Keeping our perspective when flooded with breaking news alerts, well-crafted talking points, juicy sound bites, screaming headlines, and 140-character tweets, among other insults, requires effort.

Every single day we are assaulted with a torrent of sensationalism to grab our attention.  It includes purposeful distortions and exaggerations often with shocking videos.  So, how do we keep our perspective and our sanity when so much of the information about our world comes to us filtered through these imperfect sources?  How do we counter this maelstrom of misinformation, this deluge of drivel?  Without perspective, we may embrace rather strange notions of our world.

To satisfy my curiosity, I looked at news items currently listed on the CNN app on my iPad.   This is a snapshot taken on a rather ordinary Sunday afternoon in July.  There were 50 so-called Top-Stories, and I classified them according to subject matter.  To be fair, I could have chosen Fox, MSNBC, ABC, CBS, AP, USA Today, Drudge, or any number of news outlets.  CNN opened first.

Various crimes were the subject of 28 percent of the stories with murders being the most common.  Another 30 percent were related to pop-culture, and most of these describe the strange happenings and uncommon lives of celebrities.  Another 12 percent were about disasters of one kind or another.  The remaining 30 percent related to politics, religion, science, technology, medicine, nature, education, and the economy, but only one or two stories about any one of these subjects.

Another way of analyzing this snapshot of CNN’s Top Stories is to consider what proportion is positive or negative, uplifting or possibly depressing.  This will not surprise you: fully 80 percent describe something bad–if it bleeds, it leads!  If it blasts, it lasts!

The media compete for audience and the revenue thus derived.  We just want to understand our world, or do we?

Our daily experiences profoundly influence our world view.  Distortions, exaggerations, and blatantly biased information all challenge us to navigate our days.  We can draw false conclusions and make bad decisions with serious consequences for our families, our communities, and indeed for the entire world.

Every important news story or headline that lingers for more than a day gets a tag that draws vivid and fertile associations.  These tags create the meme that spreads like a malicious virus forever infecting our minds with a false reality. Consider the following subjects.

  • Self-Defense/Stand-Your-Ground
  • Global Warming/Climate Change/Climate Disruption
  • The Obesity Epidemic/Health Crisis
  • The IRS Scandal/Government Intrusion/Political Favoritism
  • The Right-To-Privacy/National Security
  • Terrorism/The War on Terrorism
  • Racism/The Struggle for Civil Rights
  • Bird Flu/Swine Flu/Pandemics
  • Education Reform/A Nation at Risk/Failing Schools
  • Health Care Reform/Obamacare
  • Freedom of Choice/Abortion Rights/Right-to-Life/Anti-Abortion/Pro-Life
  • Evolution/Creationism/Intelligent Design

Each of these complex issues conjures notions and emotions related to our experiences and the information and attitudes we encounter.  Allow me to analyze just one of these as an illustration.

Try this experiment. Ask a friend if public schools are rotten. Chances are your friend will answer yes! Ask why, and you will hear about the high dropout rates, declining SAT scores, violence, drugs, incompetent teachers, and an array of other reasons that public schools are failing. Case closed!

Where did we get these ideas about public schools? Mostly, they derive from media reports but often from politicians and the media’s talking heads, as well as from various friends and family members—it becomes the unquestioned truth that virtually everyone accepts.

Few of us ever study the public schools or make an effort to determine whether the dropout rates increased or if SAT scores declined, to mention just two of the arguments listed above.  We share anecdotes from the experiences of our children and friends, as well as from our own memories from years ago. If we already hold a strong opinion that schools are rotten, then we tend to believe those anecdotes that reinforce our belief. In reality, none of these memes is actually correct.

The Gallup organization periodically surveys us about public schools.  It is ironic that a majority of respondents agree that schools are failing, but most report that the particular school their children attend is fine and their teachers are good.  This seemingly paradoxical finding makes my point.  We are victims of false ideas which are difficult and even impossible to challenge or verify.

More Americans have high school diplomas than ever before. Don’t believe me?  Go to the U.S. Census Bureau and check it out for yourself. The percentage of adult Americans with high school diplomas increased from less than 10 percent in the early 20th Century to almost 90 percent today, and it has never been higher than now.

Have SAT scores declined?  Average scores declined in the 70’s and early 80’s because of efforts to encourage more students to attend college.  Access to higher education increased significantly and many more people were taking the SAT. If you compare the average SAT score of each gender and of different ethnic groups, you will discover that these subpopulations actually increased their average SAT scores during that 20 year period, but that was never reported–it wasn’t newsworthy.  The average scores have continued to increase with significant gains in certain subpopulations.   In the 1960’s only about 10 percent of the adult population in our country completed a college education with at least a bachelor’s degree, that percentage is now over 30 percent among adults.

Similar explanations exist to refute the other arguments supporting the notion that our schools are rotten. I’ve selected just two in order to make my case.

It is very difficult to keep our perspective when what we hear or read is only a very small and often distorted part of a larger story about which we have little knowledge and limited experience.

We do need perspective.

About DocStephens

Retired college professor of science and mathematics, academic administrator, and president (emeritus).
This entry was posted in Human Behavior, Media and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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