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Excitement vs Importance: Do we have any sense of proportion?

When I was choosing a topic to write about today, I almost passed over a story on the grounds of it being too boring. It was about a large corporate donation of vaccines for developing countries — much less exciting than some other stories, such as the outbreak of killer bacteria in Germany. But then I realised that as stories go, the vaccine donation was *very* important. It also raised some very interesting questions about ‘important news’ versus ‘exciting news’.

The Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisations (GAVI) is large international partnership dedicated to saving lives through immunisation. Unfortunately they need $3.7 billion more in order to be able to deliver all the necessary vaccines to people across the world. Today four major pharmaceutical companies announced that they would provide a range of vaccines to GAVI at the cost of production. This won’t fill the entire funding gap, but according to Save the Children, it could save hundreds of thousands of lives (and while it is difficult to be precise, this seems to be a reasonable figure).

To put this into perspective, the E Coli outbreak in Germany has so far killed 22 people. The number of lives that would have been killed by viruses without the vaccine donation is estimated at 100,000 or more. That is equivalent to an E Coli outbreak each week for an entire century. Of course these numbers might change, but the point remains that the vaccine donation is a *much* bigger deal. We often think that we read the newspapers to find out what new and important things are happening in the world — to let us know the state of play — but is that really true? Are we really just interested in what exciting things are happening to people like us? Would anyone have responded differently to the vaccine article if it had estimated 200,000 people — even though that would be 240 additional jumbo jets worth of deaths prevented? Do we really have any sense of proportion?

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22 Comment on this post

  1. Anthony Drinkwater

    "The curse of the killer cucumbers" will always sell more newspapers and TV advertising than "vaccination plan to save thousands of lives". So in a sense you're right, we have no sense of proportion.
    But as any photographer will tell you, proportion depends on how far you are away from the subject.
    The secret of the media, and ultimately their power, lies in exploiting this phenomenon to the full by positioning "human interest" stories the way they do.
    What I find hard to understand is that globalisation seems to me to exacerbate this trend – one might have thought that the web would help create a global village where everyone was closer to their neighbour, that it would encourage social, racial and geographic closeness, and thus help combat such huge errors of proportion. Perhaps this is just too naive ?

    1. The market pressures behind the business model of journalism are a constant challenge on the virtues of the profession. Selling newspapers is not the job of journalists. There is something to be said for advocacy journalism. There is a place for it, hopefully. A lot of effort is spent lobbying Congress. I always tell my friends to write the newspapers, not their Congressmen. The heads we need to turn are the heads that decide what gets printed in the Big Media Outlets.

  2. Several things. One is novelty. Another is just where the reporters are. Another has to do with cultural/geographic proximity.
    On the novelty side of things, something anomalous receives more coverage than something regular. There was nothing surprising about the vaccinations being made – they were the product of planning and investment decisions. The E. coli outbreak was unexpected, and the fact it was a new mutant strain only adds to the newness of the story. Every day, millions of people manage to move successfully around the world in amazing gigantic airborne vehicles dealing with a vast array of mishaps (doors coming off, electical failures, bird strikes, etc) that are, for the most part, invisible. We only hear about the very rare catastrophic failure. It's an incredible accomplishment. But the nature of news is that it's the freak event rather than the remarkable status quo that receives the attention.
    There's a coverage bias towards sites in which news organisations have reporters, which is why we hear much more about Australian than New Zealand or why we hear much more about Washington and New York than about other cities. [And why there's a London bias.] Given that everyone has an incentive to have the reporters in capitals and in major centres, there's an obvious emergent sampling bias, since the distribution of reporters that emerges when a bunch of organisations each send their reporters around the world is different from the distribution you would get if those reporters were distributed so as to optimise coverage. Etc.
    Also, news is located in a bunch of other geographies. One is cultural – anglophone or European or whatever – there's a coverage bias to "people like us" or people we might know. This is because real people, whereever they are in the world, care about people who are near them more than people who are far away from them. We all do. You'd be a lousy family member if you didn't. Personally I think this is the only sane and moral way to live, but I know folks who disagree.
    Imagine if someone really lived the view that they were obliged to care equally, in every way, about everyone in the world. Call him Ned. Imagine Ned lives for 80 years. Ned – from age 10, say, decides to devote equal slices of his most precious resource, time, to everyone in the world equally, because, hey, that what some philosopher has told him to do. Then there are 7B** people in the world, and he has 70 years, each comprising of 31 556 926 seconds, which means each person gets 3.17 seconds. He devotes 10 years to individuals in China, maybe 11 years to individuals in India, 10 years (more or less) to folks in the OECD, and so on. But his friends and family are going to feel very hurt, since mum and dad get maybe a joint 6.34 seconds. Ned seems to me the idiotic extreme instantiation of the view that everyone is entitled to equal consideration. I think of him whenever I meet radical egalitarians. [By the way, Ned forgot to sleep.] Assuming we don't want to be like Ned, is there any point in thinking about the ways in which we *shouldn't* care equally about everyone in the world?
    **Ignoring the sequencing issues.

