May 092009

Do you remember the story of the boy who cried wolf? It went a bit like this:

The protagonist of the fable is a bored shepherd boy who entertained himself by calling out “Wolf!”. Nearby villagers who came to his rescue found that the alarms were false and that they had wasted their time. When the boy was actually confronted by a wolf, the villagers did not believe his cries for help and the wolf ate the flock (and in some versions the boy). The moral is stated at the end of the fable as:

Even when liars tell the truth, they are never believed. The liar will lie once, twice, and then perish when he tells the truth.

Like any good story, it has many meanings. One is that it describes the process of habituation that the villagers happen to (the same stimulus, repeated causes a smaller, more focused reaction). Another is not to lie. Yet another is about the necessity of trust and maintaining trust within and with the group to ensure your own well-being as well as others.

The news media, however, is constantly trying to outdo each other with newer and scarier problems. Remember Bird Flu? or SARS? Millions were supposed to die? How about the rise of the oil prices would cause the world to end? How about the massive food shortage? And lately it’s been Swine Flu.

Problem is, how long before we stop trusting the news media, to our detriment? This problem is made worse by the fact that some of these issues are indeed important, but we have no ability to gauge the importance of these issues because all of them are highlighted with screaming text graphics yelling (in effect) “WE’RE ALL GOING TO DIE!”

It’s hard for most people to judge the importance of something. We’re hardwired to find our survival important, but what about long-term issues that are hard to understand but effect our lives and the lives of millions more? Well, those just get buried unless there’s a big sensational way to capture the interests of the fickle public. Remember the hubbub over the growing trade deficit in the US? No? Well, do you remember when the debt reached an arbitrary number that human beings just can’t comprehend? Oh yea. “Big number rolling round, let’s fire up the news machine!”

At this point I do not see a solution to this problem. However, I do believe that this isn’t going to end well. If the news media keeps attaching arbitrarily high levels of importance to every single problem that crops up, before long we’ll stop trusting their judgment of what’s important. We’ll be the villagers. And we will be warned, but we won’t listen. After that, well, someone will come and eat our livelihood.

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