When the news lacks context
Another year has come and gone. 2021 is almost in the books. And as the years pass by, those 365 days will all be compressed into just a handful of memories.
What will endure? What will we remember?
There’s a good chance that when we look back at 2021, our memories will be … total nonsense.
Not because some future historian got it wrong, but because some of the people who actually lived through 2021 did.
Now, we don’t need to name names or point fingers but … we’re going to anyway.
What will you think of when, on some distant day, you hearken back to 2021?
Assuming you remember it … because right now it just feels like month 25 of 2020.
Will you think back to the lingering effects of the COVID pandemic?
The social divisions that polarized the nation?
The peril facing the environment?
While those were all important issues in 2021, they were also issues on which major media outlets – the kinds of places we depend on for reliable information – seemed to lose their minds.
And in that hysteria, they often denied us the context we need to come to reasonable conclusions about the world around us.
Take COVID: Was this the year where we finally turned the corner on the pandemic? Or a year where the end was still nowhere in sight?
How you answer that question may depend on who’s reporting you listened to. If you relied on coveragei of America’s number of COVID infections...
...you’d probably think we were stuck on a depressing see-saw, where we make progress only to start backsliding again.
But if you relied on coverage about the percentage of American COVID infections that resulted in death...
...you’d be convinced that we’ve made real and lasting progress.ii
Many media outlets made it easy to get confused about the pandemic — by reporting a whole lot of numbers without context.
You might have panicked when you saw an NBC News headline noting that 125,000 fully vaccinated people had tested positive for COVID.iii
You probably would have been less panicked if you knew that it was 125,000 out of nearly 165 million who had been vaccinated at the time — about 0.08%, meaning that the vaccines were working even better than had been projected. iv
A September report from CNNv was the stuff of parents’ nightmares: It reported that COVID cases amongst children were growing exponentially, with over 750,000 in the span of just about a month. The missing detail? It was the same month that kids were going back to their schools, many of which required testing that they hadn’t previously been getting...
...meaning it wasn’t necessarily a spike in cases so much as a spike in diagnoses — amongst kids who, for the most part, felt fine.
2021 also seemed like a year where Americans succumbed to their hatred for one another. And while that was true in some cases, the press often couldn’t resist the temptation to understand every story on those terms.
Maybe you saw the horrifying viral video of a white cop planting drugs on a black suspect in Wisconsin.vi
But you might not have seen the footage from the cop’s body cam — which revealed that the baggy belonged to the driver of the car … and was empty.
By the way, no one was arrested for drugs … or anything else. The result of the stop was a speeding ticket.vii
Perhaps you were disgusted by the reports of a fan at a Colorado Rockies baseball game who repeatedly harassed a black player with the use of the N-word — a story that was reported as fact in some of the country’s biggest news outlets.viii
You might not have caught the quieter follow-up coverage … which revealed that the guy was just shouting at the Rockies’ Mascot: Dinger.ix
2021 also felt like a perilous year for the environment. As officials throughout the world tried to figure out ways to deal with climate change, the New York Times reminded us of the special burden on the United States as “historically the largest source of the pollution that is heating the planet.” x
Which is true — if by ‘historically’ you mean “hasn’t been the leading source of emissions for most of this century.”xi
In fact, while you’d probably never know it from the tone of the coverage, a big part of the story in the past couple of decades has been how America’s carbon emissions have decreased, while emissions in other important countries … haven’t, exactly.xii
The environment. Race. The pandemic. These are all serious issues that should inspire serious coverage.
But too often the goal of media outlets is just to get us angry or scared enough to click on the story or stay on the channel. So, the next time you see a news report that seems exaggerated or even incorrect … take it with a grain of salt.
And maybe check with a second source. I mean, if the reporters aren’t going to do it, someone’s got to.
Happy new year, everyone!
