Why the world isn't as bad as you think
News coverage is terrible at capturing the biggest good news stories: the long-term trends that show vast improvements in human living standards across long stretches of time. We need to fix that.
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Pop quiz: what percentage of the global population currently lives in extreme poverty—defined as earning less than $1.90 per day?
Most of us have no clue how to even start to answer that question. Maybe a number floats into your head, but it’s likely a wild guess. The reason is simple: the way we’re given information about the world isn’t designed to make us understand big picture data or long-term trends. Instead, we get information from a 24-hour news cycle, which is a peculiar institution. How does it work? To put it bluntly, it works like this:
The news is mostly an aggregation of every bad event that happened in the last twenty four hours, anywhere on Earth.
That last clause—anywhere on Earth—is particularly important. In the past, citizens in the US, UK, or Australia simply wouldn’t know about a huge number of tragedies unfolding in countless distant parts of the world. Now, we do—almost instantly.
In a globalized 24-hour news cycle, which we check and refresh incessantly, it’s easy to get the impression that the world is uniformly a disaster-zone, run by malicious idiots. Then, we step away from our screens, go for a walk, and it doesn’t seem so dire.
It’s important to be well-informed about tragic events, because tragedies cry out for action. If we care about other humans, we need to know when they’re suffering, particularly if we can do something about it. Mass shootings, terrorist attacks, wildfires and hurricanes spurred by climate change, war updates, police killings, fresh revelations about economic downturns—all of these debacles warrant our attention.
But they are events, and because the focus lies squarely on them, we lose sight of the major, gradual shifts in our world that, like slow drips of water, seem insignificant on any given day, but can eventually cause a flood. Drips add up.
The best good news you’ve never heard
Let’s return to the pop quiz, because the answer to it is wonderful. The correct answer is about 8%. In isolation, that’s a terrible figure—about one in every twelve people on the planet tries to survive on $1.90 per day, or less. We need to fix that. But when you zoom out and look at the bigger picture, that figure is an astonishing, but hidden, achievement of modern humanity.
Here’s the data on extreme poverty, from 1820 to 2018, compiled by Our World in Data. Note: these figures are adjusted for inflation, so it’s comparing apples to apples.
This is amazing. Two hundred years ago, 80 percent of the world’s population was living in extreme poverty, or four out of every five people. By the 1950s, that figure was about 50 percent, and it didn’t budge for some time. By 1980, not much had changed. 45 percent of the global population was still in extreme poverty. Then, it got much better, much faster.
By 2000, the proportion had dropped to 26 percent. Two decades later, we’re rapidly heading toward 5 percent. That is astonishing. My parents and I were both born into a world in which roughly 1 out of every 2 people in the world were in extreme poverty, whereas the next generation will be born into a world where that figure is approaching 1 in 20.
Have you ever heard about that on the news?
The same applies to life expectancy—a measure that matters to most of us far more than any news event ever will.
Here were the life expectancies for key regions in 1950:
Africa: 37.6 years
Asia: 42.0 years
Americas: 58.1 years
Europe: 62.8 years
Now compare those figures to 2019 (before Covid took its toll):
Africa: 62.7 years (+25.1 years)
Asia: 74.2 years (+32.2 years)
Americas: 76.7 years (+18.6 years)
Europe: 79.1 years (+16.3 years)
Here’s that data graphically, again, via Our World in Data:
There is a common misconception that human lifespans have lengthened—that it would have been impossible to see an ancient Roman who lived to be 80 years old. That’s not true; the possible human lifespan has been roughly similar throughout history, and people (particularly rich people) did occasionally live quite a long time. But for most of the history of our species, the average person died young. That, mercifully, is no longer true.
Some of the big gains have been remarkably recent and swift. In Africa, for example, life expectancy shot up from 58 to 63 between 2009 and 2019—an enormous shift of five extra years in just one decade. Yet, most stories about Sub-Saharan Africa don’t convey that positive trend. Instead, we hear about war, famine, and political chaos.
Don’t get me wrong: such tragedies deserve more attention (after all, much of my PhD research involved traveling across sub-Saharan Africa to study recent coups d’état and civil wars). But we sometimes also need to see the bigger picture, which is often obscured by the modern model of news production and consumption.
Bad events, good trends, and “news hooks”
There’s a “Good News Movement” out there, which critiques media coverage for making people feel depressed. “Why do you have to focus on all the bad stuff? What about the random acts of kindness that go unnoticed?” they say. While I like feel-good videos as much as the next person, this is a misreading of the problem and the proposed solution is a hollow one.
We shouldn’t ignore real problems to focus our attention on anecdotes that make us feel warm and fuzzy. It’s great to see a video of a police officer going out of their way to help someone cross the street, but that doesn’t negate the need to cover it when Tyre Nichols gets violently beaten to death by five cops. Nichols’ death does make me depressed about the state of the world, but ignoring it to focus on feel good anecdotes isn’t a reasonable solution.
However, there is a real problem with the news that deserves a real solution: we need to find a way to convey positive trends to counterbalance negative events.
In practice, this doesn’t happen, because everything needs a news hook, which is industry jargon for saying: “If you want to cover something, connect it to an event that just happened.” There are good reasons why that editoral practice exists, not least because it’s what generates the most clicks and attracts the most ears and eyeballs to a given story.
