Media Criticism

The Media Is Obsessed With Bad News

To keep scare stories in perspective, remember all the good news that gets less attention.


We in the media rarely lie to you.

But that leaves plenty of room to take things wildly out of context.

That's where most big scare stories come from, like recent headlines about GM foods. GM means "genetically modified," which means scientists add genes, altering the plant's DNA, in this case to make the crop resistant to pests.

Last week, Poland joined seven other European countries in banning cultivation of GM foods.

The politicians acted because headlines screamed about how GM foods caused huge tumors in rats. The pictures of the rats are scary. Some have tumors the size of tennis balls.

What the headlines don't tell you, though, is that the female Sprague-Dawley rats used in the test usually develop tumors—87 to 96 percent of the time.

It's a similar story with chemicals that the media constantly tell us to fear.

More often than not, rats get tumors if given high enough doses of manmade chemicals. I shouldn't say "manmade." Nature's chemicals cause tumors at the same rate.

Reporters and environmental activists have incentives to leave out details that might make the story boring. It's useful if you think you're in danger.

"It's a great way to get attention," says Bjorn Lomborg, statistician and author of The Skeptical Environmentalist, "but it focuses you on the wrong solutions." Instead of doing something that really fights cancer, like quitting smoking, people devote their energy to banning things like GM foods.

GM foods require less water, need fewer pesticides and grow where other crops will not survive.  

By forcing farmers to stick to the old-fashioned corn, activists and regulators force customers to pay higher prices for food.

Reporters sleep with clear consciences because we (usually) don't say anything completely false. We tell ourselves that we may save lives and draw attention to important issues—and so what if people err on the side of safety?

But the answer to "so what?" is that people waste time, money and emotional energy, and we are less safe, because we worry about the wrong things.

Years ago, the Natural Resources Defense Council claimed the chemical Alar, which helps keep apples from rotting, killed kids. When "60 Minutes" ran the story, I believed it. So did lots of people.

Schools across America banned apples. Moms poured out apple juice. Apple growers lost billions.

But the scare was bunk. Apples, even apples with Alar, are good for you. Since banning Alar meant apples decay more quickly, apples become slightly more expensive, and that meant some kids ate less healthy food.

Today, we have new scares, like the one over plastic water bottles. Some contain a chemical called BPA, which activists say causes cancer, hyperactivity, all sorts of problems.

Chemicals called phthalates, which keep school supplies like backpacks soft, are accused of damaging kids' livers and kidneys and causing asthma.

If these stories were true, who could blame parents for being frightened? Who can blame reporters for telling the story?

Julie Gunlock, from the Independent Women's Forum, blames them. She points out that the activists scare mothers needlessly, because "over 1,000 studies, independent studies, have said that BPA is perfectly safe."

She knows how the scare stories work: "BPA is easily vilified. I mean, it's invisible. And people tend to say: 'Chemicals, it's scary. I'll just trust what some activist organization or consumer rights organization says and avoid it.'"

There's no reason to get excited about chemicals—unless you're an environmental activist eager to acquire money and power.

"A lot of them make money on newsletters," says Gunlock. "Bad news sells." NRDC has raised $185 million by scaring people.

To keep scares in perspective, remember all the good news that gets less attention. Coverage of horrors like the shooting in Newtown, Conn., makes us think our kids are in more danger today, but school violence is actually down.

And despite all the chemicals—actually, because of them—we live longer than ever.

There is plenty of bad news that's real—like the national debt, and most of what politicians do. But in most ways, most of the time, the world slowly but surely gets better. To most of us, that's good news.

NEXT: British Regulator Fines Playboy

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  1. It’s funny cause it’s TRUE!

  2. With all due respect to Mr. Stossel – it isn’t “bad news” that the media is obsessed with reporting – It’s news that will advance their agenda that they dwell on.

    1. It’s news that will advance their agenda that they dwell on.

      True. But that kind of news tends to be couched in “bad” news because they can use it to form public policy opinion in their authoritarian image. The media doesn’t report “news.” The media takes bit and pieces of Shit that Happens? in order to create the news that hopefully (to the media bosses) sways public opinion.

  3. That’s cause for as far as we have advanced in technology, science etc…we’re still at our core superstitious cavemen and women. Ready to scapegoat something at the drop of a hat.

    We just have a better means of communicating this hysteria…instead of smoke signals, cave drawings and folk tales, we have HDTV screens beaming this nonsense directly into our ids.

  4. We in the media rarely lie to you.

    HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA!

    1. No the statement is the truth.

      Rarely does a media story, regardless of it’s intent, make a claim which is known to be objectively false by the writer at the time it was written. If they do not know the claim is objectively false then technically it is not a lie regardless of how truthful or accurate the claim is.

  5. If these stories were true, who could blame parents for being frightened?

    Even if they’re true, what they fail to convey is the likelihood of someone developing cancer or some other serious health damage.

