How mainstream media misreported the three biggest stories of last year and why they will never cop to it.
Last year featured a large sample of breathless reporting and bad takes regarding the economy, crime, and the mid-term elections. I’m calling this the journalism of artificial panic.
For most of the summer and early fall mainstream media concern trolled all three topics relentlessly.
That’s not to say these weren’t real and important stories. In fact, all three were very important. But journalists, and the news organizations they work for, chose to highlight the worst case scenarios. In many cases, these worst cases merely parroted right wing talking points. This led people to a lot of misperceptions of reality. Some of them, intentional.
Its the Economy Stupid
Beginning in June, news of inflation dominated the headlines. As well it should, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics inflation was tracked at 9.1% YOY, the highest increase since the 1980’s.
This inflation was led primarily in an increase in oil prices, which literally trickled down to everything we buy.
Oil is a commodity, and traded extensively based on expectations of supply and demand, not actual supply and demand. Oil prices began rising the day President Biden was elected, not on supply and demand, but on expectations. Once Russia invaded Ukraine, oil prices spiked 20% in one month (Feb. to March 2022), a 50% increase from Dec. 2021 to March 2022.
The increase in oil prices accounted for >60% of inflation through September 2022.
Even before the huge oil shocks of 2022, the Federal Reserve was signaling interest rate increases. In March, it raised rates .25%. In May it added .50%. By June, when oil prices peaked, the Fed was scrambling to raise rates, issuing a .75% increase for the first time in way too long. This spooked people.
There would be three more .75% increases before the end of the year.
Journalism went straight into talk of recession.
According to Google Trends, talk of recession online spiked right around the time of the first two big moves by the Fed.
That’s not to say there was NO reason for concern. The US hadn’t seen inflation numbers like this in four decades.
But there were plenty of voices saying the chances of a recession were slim due to the circumstances surrounding the price increases and other indicators that didn’t point to a recession at all.
In reality, there were tons of voices, from the beginning of 2022 through the summer saying all this recession talk was overblown. Here are just a few.
One of the best explainers of the economy, recession fears, and inflation, came from WNYC’s On the Media back in July.
The very first segment takes the recession talk to task.
But the whole episode takes on our misconceptions about the overall economy, and how we amplify our personal experiences to become everyone’s issue.
Sure, gas prices were high. And there’s no question about how that impacted people’s buying power. But aside from 2 quarters of slight GDP decline, all other recession indicators pointed to something other than a recession.
Maybe this was something we’ve NEVER experienced!
This was all new. We haven’t had a global pandemic in a highly connected world, and all the logistical problems that come with it…until now.
That’s not the message people were getting from reporting.
Recession was mentioned 33m times on TV and print news reports from June 1, to Nov. 8, 2022.
After the mid-term elections, talks of recession had largely faded from the discussion with no real discussion about how the earlier reporting may have been premature.
Crime, Crime, Everywhere there’s Crime
The second most overblown story to push an artificial panic…crime.
Now, there’s no question crime has been higher than it was before the pandemic. I’m not contesting that point. Violent crime and property crime are up, period.
And there’s plenty of words spilled on what’s happening and what to do about it.
But the uncomfortable reality, as Richard Burk writes at the University of Pennsylvania Department of Criminology, is we’ve enjoyed a decade of crime at historic lows. And while that doesn’t make anyone feel better about what’s going on now, knowing our expectations are skewed, may help a little.
If you look at the sky high violent crime of the early 1990’s, and overlay the crack epidemic, the HIV epidemic, and an unemployment rate north of 5.6%, you may better understand how all these things are linked.
When you look at the unemployment rate in 2021, and put it up against the rate of violent crime, then compare that to 1995, it tracks.
Add a pandemic, economic uncertainty, and a nation that is becoming more economically and politically polarized by the day, and you’ve got a powder keg.
The hard truth is, in the wake of the 3 year COVID trauma we’ve experienced, along with everything that was going on before, there is bound to be some reaction, and some of that reaction will play out in crime numbers.
When society and government make choices to stop supporting people through a major trauma…when people’s lives get turned upside down, bad shit happens.
That’s not an excuse, that’s a reality.
For instance, in 2001, crime spiked 20% nationally. Unemployment was climbing from 4.2% at the beginning of the year to 5.7% at the end of the year. Add a massive national trauma (9/11) and…well, you see what happens.
The breathless reporting on TV news about the rise of crime, and the desire to blame it on the BLM protests of 2020 is pure bullshit.
First, crime started rising well before the protests even began.
Second, if cops are more reluctant to do their jobs because they might be held accountable, as Burk suggests, then they were trained poorly, part of a seriously toxic culture, or need to get into another line of work.
Crime is a major motivator for the public. The shift to “Crime all the Time” reporting started in the 1980’s on local and national broadcast news had the effect of scaring economically mobile (mostly white) people out of cities to the suburbs.
While news organizations purport to be mere writers of the first draft of history, they shape people’s understanding of “now” and help them put it in context with history.
When news organizations present crime like it is a clear and present danger for everyone in a city, there’s a political purpose to it, even if it’s not understood at the time.
This is something the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund knows a thing or two about.
Like in previous eras, current politicized discussions of crime ignore or distort crime data to intensify public fear, heighten racial tension, and undermine criminal justice reforms that promote long-term, sustainable public safety.NAACP LDF
Go on and read that whole NAACP report, because it lays out the case better than I can.