But what is the news hook for a steady, gradual decline of human suffering on a vast scale? There isn’t one. Life expectancy shifts are meaningful over years, not days, and the near eradication of extreme poverty isn’t associated with something happening on a particular date, or a specific press release. As a result, most people only have a vague idea about these astonishing trends.
This is one of the liberating aspects of writing this newsletter. I can write about whatever I think is interesting or important. When I wrote a weekly column for The Washington Post, I always had to justify a pitch with a news hook. I’m not exaggerating when I say that an event that happened one day ago was sometimes too old for an editor to say yes to a pitch for a column. But a lot of really important ideas that are worth discussing don’t have news hooks.
The news has an “event bias”
The news, at its core, is about change. The world has become different in some way, and the news is there to help you learn about that change.
It’s an incredibly strange, misguided notion that we should mostly discuss ideas that neatly fit into the arbitrary subset of events that occurred in the previous 24 hours. If you want to write about life expectancy, wait for the United Nations to talk about it! If you want to write about guns, wait for a mass shooting! (Unfortunately, these days those who want to write about guns in the US rarely have a long wait).
But the point is that the news should not just be a passive observer of events. News should be a conduit for information that helps people make sense of the world.
The focus on events is partly a focus of convenience and tradition. It’s easier to wait for things to happen and then cover them. Plus, it’s how it’s normally done.
But the events bias is also derived from the fact that events have storylines, and humans are, to borrow the phrase from Jonathan Gottschall, a “storytelling animal.” That’s why police chases like the infamous one with OJ Simpson were such ratings gold, because it was an event that was overflowing with dramatic tension. We all need to know how the story ends.
News events can be like thrillers. Trends, reported on in the wrong way, are like reading a boring history book.
It doesn’t have to be that way. Skilled journalists can tell stories that illustrate important trends while still being gripping. (The story of extreme poverty almost disappearing can be turned into an incredible piece of reporting about inter-generational change in China; here’s one example). Long form journalism captures these dynamics much better, in my view, and I’m proud to write monthly for The Atlantic, where my editor wants smart ideas even if they’re not tied to a specific news cycle.
But unfortunately, the way that most people experience the news isn’t through slower, big picture journalism, but rather through breaking news in newspapers, or cable TV shows where anything beyond a five minute discussion is classified as a lengthy segment. And to cater to news consumers with short attention spans in the age of digital dopamine, it makes sense to cover and discuss a series of events in quick succession.
As a result, we sometimes use the phrase “well-informed” to describe the same kind of person who can be classified as a “news junkie.” But if you ask them a broader question like: “What percentage of the world’s population lives in extreme poverty?” they’re often stumped. That’s an indictment of our news industry. If you know the minutiae of day-to-day horse race politics in the 2024 presidential race but lose sight of the bigger picture about the world and its people, are you truly “well-informed?”
We can now bring these two important concepts together.
The world isn’t as bad as you think, because news reporting aggregates the worst events in the world, giving you a skewed perspective.
To truly understand the world, we don’t need more happy-go-lucky stories to make us feel good, but we do need more reporting of bigger trends and what’s driving them. Many of those big picture trends are invisible, but positive.
There’s a lot to worry about in the world—and knowing about terrible events is a crucial step to addressing avoidable harm. We shouldn’t be indifferent stoics who accept suffering, nor should we just pretend that terrible events don’t exist.
But next time you’re feeling crushing despair about the state of humanity, open up Our World in Data and marvel at some of the incredible progress we’ve achieved in just one generation.
And then, go for a walk.
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Brian, another masterful piece! I want to be cynical about this and simply reply, “If it bleeds, it leads.” Or I could go all Don Henley and recite the song Dirty Laundry, “Got the bobble headed bleach blonde comes on at 5. She can tell you about the plans crash, with a gleam in her eye. It’s interesting when people die. Give us dirty laundry.”
We (royal we) as consumer of news drive this because we have short attention spans, and cannot resist a good train wreck, disaster as we are riveted by it more than we are repulsed by it. And it makes us feel great because it ain’t us!
I stopped watching the 24 hour news cycle because it was so depressing or angering that it was not doing me any good. Or my family any good. And most importantly was no longer useful. Today I read my news, choose what I want to spend my time on so I learn something and maybe could use that knowledge in some way. This is why I read Substack! Why I read your work! It is intellectually stimulating and I always learn something along the way and connect it to other things I am working/experiencing/or have a curiosity for.
The question we should be asking ourselves is why is the 24 hour news cycle more popular than ever? The cynic in me, which runs strong, thinks it is the opiate of a large mass of people who do not want to think, or spend time being curious or diving into a subject or event, but simply want to be 1) angry, 2) confirm existing biases, and 3) have short attention spans. Look, we have news for every political stripe! Media communicates in a staccato, bullet point like form rather than a flowing coherent narrative that brings a richness and detail to the story.
Alas, even this response would be edited down in the 24 hour news cycle to (fox news) say, “Intellectual cynic says common man too uneducated to understand the news”
And it would be a hit because it hits the anger, confirmation bias, and short attention span button.
I’m going back to my cave and read Beowulf again...
And then go for a walk, travel, love and enjoy life is the most sensible advice.