If It Bleeds, It Leads

20 January 2014 · 9 comments

If our lives are filled with fear, that may be due in part to the prevalence of internet, television, and radio. Our fears are fueled by the modern mass media, which makes money by highlighting extreme and unusual events.

Here, for instance, is the front page from Saturday’s on-line edition of USA Today:

USA Today headlines
Headlines from the 18 January 2014 edition of USA Today

Human trafficking! Attacks on Americans! Identity thieves! Remains of dead boy! Elsewhere on the front page, there are stories about extreme weather, a new truck that burst into flames, the background of a high-school gunman, a gay teacher forced to resign, and so on. And this is a normal, uneventful day.

Note: I’ve written before that when it comes to investing, it pays to ignore financial news. Studies show that investors who receive no news perform better than those who receive a constant stream of information. Likewise, the people I know who pay less attention to current events tend to be happier than those who consume a regular diet of news. This is merely anecdotal, I know, but maybe ignorance really is bliss.

If you pay attention to the news, you might think terrorist attacks are common, bicycles unsafe, and that it’s dangerous to let children play unattended in the yard. Yet statistically, terrorist attacks are exceedingly rare, riding a bike increases your life expectancy, and your children are safer outdoors than you were when you roamed the streets twenty or thirty years ago.

The events in the news are newsworthy only because they’re the exception, not the rule. They’re statistical outliers. Yet because we’re fed these stories daily, we think these things happen all of the time. As a result, we’re afraid to live normal lives.

I have a friend who’s reluctant to leave her home. Because she’s been assaulted in the past — an unfortunate event, but a statistically unlikely one — she lives in fear of being assaulted in the future. It’s true that by appearing in public, my friend runs the risk of being assaulted again. It’s far more likely, however, that doing things outside the house would bring her pleasure and fulfillment.

To some degree, each of us is like my friend — but not as extreme. We are all filled with fears, and these fears hold us back.

To live a richer, more fulfilling life — a life without regret — you must first overcome your fears. You can start by exposing yourself to new experiences, by interacting with your environment and allowing it to change you.

It all begins with the power of “yes”.

1 Veronica January 20, 2014 at 08:57

There’s a book I’d recommend to your friend that was attacked, “The Gift of Fear”. (She may find it available at her local library, it’s been out for years.) I think it could help her. The statistics about rape in this country are astounding. It is not rare nor uncommon. But there are things that she can do to help minimize the fear. Learning martial arts does help. There are other things that she can also do as outlined in the book. Wishing your friend all the best in her recovery.

2 Mstock January 20, 2014 at 11:41

Hi JD I’ve been reading this site ever since you stopped posting regularly at GRS and had been disappointed with the infrequency of the posts, but I just wanted to say I have been loving the amount and quality of the posts lately. I hope it keeps up!

I also read this article this morning that’s very similar to what you have been writing lately. Not sure how old you are, but the author apparently just turned 30 and wrote out a list of 30 life lessons for his sons that seem to be very in line with what you talk about the last few weeks: http://cpajdb.com/to-my-sons-30-lessons-in-30-years/

3 guinness416 January 20, 2014 at 12:46

That screenshot …. I lived in NYC during and after 11 Sept and was extremely stressed out and wired in the aftermath, beyond any risks to myself or any of us going about normal life really. We were all totally glued to the news, which looking back from 13 years out was of course full of rumours, speculation and hysteria, especially the garbage NY tabloids which were all over my workplace. I cut the newspapers and blogs and TV off more or less cold turkey and felt a lot better almost overnight, it was kind of miraculous. So I guess that was more like the power of “no”. I do have many of my own less obvious fears and neuroses that I should be too smart and old to allow, of course.

4 Shannon January 20, 2014 at 18:52

I’ve just discovered this website in the last few days, and I must say I can’t stop reading your posts! I write a weekly column for a small newspaper, and your style of writing is exactly what I shoot for every week.
Please keep up the good work!

5 abc January 20, 2014 at 21:41

I have believed in the power of YES ever since you talked about it at WDS. I used to avoid public speaking like the plague. But I decided to say YES to it, prepped myself really well and voila, it was the first ever seminar I had done so well in my life and everyone set my performance as the benchmark that others have to follow to make themselves better. And, I said YES yet again after exactly a year from my first successful seminar, this time to host an event for a club I’m part of. The applause I got still rings in my ears and everyone felt that my performance was miles apart from the way the previous hosts had held the event. The nervous jitters I had for the one week leading up to the event and the innumerable times I decided to back off from hosting it are some secrets only I know ;)

And, I totally agree with reducing mass media effect in your life. It can make even the sanest person paranoid. It’s best to have some security measures in life and then forget the dangers, go ahead and live your life!

6 nnn January 20, 2014 at 23:55

It’s horrible advice to tell people to be less informed about what’s happening in the world – American’s are too dumb already (substantiated by endless surveys and rankings by country). And we are already too disconnected for news and policy, with helps contribute to horribly low voting rates. Education is critical to a functioning democracy.

Instead of consuming fear-based media, just get your news from sane, reasonable sources. For example, limit yourself to NPR and the NY Times. Sure, both highlight some of the worse things happening around the world each day. But they do it with integrity and with fact-based news, and they also always feature tons of other stories that highlight positive newsworthy events and investigative journalism. If you get your news from reading it once a day or through listening to a sane amount of radio news, you’ll also avoid the horrible 24-hour news disaster on television.

7 jdroth January 21, 2014 at 06:54

While I appreciate your viewpoint, I disagree that we need to be informed about what’s happening around the world. Or, more to the point, that we need to consume news through the mass media (including NYT and NPR) in order to be informed.

For more than a decade, I’ve steered clear of the news. Still, I’m constantly exposed to current events because I catch bits on TV, see the newspaper headlines, read magazines in waiting rooms, and so on. Plus, my friends talk about current events all the time. I may not have an up-to-the-minute grasp of the world situation, but I don’t think that’s required.

Plus, usually when somebody complains that Americans are ignorant, that’s code for “a bunch of people don’t agree with my take on events”. Another problem with today’s mass media is that it exacerbates partisan biases, causing our culture and society to become even more fragmented than it has been in the past. (Yes, I realize that the U.S. was founded on this division and that our politics have always been divisive. But we’re at a particularly high ebb in this partisanship, and I don’t like it.)

Anyhow: I stand by this post. I think it’s smart to consume less news.

8 jdroth January 21, 2014 at 07:05

Also, let me use the USA Today screenshot from this article as an example. There is nothing there that makes me a more informed and educated citizen. Not a single thing.

Lest you think that’s because USA Today is a rag, I just checked the NYT and NPR websites. On the main pages, there’s not a single story that I consider crucial to my well-being or my role as a citizen. It’s all filler, and much of it is as extreme as the examples I cited in this article.

9 bethh January 23, 2014 at 13:57

I think it’s true that we’re not getting what we need from mass media, but there has to be a middle road. I’ve been back in Portland for over a year and I am WAY out of the loop on current events that actually can and do affect my life as a citizen of this state. I don’t know how to fix it but I find it troubling, and I think that’s the sort of point nnn was making.

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