A long time ago, in graduate school, my television was stolen and it changed my life. I now had lots of free time. I never understood on a gut level what I was missing until my tv was gone. There was a whole world beyond my living room low rent studio apartment. Jacob Levy once told me during a party, “Fabio, if you don’t watch tv, you had better be very well read.” Indeed, fair ranger, I am now quite well read.
I learned a second lesson. Most television is garbage. Once you unplug and then start watching later, you are immediately confronted with this truth. Ever since childhood, I was accustomed to watching whatever came on. Sure, I had preferences. Some shows are better than others, but I was letting someone throw rubbish at my face every night for hours at a time. For free!
Later, I realized that the issue wasn’t drama or comedy. Ultimately, there’s no harm in having an abnormally thorough knowledge of the Jeffersons and its catchy theme song. There real issue is television news. As a social scientist in training, I began to believe that I am seeking the truth about social life. It’s my calling. It is what I have decided to dedicate my life to at the expense of more remunerative careers. Therefore, it is unethical for me to consume or support cultural products that are misleading depictions on the social world.
You don’t need to be a die hard Chomskian who believes that the media is a mere tool of corporate and state interests, although that does happen to fair degree. Rather, you need to compare social science 101 to what happens on the news.
Example 1: Local television news is driven by “if it bleeds, it leads.” That gives the impression that crime is ubiquitous. Instead, much evidence shows a long term decrease in criminal violence in Western society. Steven Pinker’s recent book on violence merely documents what historical criminologists have known for a while.
Example 2: Election coverage is highly misleading. Journalists (and many historians) will regale you with stories about how this debate or that scandal totally changed the election. A common finding among political scientists is that speeches, scandals, media buys, and other electioneering events don’t affect a lot of elections. National elections are driven by the economy and war casualties. Smaller elections are run on somewhat different principles, but on the average, not affected by daily electioneering. Brendan Nyhan uses his twitter feed to point readers to political science research that corrects the non-stop misleading coverage of elections.
Example 3: Let’s stick one of my research areas – higher education. Every year, we get horror stories about how it is impossible it is to get into college. This is a false. Most institutions of higher education have an acceptance rate of over 50%. This finding goes back decades (e.g., economists William Manski and David Wise covered this in their great1982 book “College Choice in America”). There’s only about 50-100 schools (out of thousands) that might be considered competitive. These schools are the ones you expect – Ivy League, flagships, the service academies, about 20-30 of the liberal arts schools, plus a few others (e.g., Duke or Stanford). Basically, unless you want to go to a really elite school, just about any high school graduate in America can find a legitimate college that will accept them.
The news is rife with stories that are at best misleading and at worst factually incorrect. I can’t blame the journalists because sensationalism and short deadlines drive their salaries. I can’t blame viewers because most aren’t trained in research and it isn’t their job to care. However, social scientists should know better. If it is your job to search for truth, then turn off the tv during the news hour.