How “Normal News” Could Save Us From Ourselves

David Dylan Thomas
Aug 26, 2017 · 6 min read

Which do you think is more likely, being killed by a terrorist or being killed by a police officer? How about being killed by a shark versus being killed by a vending machine?

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The struggle is real.

The odds of an American being killed by a terrorist in their lifetime is about 1 in 45,808. The odds of that same American being killed by a police officer is 1 in 8,359. Your odds of being killed by a shark are 1 in 250 million. Your odds of being killed by a falling vending machine are 1 in 112 million. So you should be WAY more afraid of cops and vending machines than terrorists and sharks. But you’re probably not.

Now let’s try a harder one, who carries out more terrorist attacks in the U.S., Muslims or non-Muslims?

This one gets interesting. From 1980 to 2005, 94% percent of terrorist attacks in the US were carried out by non-Muslims, making it nine times more likely that a non-Muslim carried out the attack. If you look at the 89 attacks carried out between 2011 and 2015, only 11 were carried out by Muslims, while 18 were directed at Muslims meaning that a Muslim is more likely to be the target of a terrorist attack than the instigator.

So why do people seem to be way more afraid of Muslims than non-Muslims? Maybe because the Muslim-instigated attacks received 449% more coverage.

There are currently two biases, the availability heuristic and neglect of probability, that work together to really screw up our priorities (not to mention confirmation bias just exacerbating things). Because the news reports on things that are spectacular, but unusual (and are spectacular in part because they’re unusual)—like shark attacks or plane crashes—we assume they are more common (and therefore more likely to happen) than things that don’t get as much attention, like heart disease or city council meetings, that actually have far more impact on our lives.

This is represented in our entertainment as well. If you were to take a look at the occupations of the protagonists in film and television as a sample of the real world, you’d assume that most of the world is doctors, lawyers, cops, or superheroes. Intellectually, we know that is not the case, but when asked to recall an occupation, those are more likely to come to mind and, in the cases where the jobs actually exist, are assumed to be more important (and worth paying more for) than other, more common jobs (service industry, teachers).

This gets to representation as well. If you pick an American at random and ask them to visualize a Muslim, odds are not great they’ll picture a mail carrier. And this is, in part, because it’s way easier to recall a representation of a Muslim as a terrorist. What’s easiest to recall is what we assume to be the most common, most truthful, most salient fact about a thing. This makes us vulnerable to making bad decisions about how we prioritize our efforts and how we treat other human beings.

When Trump calls Mexicans rapists, he’s calling on representations of immigrants as criminals. He’s relying on that availability heuristic to make what he says feel true even if it’s demonstrably false. And even if you can demonstrate its falsehood, it doesn’t matter because we make decisions based on what we feel is true (based on what we can most easily recall) rather than what is objectively true.

This is, in part, why we’re more afraid of terrorists than heart disease, even though the chances of dying by the latter is insanely higher than the former.

So, crazy as it may sound, it may be very helpful to start programming content that highlights the more common aspects of life. This breaks down into roughly two categories, the mundane but common, which helps to level set, and the remarkable but more common than you think, which helps to prioritize which fights we choose to fight and how.

Where we have misconceptions about the other, it’s important to level set with the most mundane truths available, so that when we try to recall something about Muslims, it’s as likely as not we’ll think of someone playing video games as someone plotting the downfall of America. So, literally, a channel that is nothing but Muslims Playing Video Games would begin to replace what you recall when you hear the word “Muslim”.

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One of my favorite things about the Luke Cage series on Netflix is a brief throwaway scene where the titular character buys a New Yorker. Yes. Black people read The New Yorker. Try to contain your shock. Or when Luke has a deep, intellectual conversation about crime novelists with an older black friend in a barbershop. Yes. Black people have deep literary conversations. These are the things that I want to begin to replace the extremely negative things a lot of people think of when they hear the words “black person”.

This was, I believe, the most powerful legacy of the Obama presidency. It was not simply the policies he enacted but the image he portrayed. Up until his time in office, the most common images of black men on television news were either criminals or celebrities. This sent a not-so-subtle message to young black men that these were their only options. With Obama, all of a sudden there was another option. A very frequently seen option. You could be the leader of the free damn world. For all intents and purposes, the most powerful person on the planet. That’s what a black man could be.

I think, in part, this is why #BlackLivesMatter emerged when it did. Officer involved shootings of black men had been going on long before Obama, but we started paying closer attention because, for once, we knew there was something better a black man could be than a target. There was cognitive dissonance between what we could easily recall when we thought “black man” and how these black men were being treated. It’s not that these shootings hadn’t been going on the whole time, it’s just that, with a black man in office, it started to seem a little weird.

This is where we get into heart disease versus terrorism 0r shark attacks versus vending machines. We need content that helps us understand and visualize and normalize what we should be afraid of. Now, of course, you can’t mandate what someone is afraid of. You can, however, give them representations that match, objectively, what’s most likely to threaten them. Through this, people may begin to understand that they may be way more dangerous to themselves than a black man or a Mexican.

Suicide is way more common than homicide. Homicide rates fluctuate. Suicide rates tend to stay the same. But even at their highest, homicide rates tend to be 50% of suicide rates. That means someone is (at least) twice as likely to take their own life as to having it taken by another. But tell that to our media. The news generally only reports on a suicide if someone famous is involved. Homicides get you on the news whether you’re famous or not. As a result, we pay way more attention to preventing and punishing homicides than we do to preventing suicide. One wonders what would happened if we responded to each in a way that was proportionally appropriate, spending twice as many resources on preventing suicide as homicide. Or spending 6,000 times as much on preventing heart disease as terrorist attacks, because that’s how much more likely you are to die of heart disease. Which is not to say that the amount of money you throw at a thing is a correct representation of how to solve that thing, but we’re not even close. (To be fair, we spend quite a bit more annually on treating heart disease than fighting terrorism — something like $800 billion versus $100 billion — but, to also be fair, treatment isn’t prevention; and I’m having a hard time coming up with numbers on prevention.)

So maybe we need to tell more suicide stories than murder stories. More heart disease stories than shark attack stories. (And maybe just one really good rogue vending machine story.) Maybe we’d vote differently if we had a better read on the real world. And maybe we’d have a better read on the real world if there were more media that accurately reflected it, not just in terms of “realism”, but in terms of the challenges our heroes face, and the faces of the heroes who rise to the challenge.

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