    1. David,

      Great point about the sampling bias of where journalists are based. While I am not in Germany, many reporters are, so we hear more about it. Of course this doesn't quite explain we *care* more about that story, except in as much as we get more chances to care about it as it appears in more articles.

      Regarding the suprisingness, this donation was not a fait accompli — a huge amount hung int he balance and the companies eventually decided to do it. Of course things like this happen all the time, but the same is true of, say, earthquakes. We all know that there will be a major earthquake every few years, but we still hang on every word when they happen. In that case we focus on the surprising particular (an earthquake happened in place X at time Y with consequences Z) rather than that another one happened. But in the donation case we see it as just another thing. Why the difference?

      Regarding Ned, I entirely agree that his behaviour is stupid. However, if he expressed equal concern by choosing to help a great many people in preference to a tiny number, that would be great. Concern in reading the newspaper is not quite like this (it is less action-oriented) but it could surely be doled out a little more proportionately!

      1. One reason "we" care about the story is that "we" might go to Northern Germany on business or whatever, and it might be good to know there's reason to dodge the salad for a day or two. That story does serve as a public health warning (and even if it led to an over-reaction, that can be (more than!) compensated by the EU's eagerness to open its coffers and throw money at farmers). The vaccination story is less directly relevant to British residents' health.

        Toby wrote: "Of course this doesn’t quite explain we *care* more about that story"
        I care more about folks I know than folks I don't. I think it would be wrong – ungrateful, inconsiderate, thoughtless, etc – not to. There may (perhaps) be senses in which a death here and a death 1000, or 10000 miles away are morally the same – murder is wrong wherever it is committed – but I don't think it remotely follows that I need to *care* about those two deaths the same. When someone you are close to dies it creates a trauma for people who know that person. But people die every day (60M a year, in fact, which means ~20s^-1). I cannot mourn all these deaths as I did the death of my mother or the death of my friend Steve last year. I would turn into a funereal Ned. Nor, I would argue, should I care less about my family and friends simply because others, too, die. That would make me a bit of a prick, in my view (ungrateful, inconsiderate, thoughtless, etc).

        There may (or may not, but let's say there may) be a sense in which our dry evaluations regarding the moral status of acts (including deaths) might be portable in the sense that you can assess the moral status of deaths next door or 8000 miles away, but I don't see any reason why these evaluations should entail us trying to engage emotionally ("caring" or the blurrier "concern") any differently than we do now. Surely the sort of dessicated calculations that underpin comparisons of expected (dis)utility are deliberate attempts to reduce the role emotion plays in our assessments? I get why agents in certain circumstances – civil servants, international organisations – might find placing equal weight on people wherever they may be to be an attractive and very defensible way to reason. But I don't see why it would ever bite for an individual located in a particular cultural/geographic/spatiotemporal situation.

        The reason I raise Ned is that I keep getting hassled by do-gooders who keep telling me I'm not doing enough for other people, and they never actually tell me what the limits on these expectations are, or quite at which point I would be doing enough. If you couple the unbounded nagging to which NGOs (and governments, often) subject us to the idea that individuals ought to care equally about everyone, you arrive at something a lot like Ned. Wants are infinite and means are finite. I guess it's a spatial equivalent of Koopmans' point on zero discounting.

