responsible for folks discounting the likelihood of the worst-case scenarios.

In the not-so-glorious-as-remembered days of my youth, newspapers didn’t have to work desperately to capture readers and advertisers. More or less every family in a city would subscribe to that city’s principal newspaper. There was a steady stream of subscription and advertising revenue even during “slow news” periods. An editor could run a quiet “human interest” story on the front page if there were nothing sufficiently dramatic happening to justify a big headline.

Today, however, newspapers have to compete for attention with other online diversions, streaming video, video games, etc. So even the most irrelevant information is characterized as having the potential to change readers’ lives, the smallest issues debated in Congress become life-or-death, and the most ineffectual action taken by a president is the next step toward tyranny.

As an example, here’s a front-page expose from the New York Times on the same day, August 26, as my Hurricane Harvey post: “Late Wages for Migrant Workers at a Trump Golf Course in Dubai”:

“Trump is not the owner or developer of Trump International Golf Club Dubai nor does it oversee construction or employ or supervise any of the companies or individuals who have been retained to work on the building of the project,” said a company spokeswoman, Amanda Miller, in an emailed statement.

The Pakistani driver who works at the Trump course arrived three years ago, seeking to support his wife and two boys. He took a job driving a pickup, earning over $800 a month, or more than twice his pay at home. He is supposed to be paid within the first five days of the month. Frequently, a week or more passes without the money arriving.

In other words, after reading about 15 screens of text one learns that the subcontractor of the subcontractor of the Trump partner does eventually pay workers in full. This merited “top of the home page” placement on the same day as stories about one of our largest cities being potentially flooded.

Readers: What do you think? When everything is presented as a crisis do we lose our ability to perceive the true potential crises?

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27 thoughts on “General hysteria from the media makes it tough to pay attention to the real issues?

  1. Yes: Journalism has changed (although this is not the first period of sensationalist journalism in US history).

    Yes: The factors you identify in the post look germane (although they may not by themselves tell the whole story).

    Yes: The changes in journalism create problems (although they also produce some improvements).

    No: You can’t blame the Houston fail on journalists.

    Also: Communicating about probabilistic risks is difficult to begin with, and ahead of a hurricane the purpose tends to be inspiring action rather than meticulous accuracy.

  2. Actually thought the biggest news of the year was JP Morgan shifting from dollars to bitcoins. As more large financial institutions shift to bitcoins, it could be the biggest change of our time.

  3. Yes indeed. This whole “look at this [terrorist act/criminal behavior/political trivia, etc]” nature of modern news distracts readers from the important issues. It’s not really “news” so much as entertainment.

    Whether or not this is inadvertent or deliberate is very much open to debate. I suspect it’s very profitable for both those in the news, and those in power.

  4. What’s the distinction you’re drawing between the Dubai Trump late-pay story and an older human interest story? I definitely wouldn’t characterize the Dubai Trump story as “hysterical” or as portraying a “crisis” and I am super confused about why you thought otherwise. To me it looks like a typical-looking and calmly-written expose of a pretty boring thing.

    I don’t understand how reading stories like that could make you conclude that the media was over-hyping risks.

  5. To answer your last question, “Yes”. All journalism is sliding towards hyperbolic click-bait. I’m not sure that Houston/Harvey is a good benchmark though – parts of the city were severely flooded, many parts were not. But it was a rain event at never-seen-before levels. Many people had devastating damage, but it’s hard to imagine alternative actions that could have mitigated that.

  6. The one i like is that the Ruskies seem to have spent $150k on Facebook ads and that the media says influenced how the election turned out.

  7. I have no idea where the Russia-2016 Election story will go, but I would have thought it illegal to sell political ads not endorsed by a candidate. I’m pretty sure it is illegal for foreign interests to contribute money or media buys to a US federal candidate,and that the penalties fall on the candidate, not the foreign source.

