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Longer lifespans: A coming crisis or reason to celebrate?

Ashton Applewhite: The 20th century saw an unprecedented leap in human lifespan in the developed world. In America alone, the American lifespan increased by 30 years. That doesn't mean everyone lived 30 years longer. It was mainly a function of more of us surviving to adulthood. But we have gained an average of 10 healthy years in whatever stage of life I'm in, which we don't have a name for, because it's so new I'm 66. This is an incredible achievement, right? I mean, we should rejoice at this.

It is a remarkable achievement of political stability, of public health, in particular, of better medicine, lots of things. And yet, the way it is often treated, by the media in particular, is as a disaster. And partly this is because people click on disasters more than they click on 'Everyone Chugging Along Just Fine' or 'Interesting Demographic Phenomenon Happened'. The most common shorthand used for population aging is a gray tsunami, which conjures up a frankly terrifying version of this wave of old people poised to swamp the shores and suck all the social benefits, and all the good things that we want to leave to our kids, and our health care system, swamp them and suck all the good stuff out to sea. And that language is misleading and wrong.

It is like the alarmist language, if you think about it, used to describe other demographic threats, like the yellow peril, the red menace. Think about that. This just amps up our fears without a rational basis. The fact is that population aging in the United States is the best studied demographic phenomenon in history. We have known for 66 years, if not more, that the baby boom was coming along, that our parents had more children, that my children represent another mini baby boom. The question is, why have we not done more to prepare wisely for not just the challenge that this represents, but the massive opportunity?

And the answer is that we live in an ageist society. We live in a society that tends to frame aging as a problem, because if it's a problem we can be persuaded to do things to fix it. And if it's framed as an illness, and you often see aging just equated with debility and decline, whereas in fact it is also a period of enormous growth and opportunity. Because if aging is a disease, we can be sold stuff to cure it or to stop it. The only way to stop aging is to be dead. Aging is not a problem to be fixed or a disease to be cured. It is a natural, powerful, lifelong process on which we are embarked at the day we're born. It's not just something annoying old people do or celebrities do. And it is something we should celebrate.

  • A huge segment of America's population — the Baby Boom generation — is aging and will live longer than any American generation in history.
  • The story we read about in the news? Their drain on social services like Social Security and Medicare.
  • But increased longevity is a cause for celebration, says Ashton Applewhite, not doom and gloom.


Fake news? Maps show how CNN lost America to Fox News

Proof of a dramatic shift in US cable news viewing preferences - or not? The devil is in the map's legend

Strange Maps
  • Map details dramatic shift from CNN to Fox News over 10-year period
  • But does it show the triumph of 'fake news' or rather its defeat?
  • A closer look at the map's legend allows for more complex analyses

Dramatic and misleading

Image: Reddit / SICResearch

The situation today: CNN pushed back to the edges of the country.

Over the course of no more than a decade, America has radically switched favourites when it comes to cable news networks. As this sequence of maps showing TMAs (Television Market Areas) suggests, CNN is out, Fox News is in.

The maps are certainly dramatic, but also a bit misleading. They nevertheless provide some insight into the state of journalism and the public's attitudes towards the press in the US. Let's zoom in.

  • It's 2008, on the eve of the Obama Era. CNN (blue) dominates the cable news landscape across America. Fox News (red) is an upstart (°1996) with a few regional bastions in the south.
  • By 2010, Fox News has broken out of its southern heartland, colonising markets in the Midwest and Northwest – and even northern Maine and southern Alaska.
  • Two years later, Fox News has lost those two outliers, but has filled up in the middle: it now boasts two large, contiguous blocks in the southeast and northwest, almost touching.
  • In 2014, Fox News seems past its prime. The northwestern block has shrunk, the southeastern one has fragmented.
  • Energised by Trump's 2016 presidential campaign, Fox News is back with a vengeance. Not only have Maine and Alaska gone from entirely blue to entirely red, so has most of the rest of the US. Fox News has plugged the Nebraska Gap: it's no longer possible to walk from coast to coast across CNN territory.
  • By 2018, the fortunes from a decade earlier have almost reversed. Fox News rules the roost. CNN clings on to the Pacific Coast, New Mexico, Minnesota and parts of the Northeast – plus a smattering of metropolitan areas in the South and Midwest.

"Frightening map"

Image: Reddit / SICResearch

This sequence of maps, showing America turning from blue to red, elicited strong reactions on the Reddit forum where it was published last week. For some, the takeover by Fox News illustrates the demise of all that's good and fair about news journalism:

  • "The end is near"
  • "The idiocracy grows"
  • "(It's) like a spreading disease"
  • "One of the more frightening maps I've seen"
For others, the maps are less about the rise of Fox News, and more about CNN's self-inflicted downward spiral:
  • "LOL that's what happens when you're fake news!"
  • "CNN went down the toilet on quality"
  • "A Minecraft YouTuber could beat CNN's numbers"
  • "CNN has become more like a high-school production of a news show"

Not a few find fault with both channels, even if not always to the same degree:

  • "That anybody considers either of those networks good news sources is troubling"
  • "Both leave you understanding less rather than more"
  • "This is what happens when you spout bullsh-- for two years straight. People find an alternative - even if it's just different bullsh--"
  • "CNN is sh-- but it's nowhere close to the outright bullsh-- and baseless propaganda Fox News spews"

"Old people learning to Google"

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox News search terms (200!-2018)

But what do the maps actually show? Created by SICResearch, they do show a huge evolution, but not of both cable news networks' audience size (i.e. Nielsen ratings). The dramatic shift is one in Google search trends. In other words, it shows how often people type in CNN or Fox News in a search window. And that does not necessarily reflect the relative popularity of both networks. As some commenters suggest:

  • "I can't remember the last time that I've searched for a news channel on Google. Is it really that difficult for people to type 'cnn.com'?"
  • "More than anything else, these maps show smart phone proliferation (among older people) more than anything else"
  • "This is a map of how old people and rural areas have learned to use Google in the last decade"
  • "This is basically a map of people who don't understand how the internet works, and it's no surprise that it leans conservative"

A visual image as strong as this map sequence looks designed to elicit a vehement response – and its lack of context offers viewers little new information to challenge their preconceptions. Like the news itself, cartography pretends to be objective, but always has an agenda of its own, even if just by the selection of its topics.

The trick is not to despair of maps (or news) but to get a good sense of the parameters that are in play. And, as is often the case (with both maps and news), what's left out is at least as significant as what's actually shown.

One important point: while Fox News is the sole major purveyor of news and opinion with a conservative/right-wing slant, CNN has more competition in the center/left part of the spectrum, notably from MSNBC.

Another: the average age of cable news networks – whether CNN or Fox News – is in the mid-60s. As a result of a shift in generational habits, tv viewing is down across the board. Younger people are more comfortable with a 'cafeteria' approach to their news menu, selecting alternative and online sources for their information.

CNN, Fox and MSNBC

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox (without the 'News'; may include searches for actual foxes). See MSNBC (in yellow) for comparison

For the record, here are the Nielsen ratings for average daily viewer total for the three main cable news networks, for 2018 (compared to 2017):

  • Fox News: 1,425,000 (-5%)
  • MSNBC: 994,000 (+12%)
  • CNN: 706,000 (-9%)
(Source: TVNewser)


And according to this recent overview, the top 50 of the most popular websites in the US includes cnn.com in 28th place, and foxnews.com in... 27th place.

The top 5, in descending order, consists of google.com, youtube.com, facebook.com, amazon.com and yahoo.com – the latter being the highest-placed website in the News and Media category.(Source: SimilarWeb)
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