It’s important to know what is happening in the news, but the way the media operates and how our minds work means that we can end up more scared than we need to be and are often fearful about the wrong things. 

Media sources are competing for our attention – they want people to read or watch their news, and the types of stories that get more readers and viewers are those that generate anger or fear. We are attracted to these types of stories partly because we have a negativity bias – a tendency to pay more attention to, think about, and remember negative events. And, as writer Robert Wilson Jr. Explains, this negativity bias means we notice bad news more, and, as media companies know this, they tend to show us more stories that scare us. 

A problem with the media constantly showing us these stories is that, as well as being more fearful, we can end up worried about the wrong things – as author Dan Gardner puts it, what we believe is risky and what is actually risky often don’t match because of the way our brains work. In his talk for Google, Gardner explains that our brains often take shortcuts to make judgements about anything; these shortcuts are useful because they’re faster, but they can also leave us with inaccurate perceptions about the world. 

D  One of these shortcuts is what is known as the availability heuristic – if we can think of something easily (if something is easily available to us from our memories), we tend to think it is more common or greater in some way, psychologist Daniel Kahneman explains. He says that instead of thinking carefully about how serious or common something is, we often just report a feeling of how easily the thing came to mind. As the media tends to show us more focus on stories that are dramatic, unusual or scary, these things will come to mind easily, so our minds are likely to register them as more common.  

In addition to this, our emotions tend to influence what we think more than we realise. Kahneman explains that when considering something, our brains often swap the more difficult question, ‘What do I think about this?’ (e.g. ‘How risky is it?’), for the easier question, ‘How do I feel about this?’ (e.g. ‘I’m scared’), and how we feel then influences what we think and how we understand the world. Also, as fear is a powerful emotion, things that scare us will come to mind more easily, which, because of the availability heuristic, means we are likely to think that they’re more dangerous than they really are. 

F  In his 2011 book, Thinking Fast and Slow, Kahneman gives some statistics from the U.S. that show how the media and our psychology work together to affect our perceptions of what is risky: people believed that tornadoes killed people more often than asthma, but the truth was that asthma caused 20 times more deaths; people also thought that they were 300 times more likely to die in an accident than to die of diabetes, but the correct ratio was 4:1 in favour of dying from diabetes. Accidents get our attention, whereas, as Gardner puts it, deaths from diabetes are not news.  

So, what should you do with this information? Understanding how your own psychology works is useful, Gardner says, as is understanding that the media is likely to show us certain types of stories as they compete for our attention. And while noticing when you’re afraid and allowing yourself to feel it is important, I’m left thinking that if you are feeling constantly fearful, it might be good to spend a bit less time watching or reading the news. But perhaps the best way to finish this is with an excerpt from a short story by George Saunders that captures something about us and the media better than I can: 

After dinner … we watch The Worst That Could Happen, a half-hour of computer simulations of tragedies that have never actually occurred but theoretically could. A kid gets hit by a train and flies into a zoo, where he’s eaten by wolves. A man cuts his hand off chopping wood and while wandering around screaming for help is picked up by a tornado and dropped on a preschool during recess and lands on a pregnant teacher.  
(From Sea Oak by George Saunders, in Pastoralia). 



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