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A Tale of Two Realities

The “fourth estate” is an appellation Americans give to the media for its role in shedding light on government and informing voters. Indeed, for all the damage the Supreme Court has done over the years to the plain words of the Constitution, it has largely held sacrosanct the freedom of the press. But we tend to forget that the press is a profit-driven industry, no different than the steel, pharmaceutical, or petroleum industries. As with all industries, the media has a profit incentive to deliver what its customers want, because the more eyes and ears it can attract, the more advertising it can sell and the more money it can make. 

The media only has a profit incentive to deliver truth if the people want truth. And here something interesting and unfortunate happens, because people do want to hear the truth, but they also want to be entertained. This gives the media a profit incentive not to lie, but not to tell the whole truth either. The media’s incentive is to tell us the portion of the truth that is entertaining. And what we have demonstrated by our behavior is that bad news entertains us.

People complain about the media’s fixation on bad news, yet research shows that the problem isn’t the media, but us. Plenty of legitimate news sites show only good news: Good News Network (10,194th most popular site in the US), Good Good Good (45,996th most popular), Optimist Daily (189,415th most popular), and Positive News (111,881st most popular). Yet, by the numbers, we spend our time not there, but on the sites that bring us the bad news about which we complain, like CNN (33rd most popular site in the US) and ABC News (165th most popular). Our behavior encourages the media not to lie, but not to tell the entire truth either. The industry tells us the portion of the news that we have demonstrated that we want to hear.

The result is that many of us have developed a warped sense of the world around us. We believe that the world is going to hell when, in fact, life is improving for almost everyone almost everywhere. A good example played out in January with the unusual round of tech layoffs. Throughout the month, the media trumpeted layoffs at all the well-known tech companies: 18,000 layoffs at Amazon, 12,000 at Alphabet (Google), 11,000 at Meta (Facebook), 10,000 at Microsoft, 7,500 at Twitter, 6,600 at Dell, 3,900 at IBM, 2,000 at Paypal. The media was happy to continue its litany of the dead until some even worse or scarier news came along (the Chinese spy balloon appears to have fit the bill).

Yet, these tech layoffs were only part of the story. What the media didn’t tell us was the good news that the number of jobs created in January far exceeded the number of layoffs. Even with the bleeding in the tech sector, the number of jobs in the US economy increased by over 155,000 in January. That’s the highest monthly job growth since last July and the second highest since February of 2022. But the media isn’t going to serve up that good news because it doesn’t attract our attention. Good news is boring.

None of this would be a problem except that we misunderstand the media’s role. We know that fast food is bad for us, but we eat it anyway because we like it and it’s convenient. We don’t mistake it for healthy food. We know that the lottery is a waste of money, but we play it anyway because it’s exciting and gives us a chance to dream. We don’t mistake it for an investment. We do many things that aren’t good for us, but importantly, we do so knowing what we’re doing.

That’s not the case with our consumption of news because we forget that the media is a profit-driven industry, not some publicly-minded institution that seeks to better democracy by informing voters. They’re simply out to make a buck. So long as we keep in mind that the media is a business, not a watchdog, we’ll be okay. But to the extent that we take what they serve up as balanced reporting of the world, we’ll end up fearing things that are unlikely to harm us (sharks bite fewer Americans annually than do New Yorkers), supporting policies that don’t make the best use of our resources (15 times as many Americans are killed in knifings as in mass shootings), and calling for solutions to problems that don’t exist (the rich pay far higher tax rates than the non-rich).

Unfortunately, what is true for politics and politicians applies also to the press. In the end, we get the media we deserve.