Scapegoat in the Storm: The Media’s Unjust Blame Game
The Hardest Job in the World Meets the Shortest Attention Span
In the contemporary American media landscape, two powerful phenomena, negativity bias, and dwindling attention spans, collide to create a tempest that shapes our perceptions and reactions to world events. Often, these phenomena unjustly lay blame on our leaders for issues beyond their control.
For instance, when egg, gas, and rent prices spike — developments that have little to do with presidential actions — the media spotlight often falls on the Oval Office. Conversely, when there are positive economic developments, these often fail to garner similar attention.
It’s crucial to scrutinize the American media’s intricate dance with negativity bias and our progressively shortening attention spans. The swirling tempest of these two phenomena shapes public opinion, often unjustly laying blame at the feet of leaders for issues beyond their control. The media’s treatment of fluctuating egg, gas, and rent prices — areas over which the President has little to no influence — illustrates this propensity all too clearly.
Negativity bias, an evolutionary leftover from our need to prioritize threats for survival, colors our modern news consumption habits. This bias prompts news outlets to disproportionately report negative news, under the principle “if it bleeds, it leads.” Think of stories about soaring gas prices or skyrocketing rent in major cities; these issues, undeniably painful for the average citizen, often dominate news cycles, resulting in a distorted perception of reality steeped in negativity.
Gas, Eggs & Rent
Let’s take a deeper look at these examples. The President, contrary to popular belief, does not have direct control over the cost of gas. Market forces, including supply and demand dynamics, global events, and decisions by oil-producing countries, primarily drive gas prices. Similarly, egg prices depend on a complex web of factors including feed costs, weather conditions, and disease outbreaks among poultry. Rent prices are governed by local supply and demand conditions, zoning laws, and sometimes rent control policies — aspects generally outside the purview of the Oval Office.
Nevertheless, when these prices rise, media outlets often simplify and sensationalize the narrative, tying it directly to the current administration. Such coverage tends to exploit negativity bias, creating a perception of mismanagement or lack of leadership, irrespective of the President’s actual ability to control these prices.
Our Short Attention Span
Compounding this issue is our increasingly short attention span in an age of digital inundation. In the ceaseless competition for audience attention, media outlets lean into emotionally charged, easily digestible narratives. The nuances of global market forces or the intricacies of local real estate dynamics are lost in this shuffle. Instead, a soundbite of rising costs under the current President takes center stage.
During the Biden administration, for example, the U.S. experienced record-low unemployment and the lowest inflation in the developed world — remarkable feats amid global economic turbulence. Despite these positive strides, they garnered considerably less media attention compared to negative economic indicators.
The President, once a scapegoat during economic hardship, seemingly received little acknowledgment for these positive developments. The media’s asymmetrical coverage thus fails to provide a comprehensive picture of economic realities.
Interestingly, when these same indicators swing positively — when gas, egg, or rent prices stabilize or drop — the media’s response is often muted. Such positive shifts don’t align with the negativity bias, and don’t pack the same emotional punch. The President, having been a convenient scapegoat during hard times, receives little to no credit during the good times.
The interplay of negativity bias and shortened attention spans in our media ecosystem creates a storm of disproportionate blame and an incomplete understanding of economic realities. This dynamic is a disservice to the public and to our leaders, shaping an adversarial and fear-based narrative.
Recognizing the interplay of negativity bias and shortened attention spans is key to fostering a more informed and discerning public. Greater media literacy and a demand for more balanced reporting can go a long way in dispelling misconceptions and unjust blame.
Hey, I get it. There’s a reason the U.S. presidency is called “The Hardest Job in the World,” and make no mistake, President Biden can handle it. But that doesn't mean that media outlets themselves should not strive for more nuanced reporting, emphasizing the multifaceted nature of economic issues rather than simplifying them for the sake of sensationalism.
By collectively pushing for these changes, we can not only weather the media storm but also chart a course toward a more accurate understanding of our world.