I get a lot of questions from my friends in other countries about the level of violence in America – particularly when it comes to guns. To fully answer that question would take a book – in fact, libraries of books. However, I’m not a therapist, pastor, medical doctor, or researcher, I’m a media person. And from that perspective let me offer this:
All other factors aside, the larger the media market, the larger a problem looks to the general public.
Is the United States the only country with school shootings? Is there an epidemic of police officers shooting young African-American men? Are we being overrun with immigrants? Is there a rape culture in this country?
Whatever the answers are to those questions, I would suggest (especially in today’s social media driven world) on a regular basis we get a significantly inaccurate view of the world. That’s not to say that we shouldn’t do everything in our power to eliminate mass shootings, or stop any police officer shooting an innocent person, or deal with violence of any kind – however, my point is that because of the amplification of media, we’re simply getting a distorted view of reality – which as a result, distorts our priorities.
For instance, Alex Tabarrok, writing Feb. 28 at MarginalRevolution.com put it this way:
“School shootings are actually down since the 1990s (with a lot of variability). Fewer students are carrying weapons to school and fewer students report having easy access to guns. . . . It’s been said that we live in an increasingly divided media universe but on many issues I think we live in an increasingly uniform media universe. Social media is so ubiquitous and the same things sell so widely that I suspect the collective consciousness is less fragmentary than in the past. Does anyone not know about Parkland? Contrary to common wisdom, mass shootings also occur in European countries. I suspect, however, that the Finnish media don’t cover German shootings as frequently as shootings in Florida are covered in Nebraska—as a result the larger the media-market the greater the extent of availability bias. In other words, the larger the media market the greater the over-estimation of rare but vivid events.”
More than any other time in history we have to be careful in evaluating the media sources we see, and how often we see them (both broadcast, print, and social media). At least during Communism or Nazism, the public knew the media’s point of view would always be the same and could be identified as exaggerations or lies. But today, we have so many options and so many sources, even the smallest events can be magnified way beyond their real significance.
Mark Twain bewailed that “there are laws to protect the freedom of the press’s speech, but none that are worth anything to protect the people from the press.” George Orwell said, “To exchange one orthodoxy for another is not necessarily an advance. The enemy is the gramophone mind, whether or not one agrees with the record that is being played at the moment.”
Now, add social media to that mix. The sheer volume of voices in the media is overwhelming us.
It doesn’t mean we should be insensitive, but we should vigilant.