What’s more, even some of the biggest criers about rising crime, have reconsidered.
Judd Legum details how national drugstore chain Walgreens whipped up a panic about shoplifting, then walked it back in news reports just this week.
Read that Popular.Info piece all the way through. Judd points out some of the same things I’m pointing out here, but with even more detail. And sign up for his newsletter, its good stuff.
The long and the short, actually informing the public about crime is not as easy as regurgitating a police press release or crime statistic.
The Red Wave that Wasn’t
The third most overblown story to push an artificial panic, was the Red Wave narrative.
Midterm elections almost always spell doom for the party that holds the White House.
In the wake of the Supreme Court’s landmark decision overturning Roe v. Wade, people on the political left had a new urgency to get out the vote.
Starting with polls in July, after the Dobbs decision came down, all the way through election day, polling averages undercounted the final result by between 2 and 5 seats.
That is actually ok. It is well within the +/-4% that good polls strive for.
But something happened in mid-October. Polls had turned sour for Democrats. Maybe, despite Dobbs, they would get whooped.
By November, things were looking bleak. But, turns out, GOP leaning pollsters were flooding the averages. MSNBC’s Joy Reid called it out and got hammered for it.
But, as it turns out, Reid was right, as the New York Times acknowledged in this December 31st analysis.
By the end of the election season, Five Thrity Eight had Democrats winning just 203 seats, >10 seats down from before the bad polls began infecting their polling averages.
Playing the Refs
In December Data for Progress published an Accuracy Report for 2022, and found that some of the polls who flooded the zone at the end of the election cycle, were also the least accurate.
But that didn’t stop anchors from reading and infographicing these polls from unproven sources.
And boy did they.
If you look up Red Wave between 10/1 and 11/8 2022, you get 49m results.
If you look up Democratic wave during the same timeframe, you get 1.7m results (Note: blue wave is also the name of a GE initiative, so I didn’t use that one).
To be fair, we all expected the GOP to win the House. So its not like that wasn’t a possibility. But EVERYONE underestimated Democratic turnout except for a small number of pollsters who ran the most accurate polls in the cycle.
Artificial Panic and Media Organizations
Since its inception in the mid-1990’s, Fox News and its conservative talk radio forefathers, have ruled when it comes to creating the artificial panic.
If you want to know just how influential talk radio is, listen to this podcast series from WNYC’s On the Media called The Divided Dial.
But now we live in an a era where social media has accelerated the speed of these artificial panics.
You just have to look at the bullshit about gas stoves this week to understand that.
Fox and other news orgs have proven the business of the artificial panic is big money. Adding social media to the mix just gave them another way to monetize their bullshit.
That proof of concept has spilled over into regular journalism, fighting against layoffs and declining ad revenue.
All this comes at a cost. There are always two sides of an artificial panic. And there are real consequences to society as this paper from the National Institutes of Health shows.
Here’s a sample
Able to curate content at the expense of professional gatekeepers, social media allow users to construct information ecologies that are personalized and restricted (Sunstein, 2018). Such outcomes are exacerbated by social media’s ‘aggregative functionalities’ (Gerbaudo, 2018): the use of promotional algorithms to deliver tailored content.Social media and moral panics: Assessing the effects of technological change on societal reaction – James P Walsh
Social media also favour content likely to generate significant emotion and outrage. By promoting communications based on predicted popularity, they prioritize and reward virality and the intensity of reaction rather than veracity or the public interest (Van Dijck, 2013; Yardi and boyd, 2010). The result is the proliferation of ‘click-bait’, deliberately sensationalized content that captivates through affective arousal (Vaidhyanathan, 2018). More significantly, new media systems privilege incendiary communications. Research suggests that, even for the most staid users, the frisson of disgust is too alluring as content unleashing fear and anger about out-groups is considerably more likely to garner attention and ‘trend’ (Berger and Milkman, 2012; Vosoughi et al., 2018).5Social media and moral panics: Assessing the effects of technological change on societal reaction – James P Walsh
Ultimately, segments of the American public are getting whipped up in a frenzy for some hedge fund owner’s bottom line…and to sell Gold to people who don’t know any better.
As much as I hate it, we’re all being played for “engagement”. We have a limited supply of attention, and advertisers demand as much of it as possible. That means, you’ve gotta draw in those eyeballs and ears from somewhere.
What’s the easiest way to do it? Play on people’s fears.
And that’s exactly what the Artificial Panic is designed to do.
Once upon a time, legitimate news sources wouldn’t play on these fears so blatantly. But now, it’s a matter of their survival, which is, apparently, more important than understanding the issues of the day.
So embrace this new dystopian hellscape knowing there’s isn’t a damn thing you can do about it but light up your gas stove, kick back with some Sean Hannity, and rail at the rampant wokeness of the world.
Or you can call bullshit out when its bullshit. Journalists truly love criticism…just like everyone else.
I guess what I’m really saying is, this is the new reality. A reality where there isn’t, and likely never really was, a shared reality. A reality where we’re being more brazenly manipulated than we were before…or maybe not. I don’t know.
Understanding what’s really happening in our world, beyond the desire for clicks, is only getting harder.
And that, not an orange demagogue or a crowd of racist incels holding tiki torches, is the real threat to democracy.