        1. Dave,

          I care more about folks I know than folks I don’t.

          I'm sure this is true of everyone, but many of us know very few people in either Germany or developing countries. I think the location is part of the explanation, but not all of it. Comparing a story about a disease outbreak in Tanzania versus a failure of vaccinations in Germany (with 100 people dying in each case) we may be more interested in the disease outbreak.

          Regarding caring about others, I partly agree with you and partly disagree. It comes down to the emotional sense of caring versus the practical sense. I agree that we (1) don't care emotionally about distant strangers as much as nearby people and (2) that this is perfectly acceptable. I also agree that (3) we choose to help nearby people by a small amount rather than distant people by a large amount, but I also hold (4) that this is often seriously wrong — and this might be where we disagree. I won't claim here that we have to act so as to increase the impartial good, just that we should not act in ways that count ourselves and our near and dear more than 100 times as important as distant strangers. We can correct our practical actions to be less deeply partial without changing our emotional reactions to be impartial — we just need to act out of a mixture of raw emotion and reason. For example, to decide that I can save 3 lives instead of upgrading my economy flight to Australia to a business flight and therefore deciding against the upgrade (and to donate the money). One can act like this without becoming emotionally like Ned.

          1. Toby,

            That's a very funky quote thing you've got going on there. Wish I knew how to do that.
            On your 3rd and 4th points, I think there is a lot buried under the term "help", just as there is with "concern". I can readily sign up to things like negative rights for everyone because they're so scalable. There may even be some positive rights that are scalable, and I'd be fine with them, too. [ie scalability is the key for me, not the negative/positive thing.] The situation I want to avoid is where one person is obliged to owe something tangible, say X, to >1B people in a non-reciprocal relationship, since even if X is as tiny as 1p or 1second that gives me a £10M debt or a sentence of ~30 years.** That scale of obligation strikes me as unreasonable. [All I'm really doing is rediscovering one facet of the old tension between being happy and doing good – given that my happy doesn't involve me signing a bottomless cheque I want to know when we reach the day when I've done enough and can forget about the ills of the world and play on my iPod a happy song that does not involve the injustices of the world (am thinking of Uncle Tupelo's Acuff-Rose – "Early in the morning, sometimes late and night/Sometimes I get the feeling that everything's all right.")]

            I understand there are responses that redenominate that sort of stock obligation via flows – you & others have mentioned 10% of income rather than a finite wodge of cash, and though this means no one actually tells me when I can stop giving, it does scale with one's means which is an attractive property for many. But any limit (1p each to the bottom billion or 10% of my net income) is arbitrary, and is always prone to the accusations at the margin that I'm not doing enough. Unless you have a way of saying "that's it, you're done" you're prone to tedious but hard to defeat arguments about increments, reminiscent of Spinal Tap: to "go to 11".***

            It's kind of Veblen-like: just as sporting competitions and academia face increasing marginal utility in certain ways, I think charity does, too. The Q+1th paper in Mind or the American Economic Review sets you apart from all those losers who only have Q. The difference between an Olympic sliver medal and a gold medal is greater than that between a silver and a bronze; Federer's 15th Grand Slam title meant more than his 14th because it put him ahead of Sampras… etc. I can't help wondering, pace Smashy and Nicey, whether there isn't something going on in a similar way with charitable giving. [Call it "conspicuous divestment".] It would be an entertaining experiment for someone, possibly one of the thousand or so Australians employed at Littlegate House, to set up a charity called "Giving More Than Toby And His Mates Can" where they crank it up to 11. Could you legitimately claim that 11 was "too much"? How would you respond?
            [I'm teasing, obviously, and I don't mean to mock your thoughful and sincere efforts. But I'm also trying to make a reasonably serious point regarding the incentives charities face. What are the payoffs?]

            I see this happening all the damn time in environmentalism, where any actual policy that a government comes up with is always torched by enviros for whom it's never "enough". When global governments agreed 2C was a reasonable (if utterly ambiguous) limit on global mean warming, NGOs immediately started brow-beating them about how 1.5C was massively superior. To my way of thinking, it was about the NGOs retaining their market share politically by keeping their brand "purer" to those of others. I think this is reflects a pathology in the way people think about doing good. But without some idea on how to derive limits to my obligations I don't know how it can be generally defeated.

