Erik Van Alstine

Erik Van Alstine

Author. Leadership strategist. Expert in Perceptual IntelligenceTM.

How bad is the world? Not near as bad as it seems.

Does the world seem like a dangerous place? Like everything is falling apart, like the planet is spiraling out of control?

  • One blogger writes, “I see humans, but no humanity.”
  • Another posts a quote that reads, “I’m just tired, I just want the world to be quiet for a bit.”

Most of us feel that way.

But truth is, we’ve been bamboozled. Big time. We feel the way we feel because we’re seeing the world completely wrong…and mass media is mostly to blame.

A friend of mine recently visited Egypt, and right now as I write this, a group of my friends are visiting there as well. Their takeaway? It’s a great place with great people, not near as bad as the media makes it seem.

Today I make the point that this is true of everything reported in the media. Mass media will always, always, always make things seem worse than they really are, not because reporters are evil, but because of the nature of mass media itself. Mass media, in its very nature, creates a systematic distortion of reality. Even as it tells us the God-honest truth, it simultaneously feeds us a lie.

I’ll explain in a moment, but let’s start out with this bold statement:

If you see something bad on the news, rest assured, it won’t happen to you. Ever.

Did I go to far? Maybe.

But maybe not.

Here’s why. As I write in my book Automatic Influence, “The media seldom report on common things – it’s the extremely rare and tragic events that get media attention. Journalists scour a world filled with billions of people to find the most shocking things to report, which means virtually everything we fear in the news is, by definition, a useless fear.” There’s no real danger because mass media only report extremely rare events.

But we don’t think that way. We think, If it happened once, it’ll happen again. If it happened there, it could happen everywhere and anywhere. If it happened to them, it could happen to me.

That’s like believing we can win $435 million in PowerBall because a news report yesterday showed that someone from Lafayette, Indiana just won $435 million. If it happened to them, it can happen to me. We buy tickets forgetting that the odds of winning are 292 million-t0-one, that we’re thirty times more likely to be struck by lightning today (about 8 million-to-one) than win.

Even when news media tells true stories, we infer a lie from it, because we miscalculate the chances it will happen to us, and we think more of it is happening to more people than it really is. Bad news in media, by its very nature, creates a systematic distortion of reality, because it convinces us that the world is much worse off than it really is. Media doesn’t report about the seven billion people who didn’t get murdered today. It reports on the one person in seven million people who did.

Here’s another way of thinking about the distorting effect of mass coverage. The FBI’s 2014 Uniform Crime Report shows the national homicide rate in America is 4.5 people per 100,000 people per year. Here’s how that average translates into the towns and cities of America:

  • Green Bay, Wisconsin. Green Bay is an average-size city of one hundred thousand people. If it reflects the national average, there is one person murdered in Green Bay every three months.
  • Coldwater, Michigan. Coldwater is a smaller town of ten thousand. Using the same average, one person is murdered every two and a half years.
  • Austin, Texas. There are a million people in Austin, which translates into one person murdered every eight days.
  • New York, New York. New York has eight million people, so the national average translates into one person is murdered every day.

If the average chance of getting murdered is the same across all the cities, small and large, some cities seem safer simply because they’re smaller.

Now think back to the way human beings used to live before we had mass media, then let’s introduce the media effect. I write in Automatic Influence, “Back when we lived in villages of just a few hundred people and didn’t communicate much between villages, people didn’t hear much about people being killed. There wasn’t much danger in these ‘peaceful communities.’ But then modern life came along, and people started communicating beyond the village. Their ability to see what’s happening around them jumped from a few hundred people to millions of people.

“Stories of murder skyrocketed. Peaceful communities were shocked to hear all the terrible things going on outside their little world. Murder, murder, murder, day after day. Everyone’s killing each other. The world is getting worse and worse.

“But that’s an illusion. The world at large is just as peaceful as their little town, statistically speaking. It just seems more dangerous, because now they see what happens to millions of people, not just the people in their town.”

Today the mass media covers billions of people, not millions. Even in a massively good and safe world, there’s a one-in-ten-million chance of something bad happening to someone, somewhere. And that’s what the news reports.

Now do you believe my bold statement?


Scottish musician Al Stewart said it this way:


It’s easy to let mass media influence our outlook and get us to believe a mass lie about how bad the world is. That could be one reason the average person’s positivity ratios are near depression and less than a third of what they should be.

It’s time to get a better view of the world around us.

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