    Any election law experts here? Of course, the penalties in election law are dreadful: “I promise not to do it again if this election is done over.” or something like that.

  8. “He is supposed to be paid within the first five days of the month. Frequently, a week or more passes without the money arriving.”

    OMG! This man is sometimes paid as much as ONE WEEK LATE and it is DONALD TRUMP’S FAULT! This must be a war crime or an impeachable offense at the very least.

    This ranks with the story that the Russians spent (using Dr. Evil voice) ONE HUNDRED AND FIFTY THOUSAND DOLLARS on ads to defeat Hillary. Image a stack of 100 $100 bills – such stack measures almost 1/2 inch high. Then imagine 15 of such stacks. This fast trove of money (had it been paid in cash) would have filled a large envelope! Certainly this vast slush fund completely negated the $581,000,000 that Hillary spend and must account for Hillary’s otherwise inexplicable defeat.

    The sad thing is that these stories have the exact opposite of the intended effect. As Trump himself said, he could be reported as shooting someone and not lose voters because the voters no longer see the press as an impartial purveyor of news but as Democrat Party operatives with by-lines.

  9. @the other Donald:
    I am not a fan of Russian government but your post is laughable. The entire power of US media was behind Clinton providing free campaigning 24/7 . All foreign powers and corrupt officials, excluding Russian, pushed Clintons wagon, folks such as Saudi prince etc. In addition to free Hollywood campaigning. Yourself wanted us to follow British examples, foreign pressed published pro-Clinton and anti-Trump articles targeting US voters.
    That’s what Ivan said. Especailly given that Russians wanted US governmental crisis, not victory of US conservatives. They clearly preferred Bernie. Current investigation of Trump that excludes Democrats/Russia colussion and eralier Clinton/Russia shenaginas is a sham.

  10. “All foreign powers and corrupt officials, excluding Russian, pushed Clintons wagon”

    A possible Russian interference in the latest elections is not the point in the whole Russia – Trump brouhaha, really.

    1. The point is to impeach Trump by any means possible with Russia being a convenient villain, a rotten tooth extraction tool as it were.

    2. Secondarily, of course, quod licet Iovi, non licet bovi: “The U.S. has a long history of attempting to influence presidential elections in other countries – it’s done so as many as 81 times between 1946 and 2000, according to a database amassed by political scientist Dov Levin of Carnegie Mellon University”

    http://www.latimes.com/nation/la-na-us-intervention-foreign-elections-20161213-story.html

  11. The one i like is that the Ruskies seem to have spent $150k on Facebook ads and that the media says influenced how the election turned out.

    Do you have a link for that? Which media are you referring to?

  12. “The disclosure adds to the evidence of the broad scope of the Russian influence campaign, which American intelligence agencies concluded was designed to damage Hillary Clinton and boost Donald J. Trump during the election.”

  13. Catching up on the news now that I’m off the cruise ship… “Fake Russian Facebook Accounts Bought $100,000 in Political Ads” (nytimes) is an awesome headline that perfectly illustrates my point! Thank you for that. https://www.si.com/nfl/2017/01/26/super-bowl-commercial-cost-2017 says that a Super Bowl ad costs $5 million for 30 seconds. So our Russian manipulators spent enough to reach about one third of Americans for 0.6 seconds (let’s assume that markets are efficient and advertising spending is roughly equally effective across different mediums when it comes to a broad message to all voters).

  14. @philg: The most important point about the Russian fake ads is that it is one more piece of evidence that a hostile foreign power was actively trying to influence our election. This makes candidate Trump’s encouragement of their behavior during the campaign and President Trump’s apparent reluctance to find out what happened so as to defend us from future attacks (in violation of his oath of office) even more problematic. Our election system happens to be vulnerable to the kind of highly targeted advertising which Facebook provides and which Super Bowl commercials do not. Changing the the election outcome required changing only a tiny fraction of the votes (0.1% – 0.2%) if they were in the right places. If the ads were able to target those voters with 10% accuracy then the Facebook spend was equivalent to about $6.5 million in Super Bowl spend. Note: I’m not claiming that the FB ads played a decisive role in the election outcome, I’m just pointing out that the numerical analysis in #18 is very misleading.

