Good news and real news doesn’t sell

There was an interesting dataset presented in the news recently on the changing causes of death over time in Australia.

For those who are unfamiliar with Australia, it may come as a surprise to learn attacks from snakes, spiders, sharks, dingos and dropbears don’t account for statistically material numbers of fatalities.

Our regular source of amusement (for all the wrong reasons), the once proud newspaper now in managed decline, The Sydney Morning Herald, reports on the study.

It’s worth reading their entire article as it contains interesting nuggets and confirms suspicions you may already have had, such as the rapid decline of lung cancer.

The most interesting element of the reporting, however, is the absolute numerical illiteracy and lack of curiosity of the journalists. Nowhere in the article is there reference to the absolute number of deaths or any type of relative measure (e.g. # of deaths per 100,000 people) we might use to learn whether or not we’re improving or have a crisis.

The data is out there though. Here’s a source, for example, showing the absolute death rate was around 600 deaths a year per 100,000 people in the late 1960s and has reduced to about 180 deaths a year per 100,000 people at the current time.

Read that again. If that isn’t bloody good news, I’d like to know what is.

Obviously, I don’t know how intelligent the journalists, Craig Butt and Soren Frederiksen are, but the omission of the information showing that the real rate of death has declined by two thirds is a major oversight. 

We have to assume one of two things are going on when a data point as material to the story as that is left out. Either:

  1. It was a deliberate omission made consciously for an unknown reason, or
  2. Both Craig Butt and Soren Frederiksen are as thick as mince.

Now, this is the Sydney Morning Herald we’re talking about here, so Hanlon’s Razor, “never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity“, should obviously be kept front of mind. It is, indeed, entirely plausible that Craig Butt and Soren Frederiksen have IQs barely above room temperature, otherwise why else would they be happy to be employed on just above minimum wage to re-purpose press releases as journalism?

Hanlon’s Razor is a good life rule to apply, particularly when faced with conspiracy theories. I wonder if something else is at play here though?

If they knew they were omitting the information, Craig and Soren would also know the information they missed out is a good news story. Without pretending to know what was in their minds, we might guess at a possible reason.

This is just a theory but one we can test every day by observation:

The news industry is in crisis. People have realised content is now virtually free and, instead of receiving their daily news from just three sources at pre-defined times in the day (the morning physical newspaper, their favourite radio channel and their preferred TV channel), they source the information from websites, mobile phone apps, social media, podcasts, amateur blogs, amateur comments on amateur blogs, etc.

Those journalists remaining in paid employment have seen a commensurate shift in the consumption of their product. Although they previously knew how well a particular day’s edition of the newspaper sold, they had little to no insight into which parts of that newspaper were consumed the most or least.

The opposite is true today. Now, the digital editor can tell, in real time, which headline, which stub, which article receives the most traffic and which are abandoned after just a few sentences.

Imagine that’s your job. Every day , you read a series of analytical views of your employer’s products and examine which were successful and which failed. What’s the logical response to that data?

Do more of the former and less of the latter.

Bill’s Opinion

Our theory describes a basic Pareto distribution. Successful traits and behaviours increase, unsuccessful traits and behaviours are killed off. With more granular data points, that distribution is exaggerated.

If, like our commenter View from Northcote, you see increasing volumes of not news articles being dressed up as important and vital, such as Ivanka Trump visiting the hair salon, this would be a possible confirmation of the theory.

The bad news is, if true, don’t expect it to improve any time soon. The incentives are set for the opposite to occur.

6 Replies to “Good news and real news doesn’t sell”

  1. I’m doing a review of a book on compulsory schooling in which the author optimistically opines that while the aims of government education are what they want you to know, and how to force you to comply, if the software and IT wizards were to enter the education marketplace their aims would be to find out what you want to know and to offer it to you the way you like it.

    Enter 2019 with Facebook, Twitter and Google openly acknowledging their aims to tell you only what they want you to know, and to force you to comply.

    1. Good grief. That sounds like one of those silly libertarian arguments that the market will solve absolutely everything.

      Sure it will, but without reference to any kind of societal moral framework.

      Now, I’m far from a thumbsucking leftie and think the world would be a better place if government was a fraction of its current size but the other end of the spectrum is dystopian too.

      1. But…isn’t that still the market “solving” the “problem”? After all, the market is just people wanting things and getting it. The mistake some libertarians make is assuming a given market is made up of people with similar preferences and practices to their own. To be fair you’ve made a similar mistake in forgetting that FB/Google/Twitter’s market is made up many, many petty authoritarian virtue signalling cunts. If, all of a sudden, middle class white women embraced Eastern Orthodox Catholicism instead of wokeness Twitter would award tacky gold crucifixes instead of blue check marks.

        1. Yes. Agree.

          My comment on the limits of libertarian thought probably deserves a longer post rather than my pithy comment earlier.

  2. Recently at a bachelor party with my group of near-unanimously lefty friends the conversation steered into “I’m terrified about the direction of this country” territory. So, before it could get started, I mentioned how great all of our lives were going (which is true) and how one could pick nearly any standard-of-living measure and bask in how we live better than any other group in history. The reaction was fascinating: not being able to think of a tangible way our lifestyle was poorer than our ancestors and not being able to agree (lest the Drumpf Era be appreciated in any way) the loquacious group fell silent. Thankfully that was the last time politics threatened an incredible weekend.

    As you imply we’ll continue to get doom and gloom because we demand it.

    1. That’s the tactic I take these days when confronted with Orange Man Bad/Brexit Racist conversations.

      As your anecdote suggests, it’s quite successful.

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