It’s that time of year again. We’ve already seen the stores pack up their Halloween products a week before Halloween in order to make room for their Christmas merchandise, some of the terrestrial and satellite radio stations are already switching over to all Christmas music formats weeks in advance of Thanksgiving, and store managers everywhere are plotting their survival plan for Black Friday with the kind of detail that one would expect to see in a major military offensive. Black Friday is coming, and, even worse, the false Black Friday news media narrative is being dusted off and readied in news rooms everywhere.
Every year in America we have an event the day after Thanksgiving where people line up for hours on end, some even camping overnight, outside stores in order to get goodies on the extreme cheap. Almost every year something stupid happens somewhere during this event, and the media then spends the next four or five days discussing how we’ve fallen to such lows as a society. This is then followed by average Americans around the water coolers at work repeating the same things the media figures said the night before. The problem is that the narrative is twenty pounds of manure in a ten pound bag.
Tens of thousands- likely closer to hundreds of thousands –of stores participate in Black Friday every year. Industry figures put the number of shoppers for Black Friday in recent years anywhere from 225 million to 250 million people. Amazingly, Black Friday happens every year with no events of any significance happening at the vast majority of locations open, and the bulk of the shopping masses don’t act like complete idiots. They enter the stores, they find what they’re looking for, they fill their carts, they checkout and pay, and then they head off to home or to lunch with family and/or buddies.
Now, at a handful of locations across the United States there are people every year who act like idiots and cause a problem. The reality of the situation is that you have substantially less than 1% of the shoppers out that day acting like idiots, and the higher total number of shoppers out that day is easily 75 million or more people less than the total population of the country. The number of people who act like thoughtless, dangerous idiots on Black Friday is a statistically insignificant percentage of our total population. Compared to the total number of locations participating in Black Friday, the number of locations where dangerous incidents occur is likewise a statistically insignificant percentage of the stores open that day.
But if you turn the news on the weekend after one, two, or, on extreme years, three locations have an incident where people act like thoughtless idiots and injure other shoppers or in worst case scenarios trample someone to death, you would think from the coverage that the entire nation was out that Friday rioting in the streets and engaging in gladiatorial combat to the death with each other in the store isles over $25 Blu-Ray players. That’s simply not the case.
But the old adage in the news media of “If it bleeds it leads!” is in full effect on the weekends after a Black Friday; sometimes even well into the next week. The news media doesn’t see reporting good news as a ratings winner. They don’t view it as such in large part because news viewers ensure that good news is in fact a ratings loser. News viewers tune in for train wrecks with lots of dead bodies, not for reports that everything went just fine all week out on the tracks. Even with your local news, two shoppers getting into a fight over an item at your local Wal-Mart is news at 6 and 11. People will tune in and perk up for that; especially if there’s video involved. No one tunes in if the ads plug a story about how several hundred people walked in and out a store’s doors that day and every other day that week without acting like mindless animals fighting over scraps. If they actually aired such a story, most people would pay it no attention, or even wonder what the point of it was if they did pay attention.
As such, despite the overwhelming majority of shoppers out there not acting like idiots, local, national, and especially cable news treat the actions of an insignificant percentage of shoppers as if they’re representational of the majority of people out there. Reporters and news editorialists gnash their teeth and pull their hair and talk about how we’re practically Rome in the end days. Reporters give their best “tsk-tsk” as video plays in a loop on the screen next to them and discuss how sad and pathetic we’ve become, how far we’ve fallen as a nation, because Americans will thoughtlessly trample their fellow Americans to death for a $10 blender. We’re practically on the verge of societal collapse, and so far from where we were as people back in the good old days (that never really were that good to begin with.)
The funny part is listening to people the next few days at work and seeing the reactions on blogs and social media. Most people, despite personal experience over that weekend to the contrary, talk and write respectively exactly like the doom and gloomers in the media. It’s close to the end of us as a society, and the incident(s) of Black Friday show how fast we’re declining. Additionally, there’s something seriously wrong with those greedy, materialistic people going out there for a few meaningless bargains on Black Friday.
It’s even actually kind of funny because, not just ignoring their personal experiences that weekend, there are always coworkers and friends on social media talking about how they and/or their spouse hit up a Black Friday sale, grabbing stuff they wanted, covering half their Christmas shopping list, and reporting absolutely zero incidents of crazed, killer shoppers. The friend and/or coworkers are never seen as a crazy. If anything, talk will actually shift to what cool deals they got and how awesome it was. But it was still wrong for all of “them” in all of those other places “there.”
