Stop Saying That 2016 Was The ‘Worst Year’

Max Roser writes for The Washington Post:

[…] The structure of the media means negative subjects are almost always being highlighted. Harm is done in an instant, and disasters are happening at once: an earthquake, a plane crash or a terrorist attack. In contrast to this, the best news for life on Earth — improving global health, falling poverty, environmental progress — are shaped by quiet trends over the course of decades or centuries. The focus on single events and neglect of slow developments selects negative news instead of often positive developments.

In a classic essay from 1965, Johan Galtung analyzed the structure of news. He argued that the frequency with which outlets publish — daily, and now instantly — limits their ability to cover long-term positive trends. Imagine if newspapers did not come out every day but instead once every half-century. They likely wouldn’t report on half a century of gossip about celebrities and politicians. Instead, they’d focus on major global changes since the last edition. In a 50-year newspaper, the fact that global child mortality has fallen from 17 percent to 4 percent would make the front page.

The negative bias of event news is a problem on the supply side, but there are equally important problems on the demand side. In fact, to be on the lookout for signs of danger is hard-wired in our human psychology. Evolution has shaped our human nature to pay attention selectively and left us with a negativity bias because it is much more important for our survival to pay attention to threats than to positive changes. A missed opportunity is unfortunate, a missed danger can immediately threaten our survival.

What equipped us well for the life in small groups in our long past set us up with a mind that can lapse into a constant state of panic when exposed to the stream of 24-hours news. Even in a world of declining violence, on social media one can always find enough stories on violence, terror and possible threats.

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