The Media Bias Towards Catastrophic Fear-Mongering

Skeptics often accuse the media of being biased, arguing that a liberal bias in the media causes them to shortchange skeptical climate arguments.  But in fact, the explanation may be simpler than any political bias.  It may be just a bias and an incentive system in the media that rewards fear-mongering of all sorts.  From the WSJ:

Halloween is the day when America market-tests parental paranoia. If a new fear flies on Halloween, it’s probably going to catch on the rest of the year, too.

Take “stranger danger,” the classic Halloween horror. Even when I was a kid, back in the “Bewitched” and “Brady Bunch” costume era, parents were already worried about neighbors poisoning candy. Sure, the folks down the street might smile and wave the rest of the year, but apparently they were just biding their time before stuffing us silly with strychnine-laced Smarties.

That was a wacky idea, but we bought it. We still buy it, even though Joel Best, a sociologist at the University of Delaware, has researched the topic and spends every October telling the press that there has never been a single case of any child being killed by a stranger’s Halloween candy. (Oh, yes, he concedes, there was once a Texas boy poisoned by a Pixie Stix. But his dad did it for the insurance money. He was executed.)

Anyway, you’d think that word would get out: poisoned candy not happening. But instead, most Halloween articles to this day tell parents to feed children a big meal before they go trick-or-treating, so they won’t be tempted to eat any candy before bringing it home for inspection. As if being full has ever stopped any kid from eating free candy!

17 thoughts on “The Media Bias Towards Catastrophic Fear-Mongering

  1. Wally

    There’s a pretty funny book about all kinds of cases where parents have given into fear mongering relating to child care. One of the things the author talks about is the Halloween candy issue. Its called “Free Range Kids” by Lenore Skenazy.

    I never actually finished the book, as it gets a little monotonous, but I was laughing out loud for the first 1/3 or 1/2 of it. Definately worth a cheap pick up on Amazon for new parents.

  2. hunter

    The media is biased towards sensation. Ergo, nothing bad actually ever happens, and any suggestion in the media that something bad might happen is a big old lie. So we can all just relax! Lovely.

  3. stan

    There is clearly a liberal media bias. And that desire to influence politics in a liberal direction clearly has an impact on media coverage of climate just as it does media coverage on economics and everything else.

    And yes, anything sensational gets coverage because it grabs attention.

    Of course, climate alarmism is a two-fer. It appeals to the media’s hunger for the sensational. And it feeds the argument that bigger and bigger government is needed to combat it.

  4. Ike

    Gentlemen, allow me to weigh in. I am a former TV reporter (and one of the rare ones, with 40 credit hours in hard sciences and calculus.)

    There is no liberal media conspiracy, but there is a bias at play. It’s Selection Bias, in the form of a deterrent that precludes moderate and conservative-leaning individuals from trying to reach “the network” level.

    For decades, the media capitols have been New York City and Washington D.C., two of the most liberal cities in the U.S. Reporters and news managers who don’t want to live in those places stay put in smaller markets rather than be forced to live someplace they don’t want to be. Our “liberal lean” is best explained because the agenda-setters have lived in liberal places.

    The other effect is a result of vast innumeracy among journalists. They simply don’t know what they don’t know, and are easily led by over-reaching conclusions and plausible-sounding mathematical non-sequiturs. Things like the Hockey Stick work wonders on them, because they can “see” the results without having to question the math. They can show the Hockey Stick, and don’t even have to comment because it’s apparent for all. That’s why we get crappy reporting and misleading emphasis on Toyota acceleration, Audi 5000s, and shark attacks. If they can’t even get the simple statistical significance right, how do you expect them to grok non-linear complex systems, coefficients for positive net forcing feedback, presentation tricks involving linear versus logarithmic graphing, the Mercator Projection, or the difference between fragile and stable systems?

    Journalists, like most people, are inclined to fear that which they do not know. Which, in their case, is one hell of a lot.

  5. Bryan

    @Ike

    Good explanation, I’ve never liked conspiracy theories and this explains quite a bit… Like why news reporting never seems to give me the hard numbers and statistical analysis and comparisons that I want whenever I watch them run a story.

    btw “Journalists, like most people, are inclined to fear that which they do not know. Which, in their case, is one hell of a lot.”

    Great line

  6. netdr

    This is relevant to the global cooling scare of a few years ago. The alarmists jump up and down and say it was just a few scientists and they changed their mind later.

    They miss the whole significance of the affair. The media jumped at the scare story like a group of hungry trout. “If it bleeds it leads” .

    That is in my opinion what has happened with global warming. It is much more interesting to read that it will be 6 ° C warmer and the world will suffer and die than to read that the warming will probably be 1/2 ° C most of it benign [+ or - whatever natural causes do]. That wouldn’t get many readers would it ?

