Enough With the Chicken Littles

The sky is not falling, but you wouldn't know that from reading the news of the world.


Although a dwindling number of Americans truly care about what happens elsewhere in the world, those who still do might believe, as former government officials have described it, that "the world is aflame," "there are fires burning everywhere," "many places around the world that we have interests … are perilous," "the trend towards a more chaotic world is not going to change anytime soon," or "to put it mildly, the world is a mess." Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel recently declared: "The challenges and threats that face America today are the same challenges and threats that face the world. These are all borderless challenges…. Terrorism, fundamentalism, all these are threats, and they come from all parts of the world." Accordingly, somehow all countries are both unsafe and sources of all dangers.

The extent to which these terrifying and uncontested characterizations reflect "fact" is increasingly irrelevant. Once it emerges as conventional wisdom among government officials and foreign-policy commentators, given the political utility in using such language, such dire warnings become accepted as "truth." The relatively sudden development of this normative hyperbolism should be concerning for anyone still interested in U.S. foreign policy and world affairs, more generally.

The most consequential factor in whether you agree with this interpretation of unconstrained global chaos is probably how you obtain information upon which you make your assessment. The mainstream news outlets assuredly play the preeminent filtering role by leading with, and repeating, stories of violence and bloodshed, usually with little or no historical context. It is not simply that unexpected events that cause damage or harm are reported upon almost exclusively, but that they are done so in a manner that creates the impression that discrete occurrences are even mysteriously intertwined or somehow related. Moreover, there is a strong momentum to the global chaos hypothesis, because there will always be escalating diplomatic tensions or political violence somewhere where the United States has some "interests."

The growing number of explanatory journalism outlets, blogs, and columns reinforces the trendline established by mainstream news outlets — primarily out of ease and need. Once casual foreign-policy news consumers are primed to seek out certain stories and themes, it is much easier for editors and producers to simply fill in the blanks, rather than challenge the conventional wisdom. In addition, readers are more likely to click on links to articles that appear to be popular, topical — as first determined by mainstream outlets — and thus confirmatory. And, if you are under 49 years old and primarily obtain your news from late-night comedy shows, your opinions and biases remain intact, since they mostly satirize existing themes rather than provide counter-narratives.

The long-standing phenomenon of "if it bleeds, it leads" is now significantly amplified and spread in near real time via social media. For example, virtually anyone who uses Twitter for news gathering will notice that tweets run overwhelmingly toward the alarming, negative, or just horrific. Social media also makes this bad news more intimately personified, since a photograph of human suffering will generate more clicks, retweets, and favorites than a 140-character description alone. Incredibly brave activists, researchers, and journalists in conflict-prone countries wittingly feed this insatiable demand with emotional stories of intense heartbreak or tragedy, and an occasional story of personified heroism in the middle of all the chaos.

Dismal descriptions and perceptions of the world are reinforced by the near absence or minimization of positive international news stories. Now if it doesn’t bleed, it isn’t even newsworthy. This is, in part, because there is little space left over in a typical television broadcast, print issue, or web-based front page — but also because "good news" can rarely be depicted as a singular event, but rather a reflection of broader demographic, economic, or political trends. When the World Health Organization released its annual World Health Statistics compilation in May, it revealed that from 1988 and 2012, the number of polio victims declined from 350,000 to 223, but the New York Times only mentioned that "Pakistan, Syria and Cameroon have recently allowed the virus to spread," and that the goal of eradication "could evaporate if swift action is not taken." Or, when the International Civil Aviation Organization published its annual Safety Report in April, interested readers would have discovered that there were only 173 airline fatalities globally in 2013, down from 587 in 2007 and a recent high of 655 in 2009.

Rare positive foreign-policy news stories are usually centered upon relatable experiences of one individual trying to do good amid the surrounding mayhem. These are human interest stories, such as the Christian woman and Muslim woman who come together for religious services under the same roof in Iraq in the midst of ISIS atrocities. Or the professor at an Israeli fashion university who carries on with a scheduled runway show because she feels that the students’ work deserves to be seen despite the ongoing conflict. This reinforces an unspoken narrative that the world is a fiery, chaotic mess and that only a few saintly individuals are capable of good — but never governments, organizations, or popular movements.

Most depressing about this new normative hyperbolism is that it is hard to imagine that mainstream news coverage, explanatory journalism and blogs, and social media will ever again portray an extended period of global predictability and stability again. The structure and incentives of news delivery are all leading us to expect and emphasize chaos, because that is what we become repeatedly exposed to. There is a two-way confirmation bias whereby the various information-producing and -filtering outlets believe this is what consumers of foreign-policy news want, and, in turn, this is what we come to expect. It is said that the world is what you make of it, but it is also what others make of it for you.

The sky is not falling, but it is if that is what you exclusively search for. To reach a different conclusion, try looking elsewhere. This begins by recognizing that there is a world beyond those few countries in today’s headlines, which are probably being featured because of some dysfunction occurring there. Try reports from international organizations like the World Bank, regionally focused blogs like FP‘s Tea Leaf Nation, or academic blogs like Political Violence @ a Glance. Or just Google around. There’s never been more alternative reporting and analysis out there — if you are willing and want to read it.

Micah Zenko is the co-author of Clear and Present Safety: The World Has Never Been Better and Why That Matters to Americans.

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