26 February 2016

Clay Shirky and What is Wrong with the Media (why they failed to predict Donald Trump and why they distort reality)

Clay Shirky offered a fairly scathing critique of the mainstream media in a series of tweets last night. You can find his twitter feed here, but here are a few representative tweets.

Essentially he is saying that in spite of the poll numbers that have consistently shown Trump's popularity, pundits have dismissed empirical data in exchange for their own professional opinion about what is likely. "Punditry over statistics."

In another tweet he argues

This "inverse proportion" coverage is the reason that the American people are so angry and this is the reason that the press is getting the election wrong. It is the same cause.

Every day, 7 billion people wake up to go about their day on this planet. The vast majority are engaged in raising children, working, enjoying retirement, nurturing friendships, pursuing hobbies, volunteering, creating things, generally enjoying more options than their parents and paying attention to a media that is designed to focus on the exceptions to these normal, productive, helpful lives. The media model pretends to tell the story of the world but it does nothing of the sort. Instead, it tells about the breakdowns and exceptions. And if you pay close attention to the media, you have no real idea of what is going on in the world.

The media, of course, knows this. They work hard to find the bad guys, the "can you believe it moments," the "isn't this awful?" stories. And because they know that reality is so much better than what they report, they are incredulous that the American people would be so angry that they would vote for someone like Donald Trump. They know that this has to be wrong.

But the American people think that the stories about everything being wrong are the main stories, not the exceptional ones. Bad events are covered in "inverse proportion" to their consistency with reality, to paraphrase Clay Shirky. What media pundits know to be exceptional stories are seen by the American people as the normal stories. This is, of course, how they get their news.

Extreme poverty globally is 10% of what it was in the 1980s. Yet the average American will tell you that the world is getting worse. Crime in the US has steadily dropped since the 1980s. The average American will tell you that it has gotten steadily worse. GOP candidates stand up before voters in debates and report on how terrible the economy is, in spite of data that shows its performance is easily in the top 20% for economic periods.

Politicians and the media collude to tell the world how bad things are. The media does it because alarm raises ratings. The politicians do it because it is good for their poll numbers.

The media is baffled by Donald Trump but the media created Donald Trump. You don't continually focus the attention of voters on all that is awful and then act amazed when someone who says that things are so awful that we need to take drastic action.

Oh, and to be fair, not all media focuses on what's awful. An exception to the rule is James Fallow's latest Atlantic cover article documenting so much of what is good and hopeful at the local level, "How America is Putting Itself Back Together Again."

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