  15. GermanL: The quote provided in #17 does not include the claim that the FB ads “influenced how the election turned out” and is therefore not responsive to #15.

  16. @Neal, I agree it does not include the claim – however you know as I know that is what the typical NY times reader (and wider public) will conclude. Just look at the comments section.

    “Our election system happens to be vulnerable to the kind of highly targeted advertising which Facebook provides and which Super Bowl commercials do not. Changing the the election outcome required changing only a tiny fraction of the votes (0.1% – 0.2%) if they were in the right places. If the ads were able to target those voters with 10% accuracy then the Facebook spend was equivalent to about $6.5 million in Super Bowl spend. ”

    Again no Trump fan here, and yes, your scenario is a possibility in a very tight race. But it is a scenario that is far from what one could imagine the $100,000 in suspected Russian Facebook ads could have done to topple the Hillary Clinton campaign that spent $1.4 Billion — which capital B — and still lost the electoral college quite clearly. Not to mention like #12 said, the entire power of traditional US media (TV + newspapers) providing free campaign propaganda 24/7 (and broadcasting the near certainty of a win – btw), and Hollywood star power and the usual SNL, Comedy Central – Daily Show and Colbert, etc etc. I’ve never seen a candidate with so much stacked in their favor by the media like HRC.

    If Russians are so good at this with just $100k (see this story about how they created flash mobs: http://www.thedailybeast.com/russians-appear-to-use-facebook-to-push-pro-trump-flash-mobs-in-florida) , then why couldn’t Hillary have done the same with her $1.4 Billion? Surely HRC had the best of the best in her staff to come up with similar schemes – armies of consultants and social media foot soldiers to do the same for her? She was running a data driven campaign (Ada software?), and playing the same ad games on facebook as the Trump campaign. And now they want to whine about the Russians testing the waters?

    I’m also surprised that these ads made it through given the former witnesses who claim that Facebook censored conservative stories that trended (https://gizmodo.com/former-facebook-workers-we-routinely-suppressed-conser-17754610060).

    Anyway, I don’t disagree with you that social media has the huge potential and danger to tilt elections. I just want the hysteria to turn down a notch.

  17. GermanL: Since there is no claim in the post you referenced or in my comment #19 (which you quote) that the FB ads changed the outcome of the election, and most of your comment #22 argues that the FB ads did not change the outcome of the election, comment #22 is argument by straw man.

    >And now they want to whine about
    >the Russians testing the waters?

    To my thinking the Russians don’t get a say in our elections, effective or ineffective. It is really on us to keep it that way.

  18. Again Neal, that doesn’t change what the general public takes away from the headlines and news. Propaganda is propaganda. And for the purposes of propaganda this article and many others, have done their job in influencing public opinion (by making a mountain out of mole-hill).

    21st century Goebbel’s {misattributed quote} would have said “If you insinuate enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.”

    We can agree to disagree.

  19. 21st century Goebbel’s {misattributed quote} should say “If you insinuate enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. No claims are necessary”

  20. Back to Phil’s point about hysteria distracting people – btw Neal, I would worry less about the Russian meddling, and worry more about the newest gerrymandering that has recently happened in places like North Carolina which is more likely to have had an impact on manipulating the electoral college into Trump’s favor. See Vice’s latest episode on it…

  21. GermanL: Using electoral rules to deliberately disenfranchise minority voters (also going on) is even worse than gerrymandering, and I agree that both are a bigger threat than Russian interference. However, what went on in this thread were attempts to distract from legitimate concerns about Russian meddling in our election (albeit ultimately less important than gerrymandering) by providing misleading analysis and attacking straw men.

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