Monday, May 16, 2016

Seeing the World Through a Pinhole

If you follow politics, or the media, or both, you know that there is a long-standing debate about whether the media is politically biased or not. Both Left and Right like to sport bumper stickers and spout made-up epithets, from "lame-stream media" (one of Sarah Palin's favorites) to "corporate media" (a favorite of the Left). A lot of this argument, of course, is to feed martyr complexes on both sides that make each feel paradoxically disadvantaged and empowered by their victimhood at the hands of the supposedly evil media outlets.

The reality, in my view, is much more prosaic. We shouldn't be worried so much about the bias in the media as we should about our reliance on it to understand the world. The problem isn't that the media is slanting the news (they are, though not always in the directions we think), but that we fail to understand the severe limitations of news media at all.

When we talk about the media as a "lens" through which we view the world, we are either using the wrong metaphor or misunderstanding it. Yes, that lens has distortions. Specific outlets may distort based on ideological lines, but there are also distortions based on business decisions - what sells? Fear and anxiety, of course, sell much better than other things, and so we get a steady diet of stories about what's wrong with the world.

This past Sunday my local newspaper ran a story on the front page about an "increase" in "school threats" (incidents of threats made to schools, often as pranks by students). The headline was about how Ohio had more such incidents than any other state in the 2014-15 school year, which of course would make local news. The source of this data? A Cleveland-based consulting company called "National School Safety and Security Services", a company that provides training and consulting to school districts on security issues. How many such "studies" get put into headlines every day, based on bogus or uncorroborated data promulgated by people who have an interest in telling a particular story?

Beyond the specific stories and how they're reported is the question of setting the agenda. This is where the media is truly powerful, but only because we allow them to be. We assume that whatever is on the front page of the paper and what is being talked about on CNN is "what's going on". Transgender bathroom usage in high schools? This was a complete non-issue until somebody grabbed the media bullhorn and decided to make a big deal about it. Yes, schools should treat everybody fairly and bullying stinks. But why is this particular dimension of that problem driving the national conversation? Because somebody with an interest wanted it there.

Some have tried to argue recently that, despite the general national gloom, we're really pretty well off and things are going pretty well. These arguments, though they are likely true, won't go very far because the stories we see - the stories we assume tell us "what's going on in the world" are all bad. It's like looking at the world through a pinhole, or a telephoto lens. Consider this fellow:

He's in the midst of a beautiful location, surrounded by mountains, lakes, forests, and wildlife. How much of that will he capture in the picture he takes? He will no doubt bring back some really beautiful photos - but how much of what he's surrounded by will he have gotten?

I've gone on some amazing hikes, and have taken lots of pictures. Many of them are quite striking; here's one of my favorites:

This is just a tiny piece of the vista you can see from that spot. Depending on what you're interested in, it may not even be the most important piece to you.

Now imagine that someone else is controlling the camera, and they want you to think that you're in a terrible place. How hard would it be to take a dozen images of ugly things and pass those off as representative of the whole? This is what the media does every day - not because they're trying to favor the Left or the Right, but because Ugly sells and reality - which is often messy, complex, and too big to fit on the front page - doesn't.

So when you're reading the local paper, watching cable news, or scrolling through your FB feed, remember that what you're seeing is just a tiny, tiny part of the real world. There's a lot you're NOT seeing. Go out and find some more of that - and remember how big the world is the next time somebody tells you that it fits in a handbasket on its way to hell.

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