You can’t help fixating on the things you fear; we can’t help telling you about them

jkidd@beaufortgazette.comMay 20, 2013 

3/20/13

I’ve wagged my finger from time to time at those who accuse this newspaper of harping on negative or sensational news. The fact is, we devote quite a bit of time and space in pursuit of stories most would consider “positive” in tone; but as online traffic numbers bear out, seldom are those stories the biggest traffic drivers.

And for whatever reason, positive stories just don’t seem to stick in people’s memories.

But if readers’ perception of news coverage doesn’t always match the reality of what we provide, it’s equally true that sometimes, what we provide doesn’t always perfectly match reality. In fact, some argue news coverage distorts perception of some events.

Earlier this month, for example, the Pew Research Center released a study indicating gun-related deaths are declining, even as the public believes gun-related violence is on the rise. This suggests the emphasis and frequency of news reports about gun violence is out of proportion to its actual incidence.

And if I’m going to wag my finger at those who makes claims about our coverage that cannot be substantiated, I must also point that finger at myself when critics make valid points. I have not tracked our coverage of gun violence, but I must conceded that although the story about the Pew report appeared on our website the day the it was released, it did not make our print edition.

In fact, I didn’t’ read about the report until seeing a Twitter link to it the day after the report was released. That got me thinking: It’s not as though we considered and rejected the news value of the story; the fact is, it wasn’t discussed at all in the budget meeting the day before.

So I went back and looked at the previous day’s news digest, which is a listing of stories we receive from The Associated Press (other wire services also issue daily digests.) The wire service did a story about the study, but it was grouped as a sidebar to a turn-of-the-screw article about federal gun legislation. The description of those stories ran about midway down a 50-story list on the AP budget.

In other words, the wire service that provides much of our non-local print content didn’t exactly trumpet Pew’s news.

Further, the budget line for the story read:

GUN VIOLENCE — Gun-related homicides have declined 39 percent in the past two decades and non-fatal crimes involving firearms have fallen 69 percent, according to new government statistics likely to affect the chances of reviving a gun control bill in Congress.

Not mentioned in the budget was the fact Americans perceive gun violence to be on the rise — a contradiction that is arguably the most fascinating aspect of the story.

Other news outlets, including U.S. News and World Report and the Los Angeles Times, did a better job of cutting to the crux of the perception-vs.-reality angle with their leads and headlines.

Such dissonance is not unique to the United States (and thus, presumably, not unique to American news media, either.) In her book “Textbook on Criminology,” Katherine S. Williams of the University of Wales devotes an entire chapter to The third chapter, “Public conceptions and misconceptions of crime.” Its theme closely mirrors the findings of the Pew study.

Further, the perception gap is not unique to the reporting of law enforcement and crime.

Some might remember 2011 for the Summer of the Shark, during which a few attacks were heavily covered by the media, making some afraid to go into the water. But in fact, unprovoked shark attacks were on the decline at that time. Similarly, a recent story about the decline in tornado activity this year certainly got nowhere near the play as the stories about devastating and deadly storms that ravaged the Midwest in 2011, and it certainly didn’t get the play that touchdowns Sunday in the Midwest attracted.

I suspect this speaks to two truths: Calm weather, in both literal and figurative senses, is non-news; and what is not written cannot temper the guttural reactions to accounts of violence and danger.

Humans seem subconsciously inclined to exaggerate the intensity or scope of a threat; perhaps for that reason, journalists seem to subconsciously gravitate toward stories about danger and the imperiled.

That’s not an inherently bad thing — people need to be alerted to dangers and want to know how to keep themselves safe. But does put us all at risk at drawing incorrect conclusions based upon evidence that is merely anecdotal.

Follow editor Jeff Kidd on Twitter at twitter.com/insidepages.

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