Bad news brings in the wonga

We’re all familiar with the unfortunate fact of life that bad news tends to be much more newsworthy than good news, e.g. this recent example.

This is doubly true for NGOs, as Karen Rothmeyer points out. (H/T: Tom Murphy) We depend upon bad news to bring in the money. So, although we do like to trumpet our successes, the mantra is always about how much more there is to do.

Got a choice of statistics to use? Just use the one which portrays matters the worst, and a molehill can be turned into a mountain over night. Have I ever done this? Yes, although I don’t think ever as badly as the case of the inflating population statistics for Kibera slum in Nairobi that Rothmeyer reports. Do I feel guilty? A bit. Would I do it again? Probably, since all our competitors are doing it, we need to do so too if we are going to continue to receive funds for our programmes. This is one time where being principled doesn’t get you very far.

It is a tragedy of the commons of information: we’d all be better off if everyone was scrupulously honest, but at the individual or organisational level the incentives are all in favour of scare-mongering. Africa, and other supposedly ‘impoverished’ places are caught in the middle: impoverished of good news stories about them.

The same is true in conservation: the IUCN Red List catalogues all species that are “facing a high risk of global extinction” (description provided by Google), and yet its lower risk categories, Near Threatened and Least Concern, cover species that are not exactly at a high risk of extinction. Still, I regularly hear people bandying around numbers of ‘red-listed’ species in their particular habitat, and I always wonder how many of them are classified NT or LC.

This bias towards bad news, I think, can be particularly problematic when it drives global prioritising and funding decisions: the result is that money ends up chasing problems rather than solutions.


One response to this post.

  1. […] the fact that it incentivises everyone to talk up exactly how bad their problem is, on the face of this is in an eminently sensible approach to determine how to divide up a pot of […]


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