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Our Response to an "On The Media" Question

(A few episodes back, On The Media asked its Twitter followers, “What do you want from news coverage of tragedies like the Boston Marathon Bombing?” Our response didn't make the final broadcast, so here it is instead.)

Dear Brooke Gladstone,

Last week, you asked your followers on Twitter what they wanted from the news coverage of the Boston Marathon bombing. Though we follow you on Twitter, we didn’t catch that specific tweet. Here’s our belated answer for what we wanted from the news coverage:   

Context.

I would watch the news if, between footage of carnage and talking heads, the anchors interrupted to provide the viewers context. And not “context” completely devoid of facts and history. Context like...

- A graph of all the people who have died from terrorism in the last 40 years. And next to that a line graph of all the people who died from gun violence in that same time period. (Props to Chris Hayes.)

- A reminder of all the forgotten acts of terrorism that occurred before 9/11. (Like the bombing of a Laguardia terminal in 1975 that killed more people than Boston. Or even of the Oklahoma City federal building bombing. Or even the Atlanta City Olympic bombing.)   

- A chart showing just how safe the U.S. is compared to almost every other country on the planet.

- An explanation of how many marathons are run every year in the U.S., and how few terror attacks occur during them.

- Another chart could show how safe the U.S. in a chronological sense, showing how much safer America is than 40 years ago.

- 
Psychologists explaining the principles of recency bias, confirmation bias and selection bias to explain that the newscasters themselves are over-interpreting this one event to serve an immediate narrative and drive viewers.

Context.

Our news coverage has helped make Americans fear terrorism way out of proportion to its actual danger, exactly what terrorists want. We want news coverage to do the opposite.

two comments

I suspect that a graph comparing deaths from terrorism to deaths from gunshots would be about as politically helpful as a chart showing the number of abortions per year – at least in the US. A comparison that might lead to more productive dialogue would be deaths from terrorism to deaths from murder, or to deaths from vehicle accidents, or workplace accidents, or lightning strikes on golf courses.

On a broader scale, the problem lies with the model of 24-hour news, which isn’t really 24-hour news. It’s 15-minute news repeated 4 times per hour and 24 times per day. When you only have 15 minutes there simply isn’t time to delve deeply into issues.

On the broadest scale, there’s a cultural issue too. Americans are more afraid of inconvenience than they are of danger, which is why they invented the electric carving knife, but have a casual approach to guns, crime and war and a short memory of violent death in any form. I doubt that changing news formats will significantly alter that culture.


I’m scared shitless of electric carving knives.