The Disconnect Between News and Reality

The Disconnect Between News and Reality June 20, 2019

These sorts of surveys are always fascinating reading and viewing. So often, there is a disconnect between what we think is the case in any number of scenarios in the world around us, and the reality. We are really bad at estimating and we are swayed by the news quite staggeringly. I know this from talking to my family and extended family about politics, particularly politics of the right. I know a number of Brexit Party voters who simply have a massively distorted understanding of the world around them. I can’t begin to emphasise that enough. I spend an awful lot of time correcting them and biting my tongue at other times. And when they do make claims that have some basis in reality, they are hugely exaggerated.

Recently, Bill Gates tweeted this:

Now it is crucial to note here that the two media sources are The New York Times and The Guardian, which are two of the most left-wing and accurate sources in the print media. From my own research, this is certainly the case with The Guardian, which consistently rates among the most reliable sources in the UK. You can imagine that if these two sources are overexaggerating the challenges and perceptions of reality in terms of, say, terrorism and homicide, then the other news sources are overplaying these issues far more. What this means is that the average layman has a completely distorted view of reality.

As Courthouse News Service reports:

Prior to casting their vote for Donald Trump, a majority of backers of the president-elect believed crime has increased since President Barack Obama took office, despite both the FBI and the Bureau of Justice Statistics reporting crime has significantly decreased.

Those are the findings of the non-partisan Pew Research Center, which conducted a survey of likely voters in the weeks leading up to the election.

During that survey, 3,788 voters were asked if they thought violent and property crime rates in the country had gotten better, worse, or stayed the same since 2008.

Pew’s researchers found that 78 percent of those who described themselves as Trump supporters believed the violent and property crime rates had increased since Obama’s election, while only 37 percent of self-identified supporters of Democrat Hillary Clinton held the same belief.

“To the extent that there’s a large difference between people with different political leanings, clearly an important part of the Trump campaign is that crime is going through the roof. It certainly was not going through the roof,” Dr. Alfred Blumstein, a criminologist at Carnie Mellon, told Courthouse News.

Dr. James Fox, a criminologist at Northeastern University went a step further, noting that the national crime rate was on the decline before Obama took office, and that it declined further while he was in office.

Neither the FBI nor the Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Statistics would comment on the Pew Research Center’s findings.

But Frank Farley, a professor of psychology at Temple University and a past president of the American Psychological Association, did not find them surprising.

“Trump emphasized crime … he links crime to a lot of factors, such as immigration and religion. Crime is infused into a lot of things he’s supporting. He called his opponent a criminal,” Farley said.

According to the Justice Department’s 2015 National Crime Victimization Survey, “from 1993 to 2015, the rate of violent crime declined from 79.8 to 18.6 victimizations per 1,000 persons age 12 or older.”

Meanwhile, the FBI’s 2015 Crime in the United States report, showed the violent crime rate decreasing steadily from 2008 to 2014, with the exception of a slight, .07 percent increase in 2012.

“I think people always think crime is increasing in part because it’s a reflection of what they read in the press,” Blumstein said.

“What happened in the past fades from memory, and what they’re aware of is crime happening right now. Because of recent happenings, they have a reasonable fear that it’s increasing. But crime reached a peak in 1992 and has been declining ever since,” he said.

Of course, this has been going on for an awful long time. Scaremongering has been a tool of the media and political organisations for a goodly number of years. Hitler, anyone?

As The Guardian reported a few years back:

It turns out that net migration – the number of people coming in and out of the UK – may be much lower than previously thought. We now know that the Home Office has ordered an official review of the effect of international students on the British labour market. Apparently, it was formerly assumed that tens of thousands remained in the country illegally after graduating. However, the border checks introduced by the government last year show that 97% leave once their studies are completed. International students are one of the largest groups of immigrants in the UK, but this information also casts doubt on other UK immigration statistics.

So now we know, what difference does it make? Not that many of us seem to pay attention to the official figures anyway. Even before this information came to light, opinion polls consistently found that the general public massively overestimates the percentage of foreign nationals living in the UK. One such survey, conducted by Ipsos Mori in 2016, found that voters believed, on average, that 15% of the population were non-UK EU nationals. (Those who intended to vote leave estimated an average of 20% and remain voters guessed 10%.) Official figures at the time put the number closer to 5%.

Now it seems that even those figures are overstating the truth, it’s becoming increasingly clear that the national panic over immigration is more akin to a tabloid-driven, collective fever dream than anything grounded in concrete reality. Research has found that attitudes are most negative among people in areas with very low immigration. British nationals in places with a relatively large migrant population are far less likely to see immigration as a problem. Younger people are also far more likely to view immigration positively. Perhaps because when you live, work or study alongside people from other countries, you realise that’s all they are: people. The less contact you have, the more probable it is you’ll believe in the bogymen presented by the rightwing press.

The same can be said of people’s perception of welfare fraud and reality. It is a dangerous world we live in and we need to make sure that when we cast our opinion that it accords with reality. Otherwise, we just end up making stuff up and this can be really dangerous. We need to hold our media sources to account. At least The Guardian now appears to hyperlink a lot more of their claims than other media and than they themselves used to. As ever, question everything; primarily, ourselves.

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