Differ as they might on any number of topics, Fox News and MSNBC agree on one thing: The United States is going to hell in a handcart. They merely disagree as to why. Viewers are treated to a crisis at every quarter-hour for as long as they care to watch. Of course, this is what sells. Wall-to-wall coverage of every terrible thing imaginable attracts viewers, and viewers attract advertisers. Major news media have become machines that convert bad news into profits. And when bad news is in short supply, they simply blow out of proportion what little they can find.
One would expect this to distort how people see the world. Yet, a recent Gallup poll suggests that people have come to regard the evening news more as entertainment than as information, because, by the numbers, they seem to view their own corners of the world much more soberly than do the media.
Every month, Gallup asks a random selection of more than 1,000 adults living in the U.S. what they think is the most important problem facing the country today. The question is open-ended, so people are free to give whatever answers they want. Gallup then tabulates the top 50 answers. The results over the past seven months are fascinating.
To listen to the media, one would assume that the most important problems facing the country are drug abuse, gun violence, terrorism, race relations, the federal debt, and rising income inequality. The people disagree. In the latest poll, only 14 percent of Gallup's respondents listed an economic problem of any kind as most important. Four percent named the economy in general; 2 percent named unemployment; 2 percent, the federal deficit or debt. Every other economy-related problem respondents mentioned merely showed up as statistical noise.
While respondents named three times as many non-economic problems as economic problems, those non-economic problems centered around only two things. Twenty-two percent of people said immigration was the most important problem facing the country, and 19 percent named dissatisfaction with government or poor leadership. Race relations and racism did make the list, but only 7 percent of respondents cited these as the most important problem. That number, which has held steady over the past seven polls, is much lower than the percentage of racial minorities in the U.S. This means that a substantial fraction of minorities themselves don't think that racism is our greatest problem.
Six percent named "unifying the country," and another 6 percent, "lack of respect for each other." If we lump those together with dissatisfaction with government leadership, we have about one-third of respondents saying that our biggest problem is that we don't get along well enough with each other. That sounds about right.
Meanwhile, the trifecta for media advertising — crime, guns, and school shootings — each garnered only 1 or 2 percent of the respondents' attention. That flies in the face of the typical media narrative that the U.S. is awash in the blood of gun violence, but it matches what people actually experience. According to the FBI, over the past three decades, firearm violence has fallen almost 70 percent, and deaths in school shootings have declined steadily. You would never know this given media coverage, but the people seem pretty well aware when pressed for an answer.
For all the distorted news the media feed us, only 1 percent of people said that the media is the most important problem. Perhaps people don't perceive a distorting media to be a problem because they've learned to ignore it and to believe their own eyes instead. And, according to Gallup, what their eyes tell them is that life in these United States has become remarkably peaceful, comfortable, and safe.