            **I think I overestimated Ned's time with everyone by a factor of 10 in my earlier post.

  3. Dmitri Pisartchik

    Thank you for an interesting entry, Toby.

    "We often think that we read the newspapers to find out what new and important things are happening in the world — to let us know the state of play — but is that really true?"

    It certainly doesn't seem to be false. After all, even though the E Coli outbreak is (by the utilitarian standard) less important than the vaccine donation, it is never the less an important event. Moreover, it seems correct to say that it is of greater proximal importance to the kinds of media that you have in mind in your article, ie Western/European news outlets. That is to say, the importance of the E Coli outbreak is of greater significance in the eyes of the European media precisely because it is happening in Europe. And, on the face of it, I see nothing particularly wrong with this since their primary readership are those most directly affected by this event.

    Proximity has been critiqued as a morally relevant factor, but I think we cannot discount altogether. When Peter Singer claims that a death right here and a death 1000 miles away are morally equivalent, he may be correct in certain respects but not in others. I would agree that just because the other death is further away does not necessarily entail that it should be less important. However, when we are talking about sources of suffering and death, like an outbreak of a deadly bacteria, proximity does make a significant difference.

    When I compare an E Coli outbreak in my city and an outbreak in Haiti, for example, (assuming equal morbidity and mortality) there is a sense in which it is right to regard the outbreak here as more important to me and those around me precisely because the proximity of the source of morbidity and mortality. Indeed if I was able to do something only about one of these, I would be justified to direct my efforts here rather than in Haiti.

    Therefore, in so far as the news outlets are in the business of reporting what is of importance to their readership, it seems justifiable to prioritize coverage of (more or less) local events over those that are far away.

    Now it may objected, in a way, that this tailoring of reporting to the tastes and preferences of the readers is precisely the source of the seemingly perverse state of news coverage that we find ourselves in where Paris Hilton gets the front page and brutal civil wars in Africa get buried in the back pages. Is it not evidentially the case that the public's interests are not only distorted but perhaps intentionally so by special interests? Should it not be the job of the news media (as opposed to entertainment media) to maintain some standard of perspective? To this I would have to reply with an emphatic NO! It is not the job of newspapers or news casts to dictate the preferences of their readers or viewers. It is not their job to make choices on behalf of other people regarding what is and is not important to them. That is the job of society more generally that must be carried out through education, debate and reflection. But this is getting increasingly more irrelevant to the topic at hand.

    1. Dmitri,

      Regarding proximity, I was mainly thinking about the E Coli outbreak from a UK standpoint. I could understand the proximity legitimately mattering for Germans as the news would directly influence their actions, where the donation news would not. However, while Germany is closer to the UK than Africa is, neither set of news should particularly influence British individuals' actions, so there is a disanalogy there.

      1. Hi Toby,

        Given the large number of Germans and immigrants from developing countries that live in the UK, surely both sets of news are of importance to these people in terms of informing them of facts that may affect their friends and family in their country of origin?

        It seems reasonable to assume that for many people in developing countries, one factor that may encourage them to leave their country is the threat of disease to themselves and their families. If this threat is going to be reduced, some immigrants may wish to return to their country of origin. But, of course, this requires being informed of developments such as this vaccine initiative. However, it seems reasonable to assume many people will learn of the vaccine initiative *eventually* anyway, at least in terms of the long-term outcomes of reducing disease. So there is less urgency in highlighting this development, whereas highlighting the E coli situation allowed people to respond to something immediate.

        Going off-topic, it was a shame you were unable to attend 'How the Light Gets In' at Hay on Wye. However, Alex Voorhoeve from the LSE did a decent job of explaining your position, as well as promoting 'Giving What We Can'.

