Media Warp – The Cable News Distortions


The media loves reporting bad news – great ratings! And we have all received far more information/reports with no new information than we need on the Orlando and San Bernardino killings. And the same on planes lost in the Mediterranean and Indian Ocean. With this information overload, it is easy to lose the forest for the proverbial trees. And politicians do not help: they rearrange/distort news for their own purposes. Below, I offer several examples of “media warp.”

How Prevalent Are Mass Shootings and Acts of Terrorism?

Media coverage gives the impression that US terrorist acts and other mass shootings happen frequently. They do not. The FBI reports that in 2014, there were 8,124 gun homicides or a bit more than 22 per day. Table 1 provides mass shootings and gun accidents information. It is notable that gun accidents dwarf mass shootings. And yet, the American public believes terrorism is a real threat and handgun sales for self defense have gone way up.

Table 1. – US Mass Shootings and Gun Accidents

Source: Gun Violence Archive

And as we are learning from the Orlando shootings, it is increasingly difficult to disentangle acts of terrorism planned by some foreign group from lone wolves that have become “believers.”[1] The point is, don’t take what you get from the media as representative: terrorist acts are only a small fraction of the mass shooting number which is itself small.

And how about the other 7,500+ gun homicides that occur yearly? That are apparently not newsworthy enough to cover – they happen too often. Instead, cable news gives wall-to-wall coverage of a child being killed by an alligator. And how many remember the 2015 Nepal and 2016 Ecuador earthquakes? 8.964 died in Nepal and 661 in Ecuador.

The Important Story the Media Is Missing

Table 2 provides data on the “attacks” since Paris that have even a tenuous link to a terrorist group. There have been many. How many remember the Boku Haram attack in Dalon killing 86 or the Lahore attack killing 69? Very few – not much US media coverage. For perspective, I have also included data on civilians’ killed in the ongoing war in Iraq.

Table 2. – Attacks Since Paris with Terrorist Links


With data from Table 2 in mind, take a look at Table 3. It includes the Muslim population shares in selected countries. The important story not being followed by the media is: why have there been so few terrorist attacks in Europe?

Table 3. – Muslim Population Shares

Source: Pew Forum

Note how small the Muslim share is in the US and how much higher in Europe. Keep in mind that within the European Union, there is very little control of immigrants: if they get in through any country, they are free to travel throughout the Union. The continental European countries within the Union are highlighted in Table 2. They all have much larger Muslim population shares than the US. And that, coupled with limited immigration controls, would lead one to expect more terrorist attacks in Europe than there have been.

Republicans versus Democrats Rather than Compromise

Every day, cable news tracks down politicians and asks them to take “black or white” positions on issues. For example, Republicans are being asked whether they support or oppose Trump and Democrats have to be in either the Bernie or Hillary camp. That is not how the political process should work. A significant part of the political process should take place behind “closed doors” where negotiation can result in compromise. But today, media forces politicians to commit themselves one way another far too soon. A recent example of “media pestering”: Bernie Sanders continually being asked if he was suspending his campaign. My view: let Bernie and Hillary work things out in private.

Extended Coverage When No New News

Cable news, led by CNN has really gone overboard here.”Breaking News” is rarely new. The classic examples here come from coverage of plane crashes in Egypt, the Ukraine, the Mediterranean and Indian Ocean.  The format is nearly always the same: a moderator surrounded by retired pilots, air regulatory officials, and “black box” experts. They speculate on what happened, even when it is patently clear what happened. Does the public really care exactly where the planes crashed in the Indian or Mediterranean?


The public is not served well by the media. Instead of providing them with a balanced picture on what is happening, they blow everything out of proportion to attract more listeners. Unspoken (and sometime spoken) conspiracies exist between protest leaders and the media, e.g., the media promise coverage if the leaders can deliver X number of protesters. And in this search for sensationalism, balance is lost. Sometimes it does not matter: after all, it is just entertainment. But sometimes, the unbalanced coverage has real consequences: in light of the terrorism scare Americans’ purchases of handguns has rocketed up.

[1] For a great book on “true believers’ and the dangers they present, see Eric Hoffer, The True Believer – Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements, New York: Harper and Row, 1951.

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