    Let’s assume that phthalates indeed cause liver damage “in kids”. If one’s day exposure would cause such damage in 97% of kids, that would obviously call for a total ban on the manufacture and/or use of the chemical. If 8 years of exposure causes such damage in one kid in a million, it is much less obvious that a total ban is justifiable.

    There are only two sure things: death & taxes. Everything else has an associated probability (although obtaining a good value for it might be complicated); without knowing & understanding that probability, it is meaningless to say that a given chemical “causes” cancer/liver damage/autism/butter to run/the cat to squeak.

  6. I like Stossel. He picks a topic, tells both sides and rationally explains the unintended consequences and/or subterfuge so the target audience (i.e. the stupid) can understand it. Always polite.

    Compared with Schultz, Olbermann, O’Reilly and Hannity, he’s genuinely a nice guy. Without going all Ken Shultz on everyone, this is the way to present libertarianism to people.

    Unfortunately, many on the left still hate him.

    1. “Unfortunately, many on the left still hate him.”

      Because they have the most (not all) invested in lies/deception/evasion of facts.

    2. That’s a good observation on Stossel. I like him too. He doesn’t resort to shrill or self-righteous rhetoric to make his point. There was an article in Reason not long ago that discussed how Milton Friedman would engage others in respectful discussions to make his points. So I’d like to take my (virtual) hat off to the Stossels and Friedmans of the world.

  7. “over 1,000 studies, independent studies, have said that BPA is perfectly safe.”

    No study can say something is perfectly safe. It’s just bad reporting to say such a thing.

    A study can report that were no statistically significant effect measured on the variables measured with the given treatment on the treatment population.

    That leaves open the possibility of an effect on *other variables* that weren’t measured.

    For BPA, it’s been found to bind to estrogen receptors in multiple papers. Wikipedia has a long, detailed, and referenced article on the potential problems with BPA.

    Stossel is making the mistake that many people make with respect to medical reporting. Failure to reject a null hypothesis *does not mean* you accept the null hypothesis. Failure to find an effect does not mean that there are no effects there, only that you *failed* to find any. Maybe there weren’t any. Or maybe you looked for the wrong effects, didn’t have enough data, or weren’t looking at the population susceptible to the effect.

    1. No study can say something is perfectly safe. It’s just bad reporting to say such a thing.

      Only if you interpret the two words as being separate and using the meanings of each word by their dictionary definitions. But “perfectly safe” is a two word expression that, in modern society, lends itself to a different meaning than “never having a mathematical chance of not being safe.” Perfectly safe cannot be proven. “Perfectly safe” can be because it is understood in the phrase that there is a margin of error, but that it is in some fashion negligible and can be disregarded.

      Filling up your car with fuel in the winter where it’s dry is not perfectly safe. There is a 0 that static transmitted from a driver will ignite fumes from the fuel, setting the person fueling the car (and oftentimes the car itself) on fire. But to argue that it isn’t perfectly safe would be absurd.

      1. *greater than 0 (squirrels ate my greater than sign)

  8. The biggest thing to remember is that research causes cancer in rats.

  9. Saccharin!!!!


  10. This is really a bad news to me….

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  12. Our personal security demands being on the alert for bad news, any home invasion miles away is of concern. Good news affects us in different ways it soothes the nervous system and puts a smile on our faces, a raise in pay or a positive health report from the doctor is good and great news.

  13. Must be the single most evident reason for several major MSM-type news media outlets having gone by way of the Do-Do (NewsWeek, comes to mind),shameful lies.

    See, We The People have long since suspected this MSM “manufactured crisis” type (so-called “Breaking News” stories) is meant to confirm a Progressive New Left Activist Agenda currently sweeping the USofA.

    We The People understand the four part agenda envisioned and “in play” by Mr. Axelrod, Jarrett, Siblius, Sustein et al including prevaricator-in-chief himself, i.e., destroy:1)religion, 2)education, 3) finance and 4) system of governance. Reared its head and was evident in America’s tumultuous 60’s and 70’s and actively “on the drawing board” in 2013!!!

    Remember, “Never Let A Good Crisis Go To Waste!!!!” MSM will manufacture daily “crises'” for Americans distraction. Pray.Amen. Darn, just like somebody else did in 1925 in Western Europe.

  14. No offense but Libertarian media, not necessarily Reason but a lot of the more paleo-con leaning libertarian media, like TheSchiffReport or Napolitano, tends to pull a lot of this so called “Pessimism Porn”, like “Obama announces QE4, AAHHHH OMG BUY GOLD THE WORLD IS GOING TO F***ING END IN 3 DAYS AND PEOPLE WILL BE FORMING RAIDER SQUADS, I HOPE YOU PLAYED AT LEAST ONE FALLOUT CAUSE WE ALL KNOW HOW THIS ENDS, EXPANSIONIST NEOCON TECHNOCRATIC SECRET SOCIETY SUCCESSOR TO THE US GOVERNMENT AHHH!!!!”

  15. headlines screamed about how GM foods caused huge

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