    2. Anthony Drinkwater

      Thank you especially for the interesting last paragraph. I agree with you if you are saying NO only to your second question, but disagree if you are saying NO to both.
      The public interest is permanently distorted by a perspective reflecting the interests of the powerful in our society, and this is bolstered by the creation of what is judged "newsworthy". Paris Hilton and her media equivalents, shock-horror Swine flu and E-coli epidemics are on the front page to create a new opium for the masses : I leave it to you to decide whether or not to reread Marx's critique of Hegel, but I find it astonishlingly contemporary !
      I agree, however, with you that education, debate and reflection are the answer – I'm not at all advocating politically correct censorship.

  4. I'd like to contribute with two small things:

    Psychologically, I believe we tend to put more weight in acute-problems that happen once and kill some people (Volcanos! Tsunamis! Students shooting teachers!) than in slow, gradual ones, that will always be there and that kill a lot more (famine, poverty, social problems). That is why some people are perfectly at peace with smoking and eating a lot of fat (and all of that which harms slowly), but do everything they can to avoid a headache or to catch a cold that might cost them only a few days in bed (which is acute and out of the ordinary).

    Also psychologically, I would say our sense of proportion depends on whether we have experienced both events. If not, we need an analogy with something familiar. I, the average reader, have no idea of how much is 100,000 people.
    From this, it would be good if the media took something "important" and made it also "exciting" by saying, perhaps: "imagine that, without these vaccines, all Cambridge died". Or: I say that Amazon Forest loses 13 million ha. every year to deforesting. The exciting version would be "Every year an area equivalent to England is deforested in the Amazon Forest" (it's true, by the way).

    Practially, acute-events are relatively easy to solve: you find the cause and eliminate it. If not, most of them will end quickly, anyway, and normality will be eventually restored. This is usually the case of natural disasters and dramatic events.

    This is not the case with vaccination in Southern lands, for example. It's a long process, with a lot o people. It involves complicated cooperation with other governments, and cannot be solved otherwise. If the media raised the issue in their first pages, it would stay there for a couple of years.

    I should probably remember the (terrible) words of Stalin, that "killing one is a tragedy, but killing one million is a statistic". Is it difficult to identify with some many people and feel sorry for them in the right measure, unfortunately.

    Science and philosophy apart, from a certain point of view, the excessive attention of the media on the E. Coli outbreak is desireable and, as I believe, it was useful. If nothing else, it made Germans wash their hands before handling food (I live there) and thus might have prevented further outbreaks.

    In the beginning, Germany wasn't giving much importance to the problem and dealt with it perhaps too lightly, with superficial pronouncements about its origins and lethality, as if it were a minor thing. For example, I some days ago I compared the first page of Chinese, Brazilian, Italian and French newspapers with a German one. Surprisingly, foreign news had "15 Germans dead by E. Coli poisoned food", while the German had "nuclear energy-lobby wants compensation from the government". Only now, after several days, they started discussing it with more detail, and only now we have the feeling that they are actually doing something.

    My point is: due to foreign media's excessive attention, perhaps German authorities were forced to take a position and start solving things, and the became more aware of how they deal with food.

    1. Theo,

      Good point about the extra causal messiness in the vaccines story compared to the outbreak one, and also about the difficulty in even understanding the magnitudes of the numbers. These would be part of the explanation.

      Regarding the foreign media's influence on the German government: it sounds like a good effect, but how much better if the foreign media was putting pressure on groups who could save hundreds of thousands of lives!

      1. Thank you for your commentary, as well as for the great post!

        And, of course, I also think it would have been much better if they had focused on the vaccines. It is not even an either-or choice – both problems could have been raised at the same time. It just wasn't written "dramatically" enough for the publicum, I suppose.

  5. It also raises the question of whether the responsibility of accurate information lies solely in the media. The reader can always compare multiple newspapers, from different countries and different political alignments, and decide by himself what is more important.

    There is also the question whether media's impartiality consists in (a) every newspaper being absolutely neutral and rational, or in (b) all newspapers being free (ie. not censored) to publish different materials and thus allow the reader to make up his own mind, as said above.

    But this has already went too far from your topic, sorry.

