Tuesday, September 27, 2016

News Media Earning Our Mistrust: Good News Into Bad (on Children's Health)

Some people look at a glass and see it half full; others see it half empty. Me? I hold it up to the light, swirl around the contents, and check for contamination ....

            I don't know why so many Americans mistrust "the media" (usually used as a singular), but here's one reason why we should be at least a little suspicious of a large number of them: The journalistic habit of spinning stories toward the sad and sensational, making those stories more newsworthy on the principle that "Good news is no news."

            Example from late September 2016: The US Centers for Disease Control announced that a review of death certificates showed that between 1999 and 2014 the death rates for US childhood cancers had dropped by 20%.

            Yay! Good news! But that's not the way it got handled.

            In my local newspaper, in the far more prestigious Guardian, and elsewhere, the headline of the story was some variation on "Brain Cancer Now Deadlier To Children Than Leukemia," which is true, given the great success lately in treating, among other childhood diseases, leukemia.

            Last time around, based on the same variety of statistics the headlines were on how «Accidents, Suicides and Murder Now Major Causes of Death for Children Under 19», which is also true, again given the wonderful decline in deaths in the USA from childhood diseases.

            Now, I'm a pessimist: the headnote above is the "sig line" on one of my e-mail signatures, and much of my professional career was the study and teaching of dystopias and other works showing a lot of human nastiness (I once taught an honors course simply titled "Massacres"). But really! Bad news sells journalistic and charitable products, and the downer headline is definitely "click bait." So various members of the media spin stories toward the awful.

            And that spin has political effects, so that spin is something to look out for, allow for, and resist in dealing with our professional purveyors of bad news.

            Brain cancer is a horrible thing, especially in children; but we can support research to find treatments for it while still recognizing progress in other areas, e.g., the overall improvements in children's health because of programs in vaccination, e.g., recent success in treating leukemia.

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