An Under-Appreciated Power of Media

Michael Parenti once wisely remarked: You may believe that the media do not control WHAT you think; but one thing is clear, they certainly have an overwhelming impact on what you think ABOUT.

It seems to me that this is a vastly under-appreciated power of media. Take this past year’s bitcoin price run-up. Would this have happened without the blanket media coverage it received all around the world? The answer is obvious.

At the same time, it is worth noting what media tend to talk little about: causes. Endless about of print is devoted to what is happening now. Maybe even some is devoted to speculation about the future of phenomenon X. Little space is devoted to context – putting phenomenon X in a causal historical framework.

Two recent phenomena from the China context come to mind: One is the floating pigs incident this past spring. The other is the excitement about so-called pollution levels – the now infamous “Air Quality Index“. This index has been around for quite a while, but the attention has not. This year the topic is so “hot” that air filters are all sold out and a new word has entered into everyday speech: “wùmái” (雾霾), meaning something like smog (i.e. smoke + fog – very accurate in this case, as we shall see). Is the air any better or worse this year than last? It doesn’t seem too different to me, but in any case, the media won’t help you much to get an answer to that question.

I’ll leave the floating pigs incident for another time, though that is also worth more than a footnote, since it is a prime example of this same phenomenon and ultimately goes back to yet another case of “unintended” consequences of government meddling. Well, what about that supposedly “polluted” air we are breathing, full of fine particulate matter? Wouldn’t it be a relevant question to consider WHERE all those fine particles floating around in the fall months come from? For those who have bothered to ask (and there are admittedly a few), the primary source seems clear: burnt-off agricultural refuse, particularly wheat stalks, so-called jiēgǎn (秸秆). Though burning them is illegal, the fact is that burning is not only cheaper than paying someone to cart the stuff off, but it also produces useful ash fertilizer. In decades past this was less of an issue, because farmers tended to burn off the refuse slowly to provide heat for their homes and fire for their hearths. Now most have switched to natural gas instead, leaving a big pile of unloved wheat stalks behind.

There is likely more to this story worth telling, but I’ll leave it at that for the moment. In any case, though ash from burnt off wheat stalks may not be the most healthy thing in the world, is it a fair guess that the public reaction would be quite different if the source of those feared particles were better known?

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