Personal experience means nothing. Black Friday was filled with danger and a sign we’re collapsing as a society obsessed with material wants, valuing capitalist and materialistic greed over basic human decency. The people we know not being crazed idiots on Black Friday morning means nothing. All the people that went out there on Black Friday have something wrong with them.
But, again, the reality is most people don’t act like dangerous idiots on Black Friday. Most locations opening on Black Friday are not host to chaos, injury, and/or death. The accurate story is almost 250 million people didn’t act like jackasses at tens of thousands of locations across the US while a fractionally irrelevant amount of people did act like jackasses. But “Most People Acted Well Behaved while Shopping on Black Friday” doesn’t get viewer ratings, doesn’t sell papers, and doesn’t get clicks. So the narrative is built on taking what’s not representative of the whole and playing it up as if it is.
And people buy the narrative. They turn on the TV and see ads for the news showing video of people busting a door down and stampeding into a store. They turn on the radio and hear news breaks, talk show hosts, and DJs talking about the incident. They turn the cable news on all weekend long and see hyperbole filled news editorial programs spinning away on the topic. They open up a webpage browser or a social media page and see story after story on it. By Monday, especially on a slow news weekend, a single incident that happened in one state has been covered more than some events during the year that actually have a serious impact on the nation, and the coverage might continue for several more days after Monday. People see this nonstop and react as if the skewed, false narrative is the big story the media is making it into. Suddenly people are talking about this handful of people as if they represent the majority of Americans and the direction of where our culture is headed.
It’s one of the unfortunate aspects of human nature. People can experience something for themselves; see the facts of a matter with their own eyes. They know the truth, but if they’re placed into an environment where everything and everyone is telling them the fact they witnessed was actually something else entirely and they’re mistaken in their view of events, a lot of people will start embracing the false narrative and ignoring what they themselves experienced firsthand. It’s almost a group think effect that many people will willingly go along with even when knowing better. But there is an interesting catch with that effect.
A lot of people, most from the looks of it, will buy into some things enough to believe that it’s a correct portrayal of reality everywhere else, but not where they live. It’s kind of like how everyone says that all politicians are corrupt and need voting out, but they vote their politician back in because he or she is the exception. It’s even, to go extreme, how some racists will hold onto their most skewed views of others while still ending up with local or workplace friends who are from the groups they hold skewed, negative views of. They may hold onto the belief that all blacks, Asians, Muslims, or whoever else are generally bad people, but this friend of theirs is the exception. Their friends aren’t like that. It’s just all of “those other ones” everywhere else who are like that. It doesn’t matter that they’ve never spent any time in all the places they point to as being filled with bad examples of “those people” or that a rational mind might see their friends/acquaintances as a reason to reassess their point of view. Their friends are the exception to the rule. Their friends break the mold that everyone else comes from. It’s a strange inverse of the grass always being greener elsewhere. It’s not as bad where you are, so your area is one of the few exceptions in your mind to how it “really is” everywhere else.
If you’re even slightly still aware of header on this, you’re probably wondering where police work comes into this or how it at all relates to police work. We’ll be there in a minute.
The reason propaganda works is because people will willingly buy into it. Sometimes though, the “propaganda” isn’t intentional. In the case of the news media, ratings have become more important than news that informs. We’ve even reached a point where some of our highest rated “news” programs can actually make you less informed for being regular viewers. But it’s not always a deliberate act as much as it’s a reaction to what viewers have shown they want. Viewers want the ten car pileup. Viewers want the train wreck. Viewers want the body count. Viewers make these things ratings winners, and by making these ratings winners the producers and programmers behind the scenes work to give the viewers more of what they want more often and in longer show segments in an effort to keep the ratings high or even increase them. Sometimes, in the pursuit of making what bleeds the lead, the intention is not a form of deliberate propaganda even if the victims of the accidental propaganda see it as a deliberate act.
This brings us to policing.
The reality of police work is that the vast majority of police officers are good and decent people. The reality of police work is that on any given day a single police officer out of the more than 900,000 in the United States can encounter 20, 50, or even 100 or more people without having a serious incident that involves injuring, shooting, or killing anyone. But a television ad touting a report full of good news isn’t good ratings for the evening news show. A headline informing readers that a police department had no incidents that day doesn’t get clicks. No bleeding means no leading and maybe no real reporting most days in the same way you rarely or never see a story about a fire department having a sleepy, uneventful day filled with cleaning trucks and gear and watching TV in the station.
Good cops do not make good ratings. Ratings are the be all and end all of news. Good policing doesn’t get interested parties clicking links to read more. Clicked links make big numbers which makes money from online ads.
