Boring risks and the case for blogs

Why bloggers are useful: the biggest risks are too boring to sell papers.

Bruce Schneier’s talk on how we get risk wrong contains (per Ezra Klein’s summary—who has time to watch 21 minute nonfiction videos?) this observation:

“What newspapers do is they repeat again and again rare risks. I tell people, if it’s in the news, don’t worry about it. Because, by definition, news is something that almost never happens. When something is so common, it’s no longer news — car crashes, domestic violence — those are the risks you worry about.”

Very well put!  And very disturbing.  We are used to focusing on one side of this problem, i.e. that the media overplays sensational stories. But we tend to forget the flip side. Chronic policy problems like rising health care costs, low teacher salaries, and Baumol’s cost disease (more or less three names for the same problem, actually, but never mind) simply don’t change day to day. As a result the media underplays them, unless an anecdote can be used to illustrate them.  And the more unrepresentative the anecdote, the better it is for selling papers, since only a counterintuitive story makes a psychological impression.

Thank goodness for blogs.  Ezra Klein can post repeatedly about spending and deficits, Kevin Drum about the details of financial regulation, and Mark about drug policy without having to claim that these are new problems or subject to fantastic and unprecedented solutions.  Heck, a particularly clueless blogger can even post something about the rhetoric of budget politics on the morning after we kill Bin Laden, and his job will be safe.

This is our comparative advantage. We’re the people who are free to tell you about risks that are boring but ubiquitous, boring because they’re ubiquitous.

Author: Andrew Sabl

Andrew Sabl, a political theorist, is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Toronto. He is the author of Ruling Passions: Political Offices and Democratic Ethics and Hume’s Politics: Coordination and Crisis in the History of England, both from Princeton University Press. His research interests include political ethics, liberal and democratic theory, toleration, the work of David Hume, and the realist school of contemporary political thought. He is currently finishing a book for Harvard University Press titled The Uses of Hypocrisy: An Essay on Toleration. He divides his time between Toronto and Brooklyn.

One thought on “Boring risks and the case for blogs”

  1. Agree – thanks for this one! One: good point, blogs can both take risks AND also write the boring.
    Two: veering off topic slightly perhaps…
    my local paper’s front page (above the fold) story recently was “apartment fire.”
    Why are SPECIFIC fires, crimes, and crashes worth reporting?
    On the audience-scale they’re commonp
    lace, not risky reportage. Sensationalism, indeed.
    Sometimes more insidious: campus papers tend to run stories about local crime and gang “waves,” on the word of Chiefs of PDs (not that it’s false) at the beginning of the school year. Why? To demaracate the safe and danger zones. Thus playing a small – perhaps quite small – role in creating them.
    Symbolic spaces of fear turn into segregated zones of true danger.
    The trend in homicide maps: this I find interesting. (LAT, NYTimes, The Chi Trib, maybe others.)
    Is it a public service? sure.
    Is it useful data for wider audiences than other media? Absolutely.
    Does it risk self fulfilling prophecy and harm to the areas that get most of the red dots? My supposition: yes. Here the “risky” is apparently unintended (if I’m correct).

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