  6. I haven't waded through the entire thread here but as a quick knee-jerk reaction (perhaps mirroring the way most people decide what's important…), I would say it's not that we don't have a sense of proportion, but that our sense of proportion, like how we behave generally (see my comment on the Winterbourne thread) is context dependent. It also varies from person to person. Ethicists like Toby and policy wonks like myself will tend to find the vaccination story more important. We looking at policy outcomes. But even for people like us the E.Coli story is far more emotionally charged. It's the kind of story that the stone age part of our brain can easily relate to. It's personal, it's direct, and yes, a bit scary. The point is that as always I don't believe there is any truly objective way to say that the more "intellectual" version is correct: we're just using a different set of criteria.

    A policy conclusion from this might be that we must not expect people to come to the same conclusions about priority when e.g. deciding what story to read than when involved in serious debates about policy. Could this be an argument for more indirect, and less direct, forms of democracy?

  7. Anthony Drinkwater

    "I don’t believe there is any truly objective way to say that the more "intellectual" version is correct: we’re just using a different set of criteria."
    Hi Peter,
    I'm surprised that you are so value-neutral in this.
    I would have thought that your utilitarianism would lead you to look at the consequence of publishing the two stories in the way that they are being published and conclude that the E-coli story is doing a great deal of harm. I doubt that you think that the destruction of hundreds of tons of perfectly good food, producers' lack of revenue and the the generation of unnecessary anxiety amongst consumers increase the balance of happiness ….. Or aren't these objective criteria?

    1. Anthony wrote: "Or aren’t these objective criteria?"

      They rely on a relative weighting between the costs to producers and the costs of getting infected (or having a family member, friend, colleage, neighbour etc get infected) and I don't know how you would derive those weights "objectively" given the fact that many of the terms in the calculation do not reveal themselves through prices (which would allow the comparison to be made on a single scale (whether that's objective is a further question…)). In any case the EU is very likely to over-compensate producers because of this continent's irrational attitude to agriculture, so I wouldn't worry too much about the farmers! I'd worry about the taxpayers, but then that is a relatively rare view here in Europe (at least among elites).
      But let's for a moment say a free press do come up with a story which "does harm" on some mildly objective measure. Do you think the story should be banned, or do you take a wider view of the greater good and say that a free press in the long run is likely to do more good than harm?

      1. Anthony Drinkwater

        Thanks for the comments, Dave.
        I certainly don't want to ban stories or constrain press freedom. My comment only went as far as saying that there are objective reasons for deciding that one story is more important than another, and expressing my surprise that an avowed utilitarian should be so non-judgemental.
        To come back to the original question raised by Toby Ord, I agree completely with you and your example of Ned is great.
        However, the media exploit this phenomenon to create a certain view of newsworthiness – a blog comment is too short to develop the idea, but Chomsky's "Manufacturing Consent" does a pretty good job.

        1. Hi Anthony,
          Thanks for the post and glad you like Ned. I have several imaginary friends like Ned. I've never been completely convinced by Chomsky on the media thing – I'm sure there's quite a bit of truth to what he says, but I think he sometimes sees agency where there is only emergence – a bit like the sampling bias problem I referred to above: one could see the population density of reporters as being indicative of a conspiracy of editors to over-represent some things and under-represent others, but I think it's far more likely to be a matter of them all hitting on similar algorithms for similar reasons. Chomsky always seems a bit too eager to find links between various bits of his complexes for my tastes… but still, his is a fascinating, distinctive and often compelling voice.

    2. Hi Anthony,

      Yes and no. From my preferred utilitarian standpoint I would tend to agree with all your points. It's just that as a moral subjectivist I still regard this as a matter of choice, rather than a matter of truth. I also believe (although I must admit this is quite speculative) that there are good utilitarian grounds for using the language of moral subjectivism rather than moral realism. If we liberate ourselves from the idea that morality/values are a matter of truth, of absolute right and wrong, then I think we can see more clearly to make our own moral choices (of which mine is utilitarianism). I also think it helps us to understand and accept that different people have different values, not because they are stupid or misguided but simply because they have different moral preferences. This doesn't mean we have to approve of them or support them – we might even choose to oppose them violently, as in Libya for example – but we save ourselves from the wild goose chase of trying to "prove" them wrong.

  8. Toby: have you considered submitting an editorial to the major newspapers? Convincing one key person to publish can change the world. Think tanks, lobbyists and political talking heads create public opinion daily with a few well-placed emails.

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