- Daily New Confirmed COVID-19 Cases per Million People — Our World in Data
- Mortality Risk of COVID-19 — Our World in Data
- NBC News, via Twitter
- How Major Media Outlets Screwed up the Vaccine ‘Breakthrough’ Story (Jon Allsop) — Columbia Journalism Review
- Children Make Up More Than a Quarter of the Weekly Us COVID-19 Cases, Pediatricians’ Group Says — CNN
- Viral Video Shows a Wisconsin Cop Throwing a Bag Into a Person’s Car — New York Post
- Caledonia Police Release Body Camera Footage in Viral Traffic Stop Video — CBS 58 (Milwaukee)
- Rockies Investigating Whether Fan Shouted Racial Slur at a Marlins Player — New York Times
- Rockies Now Say Fan Was Calling to Mascot, Not Shouting a Slur — New York Times
- Biden Crafts a Climate Plan B: Tax Credits, Regulation and State Action — New York Times
- Annual CO₂ Emissions — Our World in Data
- Change in Annual CO₂ Emissions — Our World in Data
SOUND | Artlist: “Lowkey Sunday’ (FASSounds) // Musicbed: “Where I Wanna Be (with Oohs & Ahhs) – Instrumental” (Dazy Chain) // PremiumBeat: “Auld Lang Syne French Swing” (Jonathan Boyle)
FOOTAGE | Calendar-12.com // ABC News // Artlist // Associated Press // BBC News // Bloomberg Opinion // CNN // Daily News // Facebook: Fox News, La Savoo // Florida Ticket Firm // Getty: RichLegg, Matthew Cavanaugh / Stringer, Sean Rayford / Stringer, Montinique Monroe / Stringer, Laurence Griffiths / Staff, Win McNamee / Staff, Whitney Curtis / Stringer, shivkantsharma07, Capuski, Ethan Miller / Staff, Jeff J Mitchell / Staff, Fluorescent Films Ltd, Seven Network (Operations) Ltd, ITN, The March of Time, komisar, Nathan Howard / Stringer, Brandon Bell / Stringer, Nathan Howard / Stringer, Scott Olson / Staff, Spencer Platt / Staff, Doug Pensinger / Staff, Trevor Bexon / Stringer, Kevin Frayer / Stringer, Ian Forsyth / Stringer, Jeff J Mitchell / Staff, Ian Forsyth / Stringer, Jeff J Mitchell / Staff, Jeff J Mitchell / Staff, DakotaSmith, Spencer Platt / Staff, Michael M. Santiago / Staff, Don Farrall, Scott Olson / Staff, Nathan Howard / Stringer, Justin Sullivan / Staff, Jon Cherry / Stringer, Rodin Eckenroth / Stringer, Mario Tama / Staff, Jon Cherry / Stringer, Mario Tama / Staff, Bryan Cereijo / Stringer, DutcherAerials // Instagram: CNN // United Artists // Village of Caledonia Police Department // Pexels: Lisa, Cottonbro, Mary Taylor, Alex Green, ANTHONY SHKRABA production, Nathan Cowley // Pixabay: b0red, iXimus, MaxPrst // RawPixel: Jira, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (Source) // Storyblocks: stockmedia, Meh.21, DenisYakovlev, icetray, Mediablix, vitanovski, PepN Stock, dapoopta, Filmovar // The Hill // The New York Times // The Wall Street Journal // The Washington Post // New York Post // Twitter: @NBCNewsPR // NOAA // Unsplash: Megan Ellis, Jakob Rosen // WarnerMedia // FLM // Noclip // G. Edward Johnson // YOUTUBE: CNN, NBC News, Today, CNBC, CBS News, The Hill, BBC News // CITED SOURCES AND NEWS OUTLETS ARE NOT AFFILIATED WITH AND HAVE NOT ENDORSED OR SPONSORED ANY PORTION OF THIS PRODUCTION.
- Our World in Data
Daily New Confirmed COVID-19 Cases per Million People
- Our World in Data
Mortality Risk of COVID-19
- NBC News
- Columbia Journalism Review
How Major Media Outlets Screwed up the Vaccine ‘Breakthrough’ Story (Jon Allsop)
Children Make Up More Than a Quarter of the Weekly Us COVID-19 Cases, Pediatricians’ Group Says
- New York Post
Viral Video Shows a Wisconsin Cop Throwing a Bag Into a Person’s Car
- CBS 58 (Milwaukee)
Caledonia Police Release Body Camera Footage in Viral Traffic Stop Video
- New York Times
Rockies Investigating Whether Fan Shouted Racial Slur at a Marlins Player
- New York Times
Rockies Now Say Fan Was Calling to Mascot, Not Shouting a Slur
- New York Times
Biden Crafts a Climate Plan B: Tax Credits, Regulation and State Action
- Our World in Data
Annual CO₂ Emissions
- Our World in Data
Change in Annual CO₂ Emissions
Learn more with a sampling of expert analysis and opinion from a wide variety of perspectives.
- “How Major Media Outlets Screwed Up the Vaccine ‘Breakthrough’ Story” (Columbia Journalism Review)
- “Partisan Divides in Media Trust Widen” (Pew Research Center)
- “How to Consume News While Maintaining Your Sanity” (The Conversation)
- “Americans Are Divided by Their Views on Race, Not Race Itself” (New York Times)
- “When All the Media Narratives Collapse” (The Weekly Dish)
- “Can the News be Fixed?” (The Atlantic)