In 1984 my daily commute into London involved reading a news paper on the train. I would start with the columns that interested me most, and then work my way through the rest of the paper to pass the time. TV likewise was a take it or leave it affair – there was no ability to record shows for later. The evening news covered a broad range of subjects and you either watched all of it or risked missing something important. News back then seemed more balanced, fair, and wide-ranging – a far cry from the controlled media that George Orwell had predicted in his classic novel “1984”.
But, in today’s on-demand world, people have access to so many sources that one never has to read or listen to “the rest”. Instead we subscribe to only those sources that interest us, and nothing more. While this is great for ensuring that we are entertained, it also tends to lead to a mindset that is narrow and one-sided. Republicans will read stories about the latest lunatic ideas proposed by Democrats, while the Democrats are doing the same thing. And the same story is repeated by Christians, Hispanics, Yankee fans, and just about every other group imaginable.
Is this a problem?
When people only hear only one side of the story, they assume that everyone else agrees with them and proceed as though they have ‘right’ on their side. This gives people a skewed view of the world where they might not even recognize when there is a legitimate “other side“.
Left unchecked, this one-sided thinking is reinforced over and over, resulting in strongly held beliefs that can be completely out of alignment with reality. An example of this was seen in a recent post on NPR citing the “Top 5 Things Parents are Worried About”:
In spite of media sensationalism keeping the top 4 in the forefront of our minds, they actually have a very low chance of ever becoming reality. Children are far more likely to be killed by someone they know than by a stranger. And, while the top 3 grab headlines, the chances of them becoming reality are very slim indeed.
Clearly what we worry and care about is heavily influenced by the media. So when the media you are exposed to is narrowly focused or exaggerated, then so is your world-view.
I was discussing this with some friends recently and one of them openly stated that if he hears of a plane crash he is only interested in the number of Americans killed. This was not said as a matter of bravado, or to shock, he was just being completely honest. Others at the table said nothing, but did not disagree, so I don’t think he was alone in this view.
Personally, I try to fight this by subscribing to feeds that cover a range of subjects – usually put out by the BBC or NPR, since they tend to avoid the sensationalism rampant in other news media. But I feel as though I am in the minority.
George Orwell’s vision of 1984 painted a bleak world where the prescribed news reporting reinforced the message of the Overseers. While perhaps our government isn’t providing this one-sided view, we seem to be doing it to ourselves.
Perhaps George was right – he just missed the date by 25 years…