News Inversions: Sound and Fury Signifying Nothing

crime sceneThe more media coverage a crime story gets, the less likely that its crime category represents a serious threat to other citizens. 

A few years ago political communication scholar Doris Graber published a study of crime news in the city of Chicago. At the time her focus was on the reporting of the Chicago Tribune (Mass Media and American Politics, 1993).  But almost any major news outlet in any region would have probably yielded the same eye-opening results. She found what most of us sense but too easily forget:  The more media coverage a crime story gets, the less likely it is a crime category that represents a serious threat to other citizens. There is an inverse correlation between space and time given to a crime story and the frequency of that kind of crime in a city.  In her study the most reported category was murder, which in 1991 was 0.3 percent (925) of all the crimes documented in the city’s Uniform Crime Report.  But in the Tribune murders got 64% of the coverage. That added up to a lot of column inches. The same was true for assaults.  By comparison, more common crimes like theft got comparatively little coverage.

I doubt the passage of time and the presence of online media have changed this equation. By definition, news is the unusual. Think of CNN’s current preoccupation with global terrorism.  It is both a serious problem and seriously over-covered, at least in relation of other pressing world concerns. According to the Global Research Center we are about four times more likely to be struck by lightning than a terrorist attack.

There can be exceptions to this pattern, but it’s common because it is so easy to convert a single example into a rule. Our brains are hardwired to want to generalize to the whole from a few specific cases.  Rhetorically, this is the function of a synecdoche, a fancy word for the straightforward idea that we like to use a single case to stand for the whole. It’s one of the most efficient rhetorical tropes a news organization can employ. Using it one might conclude that the 1999 actions of mass murderers Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold at Columbine High School in Colorado point to what is ostensibly “wrong” with kids raised these days in the United States.  But perhaps there is no emerging pattern at all.

The truth is that seriously deviant actors engage in acts of unknowable causality, following tenuous strings of suppositions usually known only to them.

As with Columbine, there are always an abundance of experts ready to take the bait of television notoriety to speculate on what an event like this “means” to the nation. Most commentators cannot resist the synecdoche. It makes the world simpler. It makes for good television. And it saves the expert from the potentially embarrassing but intellectually honest assessment that a given case, even a mass murder, is perhaps significant of nothing. The truth is that seriously deviant individuals engage in acts of unknowable causality, following tenuous strings of suppositions known only to them. But to actually say that is to leave the third act of a traumatic episode unwritten.  And so we write social significance scripts based on mostly unrepresentative cases.

This explains the perpetual panic mode of the 24/7 “Breaking News” cycle. Everything covered is urgent. Everything represents an early warning of a bigger and ominous trend.

How do we counteract this compulsion to find meaning and and at the same time maintain our own sense of equilibrium?

Step back. Tune out. The world is not ending. The awful events documented and reported on a given day frequently make sense only as single aberrations.

More specifically, limit you time and your children spend in the presence of television news reporting. This is especially important for the nation’s population of seniors, who typically gorge themselves on video news.  We have solid evidence that, like most of us, older Americans generally over-estimate how dangerous their community and the world really is.