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The World is Ending!

Well, not quite. But you almost get that feeling by reading some of the major media coverage of “The Big Recession of 2008”. I’m not saying that there isn’t a downturn in the economy as of late, but you do have to wonder how much of this downturn might be attributable to a self-fulfilling prophecy, perpetuated in a large part, by the media.

Take the current top story on CNN’s RSS feed, “Poll: Three-quarters think U.S. in recession“. They needed to take a poll on that? Of course the people think that! CNN and other media outlets have been TELLING THEM that for several months now. And now, as soon as the population knows that 75% of us think we’re in a recession, CNN can take a poll again next week and they’ll probably find that 85% now think so.

Interestingly, another recent poll of “101 senior decision makers at U.S. companies with at least $500 million in annual revenues” by the Boston Polling Group found that only 37.6% think we are currently in a recession. Now, what do they know that the general population doesn’t? There’s an obvious discontinuity here. Ok, sure, another 15.8% of those executives that don’t think we’re in a recession now, do think we’ll be in one soon. But that’s still less than the nearly 75% that CNN found in the general population. And besides some of those execs are also certainly influenced by the inundation of grim doomsday recession news spewing out of every media outlet in the US and beyond on a daily basis.

At least a portion of all this recession stuff has got to be a vicious self-fulfilling cycle, predominantly perpetuated by the mass media. Tell them they’re “in a recession” enough, and they’ll act like it. The media tells us of this gloom and doom so often, that even the people who haven’t “felt” a recession personally start acting like their in one anyway. They worry about their savings more, their future. They limit spending. Less spending hurts retailers bottom lines, they report reduced sales, the media eats this up and reports on even further economics woes, creating even further paranoia in the unfortunately all too gullible public.

The media tends to do this for more than just recessions and slow downs. For many people, mass media helps to create reality. Several theories on this exist and while there’s some debate as to what extent it affects people’s reality, there is little debate about whether the media has influence at all. Skeptic.com posted a really good article recently on how broadcast journalism is flawed. It touches on the media/reality topic quite nicely. Here’s just one cited example on how the media affects our reality. Think of the prevalence of reporting on child abduction and molestation cases:

“According to the U.S. Department of Justice, in a given year there are about 88,000 documented cases of sexual abuse among juveniles. In the roughly 17,500 cases involving children between ages 6 and 11, strangers are the perpetrators just 5 percent of the time — and just 3 percent of the time when the victim is under age 6. (Further, more than a third of such molesters are themselves juveniles, who may not be true “predators” so much as confused or unruly teens.)

[…] if your child is not molested in your own home — by you, your significant other, or someone else you invited in — chances are your child will never be molested anywhere. Media coverage has precisely inverted both the reality and the risk of child sexual assault. Along the way, it has also inverted the gender of the most tragic victims: Despite the unending parade of young female faces on TV, boys are more likely than girls to be killed in the course of such abuse.”

Here we see a perfect example of media distorting and thus creating reality. It makes a good sensational story, kinda like economic woes — let’s go to press! Reminds me of the “Satanic Panic” of the 1980s when the media (and a huge number of evangelical Christians) reported a flurry of ritualistic Satanic crimes, that included child molestation (of course!), which when investigated, turned out to be a non-issue, probably started by a hoax, and was perpetuated by bad investigation and interviewing techniques, and of course, “the media”.

Admittedly, the cases above didn’t start a wave of copycat molestations or satanic abuse, but they did change peoples behaviors — creating multitudes of overly protective parents that are spending way too much time worrying about the wrong things (or in the case of the satanic ritual abuse cases – completely ridiculous things).

So, while there certainly is some current economic slowdown (in large part due to the bomb dropping in the housing market) one does have to wonder — “Is it really this bad?” Probably not. And it will probably get as bad as it does simply because the media is blowing it completely out of proportion — or rather, creating a reality that is worse than reality.


UPDATE: Just after writing this I ran across an excellent article titled “Shoppers Cut Back, But That May Hurt” which further exemplifies the above quite nicely. 😉 In particular, the quote from Dan Ariely, a behavioral economist at Duke University:

“In some senses, it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy, […] The idea that consumer confidence can crash the market or boost it tells you that it’s not always about reality.”

And also in this quote:

“I think what is at issue here is: Are people responding to real things, or are they just responding to fear?” said N.C. State University economist Michael Walden. “I’m not sure you can separate the two.”