When something bad happened though, when someone bleeds, it’s going to be the centerpiece of the news programs for as long as it gets buzz and ratings. It’s going to be the centerpiece of “news” editorial arguments featuring various sides of the issue pretty much no matter where you get your news.
If you’re a law enforcement officer, the problem is that a lot of people are now seeing whatever bad thing happened and relating it in their minds to everyone in our profession. Whether it’s legitimately because of someone who needs to not be wearing the uniform they’ve been wearing or it’s a matter of minimal information being reported creating an incomplete picture of events combined with a lack of understanding by viewers of what they’re looking at, people are going to be seeing it, hearing about it, and reading about it for days or weeks on end. When people see something nonstop, it doesn’t have to be deliberately designed propaganda to have the effect of actual propaganda. When people are told how bad something is every day for weeks on end, they will eventually start seeing the subject matter as bad overall.
I can’t blame the press for that. We as a viewing society have told the press over the decades what we want to see and read. The news industry has become an industry that caters to what we want to see and read over actually bringing us quality information. We’ve told them that we want to see the bad news, the worst of what we are, and so they regularly give it to us and find themselves rewarded for doing it.
I can’t blame the people for their reaction to the news. The reaction by most people to constantly seeing bad news is to go along with whatever the bad news narrative is. It’s human nature and it’s not going to change any time soon. Susceptibility to suggestion of this nature is something that’s so ingrained in our makeup, so much a part of how we tick, and so reliably dependable in how it works that advertising agencies spend millions to billions each year figuring out new ways to take advantage of it for their clients in order to get us to get excited and hyped about wanting buy or see or hear things. But what they work so hard to do deliberately in 30 to 180 second blips, the 24/7 news media can sometimes do unintentionally without even trying.
It’s also harder to blame people for going along with it and not feel like a hypocrite when cops often go along with whatever other “it” of the moment is going on at various times throughout the year. I’m a cop. I see coworkers all the time who fall into the Black Friday narrative or whatever other narrative, accurate or not, is running 24/7 in the news media cycle at the moment. I even fall into some of it sometimes; especially with ads for stuff that really strike my fancy right.
Cops also fall into their own narratives. One aspect of the media coverage of police incidents is the “War on Police” narrative. I know people, both law enforcement and not, who will tell you it’s more dangerous than ever to be a police officer. If you listen to some of the people who listen the narrative enough, you’ll even get told that more cops are being targeted and actually killed in the line of duty in the last year or two than in many a year in any given decade before now. Actually, the opposite is true. We’ve actually seen decreases in line of duty deaths, and even the types of deaths speak to certain matters in a way that are in conflict with that narrative. Total number of line of duty deaths for 2015 is down, and in that smaller number the total number of gunfire deaths is down while auto-related deaths are up. But you’ll hear people, including cops, discuss the narrative from their preferred news sources in such a manner that they talk as if more cops have been targeted and gunned down in 2015 than in prior years rather than, as the facts show, less.
Again, it’s a failing of human nature. You can expect to find it in cops because why not? Cops are human. Cops suffer from the same occasional failings in human nature that everyone else does. Sometimes it helps to realize that when dealing with others suffering from the same issue. But there is a silver lining here if you’re a cop. There’s that funny aspect of human nature where everyone occasionally sees their ‘X’ as okay while seeing everyone else’s as the problem.
Guys, it’s a waste of time and energy to blame the media, and doubly so to pick fights with the media. It’s a waste of time and energy to blame people for falling into the trap of human nature. It’s a pointless endeavor to be angry about it or to try convincing people you’ll never meet and never see that “it” is not as bad or as widespread as it sometimes seems in the media. You can’t convince people two cities away, let alone two states away, that something like whatever is running in the news cycle at the moment isn’t a fully accurate or true representation of the vast majority of the men and women in our profession. The only thing you can change is what’s right in front of you. The only people whose attitudes you can have an impact on are the ones you encounter every day.
People are willing to believe that their ‘X’ isn’t a part of the “widespread problem” they believe exists. Work with that. The only real thing you can immediately impact is your local group. You then slowly work on it from there. But blaming the media or being outright hostile towards it and/or the people who fall into the human nature trap of mindlessly following a narrative is a pointless waste of time and energy. Work to do what you can, where you can, as best you can. Wasting the energy elsewhere, especially with any level of anger, is pointless.
We know who and what we are. The people who deal with us every day know who and what we are. The more we all focus on the people we deal with every day, the more we reinforce with them that we are not the problem and most of the men and women in our profession are not the problem, the more they will take that to others. We might never be able to change the narrative, but we can always blunt its effect and correct it on a local level.