How the Media Misrepresents the Progress in the World


SEATTLE — When turning on the television to the news or opening the newspaper, there is one topic that is guaranteed to be featured: the dangers in the world. The news is plagued with news of murder, rape, political polarization and a myriad of other global disruptions. Such disruptions no doubt exist, but it is actually the case that the world is currently the most peaceful it has ever been with humans living on it. This news is contrary to headlines, but it is in fact true. The news media ignores and misrepresents the signs of progress in the world through its one-sided reporting.

Humans Are Psychologically Biased to Focus on Bad News

News outlets often sensationalize news of violence or conflict, but rarely report on the hundreds of thousands of people being lifted out of poverty on a daily basis. The news exploits Donald Trump’s latest mundane tweet, but does not share the fact that malnutrition has been on a rapid decline, to the point where most people on Earth are no longer starving.

Humanity has been and is continuing to improve, but if a person’s only view of the world is through the lens of the news media, this would not seem to be the case. In fact, it would seem to be the contrary. This is because good things generally take time to see results, while bad things often happen quickly and are of more immediate consequence, making them more captivating to viewers.

News outlets take advantage of this phenomenon, which psychologists call the availability heuristic. This is when “people estimate the probability of an event or the frequency of a kind of thing by the ease with which instances come to mind,” as psychologist Steven Pinker explained in an article for The Guardian. Things that easily come to mind are events that get a lot of airtime and article coverage, regardless of their actual frequency.

Decreases in Poverty and Malnutrition Are Great Signs of Progress in the World

The prevalence of global poverty is one such thing that the news exaggerates. Global poverty, while being still a massive problem, is an issue that has seen amazing progress. The world is 100 times wealthier than it was 200 years ago, and wealth is also more evenly distributed than ever. The downward trend of global malnutrition has been correlated directly with an upward trend in IQ test scores, meaning that not only are people becoming wealthier, better nourished and less susceptible to dying than ever, they are even getting smarter. 

Even the case of the seemingly unavoidable is being exaggerated by the media: the level of nuclear weapons on Earth has fallen by 85 percent since its peak during the Cold War, and the global community has been taking massive strides to mitigate the risks associated with global warming, such as with the Paris Climate Agreement.

None of this is to take away from the problems that certainly exist in the world. Many countries are still living under totalitarian rule, infiltrated by fundamentalist insurgencies or having dire internal conflicts over political malpractice, while millions are still impoverished. It is still nonetheless the case that the news exaggerates catastrophes to a sometimes apocalyptic degree of misrepresentation, in that it makes the world seem as if it is falling apart, when in reality, the world is becoming more interconnected and stable than ever.

People should not be afraid of the world based on the information that the news perpetuates. The front page of the daily paper may be reporting on an anomalous murder, but what it does not feature is the fact that since 1990, global extreme poverty rates have been cut in half, or that the U.N.’s goal to end extreme poverty and hunger by 2030 is on track to happen. The world no doubt has problems, but it is a much better place than it used to be and progress in the world is continuing to happen.

– Daniel Lehewych
Photo: Unsplash


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