The media: prophets of reporting or sensationalized catastrophes?

Opinion: Columns

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By John Hubbuch

The last few months have been pretty dark and scary. The electronic prophets predicted a series of impending catastrophes. There was the Mayan calendar and end of the world, followed in short order by the fiscal cliff and now sequestration. Asteroids barely miss our planet. There is a murder epidemic in Chicago. I'm definitely avoiding any cruises. Pilots fly drunk. Madmen roam the halls of our movie theaters and schools. There's more: invasive species, drought and flood, sexting, obesity, loose nukes, Iran, North Korea and unsafe infrastructure. It makes you just want to lock your doors and watch Downton Abbey episodes over and over.

I think the real problem here may not be the prophecies of doom and gloom but rather the prophets. Our print and electronic media are premised on the capitalistic imperative that the more eyeballs watching, the higher the advertising revenue. Doom and gloom trump the quotidian. Snowstorms lead the local news — not sunny and 75 degrees. So the discerning citizen must distinguish between the false and true prophets. There are at least three archetypes: Chicken Little (aka Henny Penny), The Boy Who Cried Wolf, and Cassandra.

Henny Penny, you will recall, is the stupid chicken who believes the sky is falling after an acorn falls on its head. Henny Penny then induces hysteria among Turkey Lurkey, Ducky Lucky and all other first and last name-rhyming foul. Eventually Foxy Loxy eats these stupid birds, which seems appropriate, even Darwinian. Stories about a "Chicago murder epidemic" ignore the fact that murder today in Chicago is almost half of what it was in the 1990s. Most catastrophe stories are exaggerated. If an acorn hits you on the head, it is not the end of the world.

The Boy Who Cried Wolf is an Aesop fable. This tale is about the deceitful shepherd boy who repeatedly raises a false alarm that a wolf is eating the sheep. Eventually, a real wolf comes along, but the villagers fail to answer the shepherd's cry of alarm given his history of lying. The sheep are destroyed, and there is a huge hole in the shepherd's resume. Our politicians are very much like the Boy Who Cried Wolf. The repeated prediction of disaster erodes confidence in the prediction. As 18th-century blogger/pamphleteer Samuel Croxall asked: "When we are alarmed with imaginary dangers in respect of the public till the cry grows quite stale and threadbare, how can it be expected we should know when to guard ourselves against the real ones?" True dat.

Cassandra is different from stupid Henny Penny and lying Wolf Boy. You may recall she is the beautiful daughter of King Priam and Queen Hecuba of Troy. Her beauty caused Apollo to grant her the gift of prophecy, for which Apollo expected more than a good night kiss. When his advances were refused, he cursed Cassandra by causing no one to believe her predictions even though she was right. (On a personal note, I share Cassandra's frustration. Been there.) Cassandra warned the Trojan army about the Trojan Horse, but no one listened. She is like those few who predicted the collapse of the real estate bubble back in 2005. I fear that someday we'll realize that climatologists were our modern-day Cassandras.

So there are plenty of pundits, insiders and smart guys, but most of them are stupid or venal. However, a few we ignore at our peril.

We must learn to tell the difference.

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