Monday Musings, The Times We Live In
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Bad events, good trends

Are you well-informed about what matters in the world? Or do you turn off the depressing daily news feeds to watch cat videos?

The chances are that even if you consider yourself a news junkie, you are not terribly well informed about long-term trends. On the other hand, it is understandable if you tune out the news on a regular basis. Brian Klaas — Associate Professor of Global Politics at University College London — says both things are more the result of our broken news model rather than your moral failings as a human being.

In Why the world isn’t as bad off as you think, Klaas sets out to show that news coverage is “terrible at capturing the biggest good news stories: the long-term trends that show vast improvements in human living standards across long stretches of time.”

He begins with a quiz: what percentage of the global population currently lives in extreme poverty — defined as earning less than $1.90 per day?

If you are like me, you have no idea. And that’s not because I don’t follow the news. It is just that the news cycle focuses on events. But here’s a hint. When I was born, the number was about 50%. Today, it is lower.

The news we read and hear is mostly an aggregation of “every bad event that happened in the last twenty-four hours, anywhere on Earth.” So you can see why it is easy to get the impression that the world “is uniformly a disaster-zone, run by malicious idiots.

Then, we step away from our screens, go for a walk, and it doesn’t seem so dire.”

It’s important to be well-informed about tragic events, because tragedies cry out for action. If we care about other humans, we need to know when they’re suffering, particularly if we can do something about it. …

But they are events, and because the focus lies squarely on them, we lose sight of the major, gradual shifts in our world that, like slow drips of water, seem insignificant on any given day, but can eventually cause a flood. Drips add up.

As the world has been celebrating the life of President Jimmy Carter during his time in hospice care, many learned about the long-term good news trend that came as a result of his single-minded focus.

On a 2007 visit to Savelugu Hospital in Ghana, President Jimmy Carter asks a group of children if they’ve had Guinea worm. A raised hand is a yes. (Credit: Louise Gubb/Carter Center)

Jimmy Carter targeted diseases primarily affecting the poor in remote areas — notably Guinea worm disease — and had remarkable success. Because of his commitment, case numbers plummeted from 3.6 million a year to just 13 in 2022.

But we don’t hear that type of news on a daily basis. News has an event bias that comes about for several reasons, including convenience and tradition. This bias is also derived from the fact that events have storylines,

and humans are, to borrow the phrase from Jonathan Gottschall, a “storytelling animal.” That’s why police chases like the infamous one with OJ Simpson were such ratings gold, because it was an event that was overflowing with dramatic tension. We all need to know how the story ends.

Not all trends (i.e., climate change) are good, and we should hear about those as well. But bad events dominate. And even when there is a good trend that relates to the events of the day — such as the holding of the rule of law in spite of right-wing attempts to destroy it — that story gets swallowed up by mainstream media that is an extremely friendly place for conservatism. That isn’t going to change even if the media took the time to reflect on what they’ve done to this country.

Reporting on good, long-term trends can upset the business model for newsrooms. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Let’s return to the pop quiz. The correct answer, Klaas points out, is 8% or about 1 in 12 people who live in extreme poverty. That sounds — and is — terrible. But the trends are amazingly good.

Two hundred years ago, 80 percent of the world’s population was living in extreme poverty, or four out of every five people. By the 1950s, that figure was about 50 percent, and it didn’t budge for some time. By 1980, not much had changed. 45 percent of the global population was still in extreme poverty. …

By 2000, the proportion had dropped to 26 percent. Two decades later, we’re rapidly heading toward 5 percent. That is astonishing. My parents and I were both born into a world in which roughly 1 out of every 2 people in the world were in extreme poverty, whereas the next generation will be born into a world where that figure is approaching 1 in 20.

Have you ever heard about that on the news?

The news should not just be a passive observer of events. “News should be a conduit for information that helps people make sense of the world.”

So what can we do?

  • First, understand that the world isn’t as bad as you think. News reporting gives you a skewed perspective.
  • Second, push back on bad media coverage. As Oliver Wills notes, “press criticism is a long-held American tradition.” It can be useful in educating others.
  • Third, recognize propaganda for what it is. As Ruth Ben-Ghiat reminds us, “propaganda is never just words, and it goes beyond lying. It is a system of organizing belief so people come to see the world in ways that benefit the leader and his party.”
  • Fourth, don’t give in to a diet of “happy news.” That’s just as dishonest as the aggregation of bad events.
  • Finally, we do need more reporting of “bigger trends and what’s driving them.” Many are invisible, but positive. Look for fact-based news outlets with a point of view designed to help people and protect democracy.

When you think everything is going to hell in a handbasket, Klaas suggests opening up Our World in Data to see some of the incredible progress we’ve achieved.

And then go for a walk.

From Pixabay

More to come…


Photo by usa from Pixabay.

This entry was posted in: Monday Musings, The Times We Live In


I am David J. Brown (hence the DJB) and I originally created this personal blog more than ten years ago as a way to capture photos and memories from a family vacation. After the trip was over I simply continued writing. Over the years the blog has changed to have a more definite focus aligned with my interest in places that matter, reading well, roots music, and more. My professional background is as a national nonprofit leader with a four-decade record of growing and strengthening organizations at local, state, and national levels. This work has been driven by my passion for connecting people in thriving, sustainable, and vibrant communities.

1 Comment

  1. Pingback: April observations | More to Come...

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