Last year we covered a tragedy in which two friends were murdered in what appeared to be a random act. Even though there was zero evidence of a romantic relationship in our reporting, or from police, some viewers assumed the victims were part of a love triangle, and that’s why they were killed.
There’s a name for this line of thinking – the “just-world fallacy.”
In a just world, when something bad happens to someone, it’s because they did something to deserve it, even if no evidence to support that claim exists. Innocent people aren’t murdered randomly. There must be some reason. It’s an understandable human reaction to inexplicable events, but, unfortunately, this cognitive bias colors our reaction to news in a way that can be harmful.
Blaming the victim
Belief in a just world, for example, can lead to victim-blaming. We victim-blame in order to avoid facing unpleasant truths. In this case, some viewers would rather not conceive of a world in which they’re innocently going about their business until the moment a murderer shoots them dead.
It shields us from confronting the terrifying reality that unpredictable evil lurks in unlikely places, and some small number of us will fall victim to it regardless of how virtuous or prepared we are. Much easier to think the unpleasantness could have somehow been avoided.
The mysterious ‘they’
The human desire to inhabit an orderly universe can also lead one to wander into the world of conspiracy theories. There is some twisted comfort to be found in the belief that someone out there is in control, and life is not a series of random events occasionally beset by chaos, far beyond human design.
In the weeks following Jeffrey Epstein’s death, I heard a lot of people say, “They weren’t going to let Epstein live.”
The mysterious they.
As long someone is in control, an agenda is being set. Power is accrued. Order is maintained. Events hold meaning.
“They” are responsible for all this.
Pop culture does not help. Most action movies, dramas and comedies trace the satisfying arc of a good guy overcoming the bad guy. In so much fiction, people are homeless because they made bad choices. They’re on drugs because they lack character. People deserve what they get. Those who aren’t so lucky are avenged, restoring moral order.
Unfortunately, that narrative doesn't always replicate itself in our news stories. Terribly awful things happen to innocent people. Northeast Ohio’s fascination and frustration with the Amy Mihaljevic case is a perfect example. In a just world, Amy would have been found alive and her killer would have been brought to justice.
Why talk about it
I bring this up not to depress you, but because I believe a news organization that publishes a high volume of hard news, much of it concerning crime, should talk about its effects. If we see viewers blaming innocent people for their own deaths, we owe it to the victims and their families to take a moment and pour cold water on the natural urge to make sense of the senseless.
The comfort we find in believing in a just world comes at the expense of those who suffer most. When we grope in the dark for blame, the families of the deceased are exposed to ill-informed theories about why their kin are dead, and blame is placed on the innocent, when the real culprit was the killer, or incomprehensibly unfortunate circumstance.
The upside of delusion
Holding out hope for a just world is human nature. It may also speak to our culture. This is a country that values justice. Police do catch bad guys. Would-be victims get help from strangers. When someone suffers, communities rally around them.
Many important institutions – including local media – exist to ensure that the pursuit of justice remains a top priority.
Maybe we place a strong belief in a just world because we’ve set the foundation for one. Injustices remain, far too many, but the pursuit of a better world still illuminates our politics, community organizations, charities, public discourse and religious beliefs.
Which is why we need to talk about it. Awareness of bias diminishes its potency. The notion that people deserve their fate may be hard-wired, but the need to believe that we live in a totally just world erases its own premise. In a just world, innocent victims aren’t to blame.
Joe Donatelli is the digital director at News 5 Cleveland. Follow him on Facebook @joedonatelli1 and Twitter @joedonatelli. Have a question about how we report the news? Email joe.donatelli (at) wews.com.