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Good news is no news

February 21, 2006|Steve Salerno | STEVE SALERNO's latest book is "SHAM: How the Self-Help Movement Made America Helpless."

THERE ARE stories you won't see, hear or read today. The employment rate is 95.1%. About 29,564 domestic flights took off and landed without incident. Four million Iraqi children got safely to school. Meanwhile, their parents shopped, drove to work or otherwise went about their daily routines, mostly -- overwhelmingly -- without getting assassinated.

A pointless exercise in Pollyannaish thinking? Hardly. The foregoing has major implications for how we get our news, what we conclude from it and our perceptions of life itself. In its most elementary sense, after all, newsworthiness is built on a foundation of anomaly -- the classic "man bites dog" paradigm. (A second newsroom aphorism: "Nobody writes about the planes that land.")

Though that sounds common-sensical enough, few of us pause to think about the upshot of such truisms. That is, what you see each day on television, read about in the newspaper or hear during those 22-minute segments in which all-news radio stations promise to deliver "your world" is not, in fact, your world. Rather, it is the negative image of your world. Put another way, the news provides you with a high-resolution snapshot of what life isn't.

The average person seldom regards his daily dose of news in this manner. Despite any conscious awareness of "man bites dog," we internalize what we see, hear and read. TV imagery, in particular, is bound to have a strong visceral effect. If what we are shown is a tireless parade of the dour, dismal and deadly, we can't help but be affected by it. We conclude that the world is a pretty ugly place.

Worse, however, is that contemporary journalists don't just leave such unfounded inferences to chance. They encourage them by going to great lengths to distance themselves from their craft's "man bites dog" heritage. To admit that what they're presenting is for the most part marginalia would deflate the media's relevance in an environment in which reporters and commentators view themselves as latter-day shamans and oracles (the worst offenders being the high-profile TV journalists).

It follows that today's news often miscasts "man bites dog" as "dog bites man." In an effort to heighten the import of what they report, journalists reverse the bargain with their audiences, as if to imply that all planes crash (or are about to), that all soldiers are killed in Iraq (or soon will be), that all corporate executives are unprincipled (but simply haven't been caught yet).

The overselling of discrete facts -- today's breathless endeavor to build major "trend stories" out of random events, statistics and quotes -- serves up a circumstantial stew made of a spicy anecdote or two, and maybe a minor research study, liberally seasoned with the assertions of a compliant expert (who probably has a vested interest in the form of a book he's hawking). It's intellectually dishonest.

Though the fallout from this "trendification" is everywhere, the following are just a few examples from health and medicine, where the effect may be most visible.

In the early 1990s, a smattering of HIV cases appeared among individuals not then assigned to any known risk group; suddenly AIDS was moving into the general population. (It didn't, and hasn't, and likely never will, at least in the United States.) Despite a decade of media-inflamed mad cow hysteria, the government reports just two infected animals in the nation and not a single documented death among U.S.-born citizens. And now there's bird flu.

Trendification also has weakened whole industries; certainly it has savaged individual companies. Dow Corning Corp. is a good example. Jumping off from a smattering of human interest stories, media outlets damned silicone breast implants and ultimately helped plaintiffs win a $4.25-billion class-action settlement. Subsequent research (which received little publicity) suggested that journalists were hasty, even reckless, in associating the implants with everything from nerve disease to cancer. The revisionism came a bit late for Dow Corning, which was forced into bankruptcy.

And the beat goes on. The TV newsmagazine "Dateline NBC" recently elected to cover gastric bypass, a procedure with a survival rate of 99%, in terms of the other 1%: a single young man who died.

In the end, today's media communicate two contradictory messages: What they put before you (a) is exceptional, under the "man bites dog" rule, and (b) captures the zeitgeist. They cannot simultaneously argue both.

My advice would be to defer worrying about whatever the TV shows are hyping until you begin seeing unending waves of good news. That's when you'll know that the world is indeed a mess. In the meantime, the worse the news, the better you should feel about life.

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