Every so often, a number becomes part of the journalistic zeitgeist. Sometimes it’s linked to a single factoid, sometimes it’s free-floating. You see it around, and sometimes it’s right, but a lot of the time it’s misleading or just plain made-up.
Brooke Gladstone writes about one of these in her graphic manifesto The Influencing Machine (pp. 49-54). The number in question is 50,000. Specifically, 50,000 human victims. It would pop here and there about a variety of different things. Most recently, it was reported (by Attorney General Gonzalez no less) as the number of child predators online at any time. Before that, it was the number of people sacrificed by satanic cults (remember the 80’s?). Before that it was reported as the number of children abducted by strangers in a year, even though the actual number was maybe 250.
And the more she looked into it, the more she found out that “50,000 people die” every year from… everything! At least, if the media can be believed. Where does this number come from? Gladstone calls it ‘the Goldilocks number’. Not “a really small number… like 200. And [not] a ridiculously large number… like 10 million. It [is] a Goldilocks number. Not too hot, not too cold.”
Recently something similar had pinged my radar. Specifically, that 44% of adults get their news from Facebook. Or from Twitter. Or from social media in general. Or, or…
Pretty shocking, right? I mean, those aren’t reputable news sources!
This number seemed fishy to me because it couldn’t possibly be that high. First of all, it doesn’t pass the smell test – are 44% of adults even on social media? (Yes, barely.) Well, I didn’t look into it myself, but fortunately somebody did for me. It seems to be a case of semantic drift that lends itself to sensationalism. Basically, 44% of adults, as measured by a Pew survey, report that they “get news” from Facebook, either often, sometimes, or rarely. Basically everybody who didn’t answer “never”.
What’s the difference between people “getting news” and people “getting their news”? Well, kind of everything. To get news is to receive an unknown but non-zero number of news items; to get one’s news is presumably to get all or most of the news items one consumes. This dovetails nicely with people liking to report on how technology is ruining civilization, so it’s used that way. I wouldn’t be surprised if we see this number popping up increasingly in the latter context of people getting their news on Facebook, which as we know contains a large amount of ‘fake news’ (a term that with alarming speed became completely meaningless). Etc., etc.
So if you see 44% (or its cousin 68%) popping up in this context, well, now you know.
Gladstone concludes her book by saying that ‘we get the media we deserve’. I’d like to think we aren’t this bad, though.