The media, the truth, and responsibility

Why is there 24/7 media coverage on a tragical plane crash?


Yesterday, the world learnt about a terrible tragedy. I read about it very early in a “Breaking News” article on a major German news site. I tried to understand what I had just read. Thoughts of people mourning the loss of their loved ones popped into my head. I felt shocked.

I also felt distressed. Because I realised that in 10 days I will be boarding a Germanwings plane to fly from Berlin to London. Within a fraction of a second I felt concerned about my own safety.

I had this seemingly indelible feeling that I was now going to be less safe on my flight.

Fortunately, I am aware that this feeling is not rationally justified. When asked to estimate the likelihood of a particular event, we never form this estimate in a systematic and scientifically accurate manner. We don’t compare the number of recorded aviation accidents with the number of flights in total within a certain time period and account for weather, type of aircraft, or the length of a particular route. I mean, how could we?

Instead, we sift through memory, fairly quickly and effortlessly. And the question we implicitly ask ourselves is: How easily can I come up with instances of that event? If I can’t retrieve any recent plane accidents from memory, then I don’t have much reason to assume that flying is unsafe. But if I ask myself this question today, there is information about a very recent fatal accident. On the continent that I live on. About an airline that I fly frequently. And this information pops into my mind immediately.

It couldn’t be easier to come up with an instance of that event.

So my subjective estimate of the risk of flying will be inflated. In fact, it will be much higher than two days ago. And my intuitive feeling about flying has worsened noticeably in these two days. Still, none of this objectively justified.

So what’s our conclusion? That humans are incapable of objective risk assessment and their exaggerated emotional responses should be neglected? By no means.

This is a powerful bias in human judgment and decision making with potentially tremendous consequences. The most prominent example has been observed in the aftermath of 9/11. It can be safely assumed that the perceived risk of flying soared in that time. Many people were deterred by these horrible events and, thus, preferred their car over a plane. As a result, the number of car fatalities rose significantly.

The public perception of risk with all its well-documented biases should be taken seriously.

Let’s recap. Recent aviation accidents and incidents temporarily increase the perceived risk of flying because these events are very vivid in our memory and can be readily recalled. But why is that?

It’s because whenever such a tragic event occurs, we are permanently exposed to it. It feels impossible to evade that exposure. Every TV channel, every news outlet, every radio station seems to be replete with information on the plane that crashed in the French Alps, for reasons that are yet to be ascertained.

This is a very important thing to remember. Chief executives and politicians that are involved in this tragedy emphasised it in their official statements. The reason for this tragedy is yet unknown. At this point in time, any evidence is insufficient, or mostly non-existing. And still, that doesn’t keep the media from publishing plenty of speculative theories about what may have happened. But what’s the point? Even if the true reason is included in these articles, they will still contain countless assumptions and speculations that are wrong. All this information gets stored in people’s memory, irrespective of its validity, and will make such a tragic event all the more available.

The more attention-grabbing theories on the tragedy’s cause are published, the stronger the public bias on the risk of flying.

But even when the media confines itself to reporting proven facts, there is still criticism to be voiced. It is the level of (personal) detail in the coverage that I find inappropriate and often distasteful.

Why does the public have to know that among the victims of yesterday’s plane crash was a school class? Is it beneficial to the victims’ friends and relatives? Is it comforting for a mourning town to have 24/7 press attention? I doubt it. Is there a factual reason why this piece of information should be emphasised? Are the deaths of pupils more grievous than the deaths of the other victims? I beg to differ.

So why? Well, it surely attracts the public attention, which will be of economic advantage to any media entity. But by making the coverage more and more personal, this attention quickly turns into fear — the fear that such a tragedy is more likely to happen than it was before.

Lastly…

Why are there pictures of mourning people alongside so called news articles?

Perhaps these aren’t pictures of those affected by yesterday’s events. Perhaps they just come from some stock photo agency. But, given the lack of decency of the stereotypical press photographer, it seems much more likely that these are actually pictures of those people who now experience greater grief and sadness than many journalists will be able to imagine. Publishing such pictures entails no informational advantage. Any healthy human being that hears about a fatal plane crash knows that there will be many innocent people in deep mourning. No pictures needed. So the media’s intention is, once again, to grab people’s attention — this time in a strikingly distasteful fashion.

The ubiquitous media coverage on tragedies like yesterday’s plane crash inflates the public perception of the risk of such events. By nature, more vivid information is more readily available in memory.

The more pictures of grieving people and personal details of victims are published, the more serious the consequences for the public.

Now, I am sure the media’s response to this critique will be something along the lines of “That’s what our readers/viewers/listeners want to read/see/hear” and I am equally sure that data on web traffic and viewing figures will support that claim. We are all naturally curious for new information. Each time we process a novel piece of information, dopamine is released in the brain, which is associated with its reward system. (It’s the same neurotransmitter that peaks when someone has an orgasm). People are looking for a certain kind of information and the media gladly provides it.

So they’re just doing their job, right?

No. I think that the media has a responsibility. In very general terms, it’s the media’s responsibility to convey truthful information. It seems hard to rebut the truth that flying is the safest mode of transportation. That was true two days ago, and it remains true today. And yet, the result of all the — sometimes excruciatingly detailed — media coverage is that more and more people will develop disbelief in that truth, because they overestimate the chances of a plane accident.

Any media entity has to do what’s in their economic interest. But sometimes these interests clash with responsibility and decency — at the expense of the latter.

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