Availability Bias and Our Soft News Addiction

Last week Herman Goldfarb and Leah Miller of Skokie, IL got married. Because the consequences of the event seriously impacted fewer than 30 people, there was no news coverage outside a small announcement in the Skokie Jewish Week.  The next day a young couple with the names Marc Mezvinsky and Chelsea Clinton also got married. Although the consequences of their wedding also seriously impacted fewer than 30 people, somewhere between 2 and 10 percent of national media coverage was devoted to the event.

Why? What triggers out obsession with soft news? Why do we want to know more about Chelsea Clinton than some wide-ranging provision in the developing net neutrality legislation? The latter is clearly important and the former clearly isn’t.

The answer may be an application of something similar to the availability bias. You know who Chelsea Clinton is.  You can recall information about her. If you’ve expended the energy to remember information about her, she must be important. If she is important, you must seek out additional information about her. A base of knowledge about something makes additional information about it feel more important.  On the other hand, things which were previously unknown (like net neutrality legislation details) feel unimportant.

Unfortunately, this way of thinking creates a bias against learning important and unfamiliar information, and towards learning unimportant and familiar information.  The cycle perpetuates itself as known soft-news topics continuously replace unfamiliar hard-news topics. Call it the soft news death spiral.  The only way out is for the media to deal with the drop-off in “ratings” and put us on a soft-news diet.

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