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Time Magazine Is Not Making Americans Ignorant

A recent "outrageous image of the day" reposted by all my liberal friends on Facebook compares the US and non-US covers of Time magazine's December 5, 2011 issue:

The implication is that Time doesn't think people in the US want serious, important news. The Sociological Images blog picked up this image and ran with that interpretation, placing it alongside several other similar juxtapositions from past issues of Time and Newsweek. These images are described as evidence of American "ignorance of global issues and international news" and "that our news outlets feed us fluff and focus us only on the U.S."

But consider this alternative image:

Suddenly, it looks like the international audience that's being fed fluff, and US audiences who are getting serious news.

Luckily, Time has an easy archive of past covers. I went through and counted up the characteristics of the last year's issues. In this analysis, I'm abiding by the terms of the original outrageous image -- non-US politics constitutes good, serious news while other stories are fluff, and we're judging only based on the cover, not the overall content of the magazine or quality of the story (you can write a really bad, fluffy story about Afghanistan, after all).

The first thing to note is that 34 out of 52 issues had essentially identical covers. Many of these were about serious non-US politics stories such as the death of Muammar Gadhaffi or the social unrest in Europe. A few were equally fluffy, like the royal wedding. I counted 13 of the same-everywhere covers as being about non-US politics, using a very narrow definition that excluded serious issues like clean energy. This also excluded stories on US events that could affect the world (is the US economic crisis less serious or internationally relevant than the Eurozone crisis?). The Oct. 31 issue was the only one in which the US edition showcased non-US politics while the non-US editions did not, while the reverse was true 10 times (and 6 issues had different US and non-US covers but neither was about non-US politics). That would seem to validate the original intent of the image. Nevertheless, many of the US covers in those pairings were still about serious topics like the US job market and cancer treatment. Overall, US readers of Time seem to be getting exposed to plenty of non-US politics in their cover stories.

What I would find interesting -- but unfortunately do not have time to do right now -- would be a sociological analysis of how the original outrageous image was selected and promoted. How did it move through social networks? And what sort of rhetorical work is it doing in reinforcing the idea of the "stupid American"?


Polarization Of Views On Climate Change Is Healthy

Dan Kahan presents two graphs illustrating what he calls "healthy" and "unhealthy" distributions of risk perception for two different risks:

The upper graph is the "healthy" situation -- a nice bell curve distribution of perceived risk for both of the cultural orientations (hierarchical-individualist and egalitarian-communitarian) into which he divided his survey respondents. The lower "unhealthy" situation shows a polarization of views about climate change -- hierarchical-individualist respondents were skewed toward thinking climate change poses little risk, while egalitarian-communitarians think it is a major risk.

The cultural groups that Kahan uses as his key explanatory variable are drawn from Grid-Group Cultural Theory. But his use of them has a decidedly Rawlsian or Habermasian flavor. That is, he prioritizes the reaching of consensus and deplores polarization or conflict between irreconcilable views. Thus, the perceptions of nanotechnology are healthy because culture is not driving people to see the risk differently, and thus the possibility to negotiate a broadly acceptable policy on the topic is open. Climate change, on the other hand, is not amenable to such consensus-driven policymaking because culture has trumped reason or science and driven people into opposing camps.

I usually have little patience for insisting on fidelity to the views of the founder of a theory (whether said founder be William Stephenson or Karl Marx, to use two examples that frequently rub me the wrong way). Nevertheless, in this case I think my disagreements with Kahan are centered on topics where he seems to me to depart from GGCT inventor Mary Douglas. Douglas would argue (I think) that risk perceptions that are not culturally engaged are not functional. After all, Kahan's second graph shows that the lack of polarization of views on nanotechnology is due to a lack of knowledge about the risk -- once exposed to information, views polarized on cultural lines. People have middling views of nanotechnology's risk because they don't see it as affecting their lives, and so they can't make sense of its pros and cons. People can only evaluate risks by understanding their implications for their favored way of life.

Climate change, on the other hand, has clear implications for people's way of life. It poses a severe threat to hierarchical-individualist culture because it exposes the failures of that way of life's techno-optimism and pursuit of economic growth, and serious action to deal with climate change could severely hamper the enactment of hierarchical-individualist values. Egalitarian-communitarians, on the other hand, are quite open to believing the danger of climate change because it validates what they were calling for all along.

Douglas would argue that this polarization is a good thing. It shows that people are engaging with the risk and its implications. There is no objective, culturally neutral viewpoint (of the sort that Kahan seems to aspire to) from which vantage point we can make unbiased judgments of risks. Rather, we have different cultural groups that are highly attuned to different sorts of threats. The polarization between the two groups Kahan is evaluating illustrate a society teasing out the implications of dealing with the threat. (What will climate change do to us? What will action on climate change do to us?) A good policy must be open to and address all cultures' concerns, rather than trying to de-culture consideration of the risk.