A The news is useful for keeping up to date about what is happening in the world. However, because of the types of stories the media tends to show us, and because of the way our minds work, we can end up worried about the wrong things and more scared than we need to be.
B Media sources want people to read or watch their news, and stories that generate anger or fear get more readers and viewers, so they tend to show these stories more. As consumers, we are attracted to these types of stories partly because we have a negativity bias. This means that we tend to pay more attention to, think about, and remember negative events, perhaps because focusing on threats helped us to survive in the past. We are drawn to scary news stories because, as fear expert Gavin De Becker puts it, ‘our survival requires us to learn about things that might hurt us’.
C One problem with this is that watching (or reading) scary news stories can leave us worried about the wrong things, De Becker says. One of the main themes of his book, The Gift of Fear, is that fear is a useful emotion – it’s a natural and important survival signal that helps us to avoid danger. But when we have constant exposure to scary news stories, these signals get confused, he says, and it becomes difficult for us to know what the real dangers are. Part of the reason for this confusion is that our minds take shortcuts to make sense of our complex world.
D One of these shortcuts is the availability bias: if we can think of something easily, we tend to think it is more common or greater than it really is. Psychologist Daniel Kahneman explains that instead of thinking carefully about how serious or common something is, we often just consider how easily the thing came to mind. As the media tends to show us more stories with events that are dramatic, unusual or scary, these will come to mind easily, which means that we are likely to think of them as more common or more dangerous than they really are.
E In addition to taking shortcuts to make sense of things, our understanding of the world is influenced by our emotions more than we might realise. Kahneman explains that when we consider something, our minds often swap the more difficult question, ‘What do I think about this?’ for the easier question, ‘How do I feel about this?’, and how we feel then influences how we understand the world. For example, we might swap, ‘How dangerous is this?’ for ‘Am I scared?’ Noticing that you feel scared, perhaps from scary news stories, could leave you with the idea that something is more dangerous than it really is.
F One type of news story that can leave us worried about the wrong things is unusual animal attacks, De Becker says. He gives ‘Dolphin Attacks Swimmer’ as a headline that that could leave us believing that dolphins are dangerous to humans (they’re not, he says). Another type of story is natural disasters. In his 2011 book, Thinking Fast and Slow, Kahneman gives some statistics showing how people misunderstood the dangers of these. He says that US citizens believed that tornadoes killed people more often than asthma, whereas the truth is that asthma causes 20 times more deaths. Tornadoes make more exciting news stories, however.
G Media sources tend to show us scary stories, we pay more attention to these types of stories, and our minds take shortcuts to make sense of things. As the statistics above suggest, all of this together can leave us scared about the wrong things. De Becker argues that to be safer, we need to be able to pay attention to what is actually dangerous and know what not to pay attention to. To that end, he says that he never watches the local television news. His book was written in 1999, however, so maybe his message is even more important now that we have constant access to the news on our phones.