    End of the world doom and gloom, a glorious call to sacrifice to end the certainty of global warming, that is how to sell newspapers or websites.

  7. Waldoween

    Yet another example of Mr. Meyer proving nothing specific about climate science or climate science attitudes. Plus this is another example of this blog’s conservative wingnuttiness.

    Beginning to think that it is not simply science that the denialist ideology lacks.

  8. John Moore

    There is both sensationalism and left wing bias. Period.

    There is also, as Ike pointed out, shocking innumeracy and scientific illiteracy. I once checked the Columbia School of Journalism requirements, and it’s possible to get a BA and MA in journalism there without a single mathematically based science class.

  9. hunter

    The true believers want to pretend that AGW hysteria is only about the science, denying the social dimension. That there is historic precedent well documented of past apocalyptic clap trap is far too inconvenient for the AGW community to deal with.

  10. Ike

    Waldoween…

    How is it, exactly, that such a large percentage of people have come to believe that:

    1) Mankind is wiping out all life on Earth
    2) Air quality is worse than it’s ever been
    3) Water quality is worse than it’s ever been
    4) Overpopulation and unsustainability will bring society down.

    Why, people aren’t reading the scholarly, peer-reviewed journals. Most wouldn’t even know where to find them.

    They, instead, believe what they are told by journalists — who, as I previously stated, ALSO aren’t reading the peer-reviewed journals. They also aren’t reading the summaries, which, they couldn’t comprehend; nor are they looking at raw data, or even questioning the methodology or the selection of proxies, or the statistical methods being used. So they rely on news releases and trite soundbites from alarmists.

    Warren’s piece is answering a completely different question: “What do you tell someone who believes in catastrophic warming because everyone else seems to think it’s true?”

    Waldoween — would you go through a pile of textbooks, rip out each page individually, and say “This page proves nothing” as a way of dismissing the work?

    I don’t think you would.

    So why employ that method to attempt to discredit Warren?

  11. hunter

    Warren,
    Which one of us?
    My little shadow or me?
    I have been frustrated and shared my concerns with you, but I enjoy your work. I think this post of yours speaks directly to what I believe is driving a great deal of the AGW social movement. My only concern about posting has been the hijacking of your site by people who pretend to be others. My interest in the topic led me to post. If you want me to stay away, I will comply.
    Please advise. It is your blog.

  12. ManicBeancounter

    It is probably true that scare stories about children in danger sells papers. However, it can have real consequences. Thirty-odd years ago when I was at school, most under-elevens walked to school on their own (or in my case with a sibling). The child who had “mummy” deliver them and meet them at the school gate was unusual. Now in the UK, nearly every primary child is delivered and collected from school. Crimes against children (though significantly more frequent) are still extremely rare – to the extent that a child disappearance will make the national headlines in a country of 60m. It is the culture that has changed brought about by a false perception of risk.

  13. Eric Anderson

    Warren, which hunter are you talking to? I hope the sane one, who had many useful comments in the past, isn’t being forced away by the troll . . .

  14. Beemac

    The media is just responding to incentives. They won’t get read or watched as much if they report positive news, so they don’t. It’s natural for people to be more interested in something perceived as dangerous than something not dangerous. Scary sells.

  15. Curiously Detached

    There is a great scene in the Annie Proulx book the “The Shipping News” which nails this issue and with some resonance in its detail.

    The central character lands a job as a reporter on the local newspaper. He is not a journalist and asks his boss’so what do I write about?’ His boss answers ‘see those clouds down there?’ – ‘yes’ he says, ‘so what?’. ‘There’s your story’ his boss says’with a headline “DEADLY STORM THREATENS TOWN !” ‘. ‘But, what if there is no storm?’ he asks. ‘No problem’ replies his boss, ‘the next day your story headlines as “TOWN SAVED FROM DEADLY STORM !”‘

    That’s the essence of the media. Bias is their form of packaging, branding. It is how they market there wares. Just business.

    The AGW lobby get this , big time. The Skeptic lobby does not appear to be tuned in too well to this reality and essentially wants to only have a rational debate.

    We need to redirect the media from “EARTH THREATENED BY DEADLY CLIMATE CHANGE !” to “FUTURE THREATENED BY AGW FRAUD” or some such rather than try and stand directly in the way of how they do business.

    After all if the penny finally drops in the public mind on this one, science is going to be humiliated and the western liberal democracies laughed out of town as being a bunch of effete, weak minded bozos. It will be open season on reason by every global nut job and fascist thug you can imagine.

    If you think the US is embarrassed by the Wikileaks document dump, just wait for when AGW gets four flat tyres. And it will not just be the US that gets pelted with reputational excrement.

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