Years ago, there was an earthquake in San Francisco. I don’t remember which one – but it was big enough to make the news right away. Our local TV station showed a live feed of a building where the bricks had fallen off the front onto the sidewalk, the road was buckled, and a fire had broken out in another building.
Live interviews featured people who had felt the quake and were panicked. The city looked like a war zone.
I was especially concerned because my wife had just flown up there, and her plane had landed only a few minutes before the quake. This was in the days before cell phones were common, so I didn’t know if she was OK.
Diane was going to get a rental car and drive up north, but I assumed that wouldn’t be possible. I pictured her stranded in massive rubble, closed streets and power outages – exactly what I saw on TV. Every indication was that the city was devastated, based on the events I was seeing.
For the next two hours I was glued to the broadcast, strategizing how I could get in touch and how we would deal with the crisis.
I jumped when the phone finally rang.
“Hi,” she said.
“Are you OK?” I asked. “What’s going on? What happened? How bad is it?”
“How bad is what?” she responded.
“The earthquake,” I said.
Her response was unexpected:
She had no idea. She landed at the airport, went to the rental car center, picked up a car, drove through the city and on to her sister’s house in Santa Rosa – and never saw a thing. The only evidence was that a ceiling tile had fallen at the airport in the concourse, and someone had put a couple of little orange cones around it.
I had been watching on TV, which made me think the city was in shambles. She had actually been there, and was totally unaware.
The city wasn’t in shambles. One block was messed up. That’s what the news showed. It was a view through a single lens of a single event in a very large city.
Their coverage was accurate. There was an earthquake; there was a fire; part of a building collapsed.
But their coverage was distorted. I was led to believe that I was looking through a wide-angle lens, when it was more like a close-up lens.
When we watch the news, it’s important to distinguish between the two lenses. Otherwise, we’ll assume the worst when watching a minor event.
It doesn’t mean the event isn’t real. It’s just a limited perspective.
When police take a report at a crime scene, they talk to as many witnesses as possible. Each is looking through their own lens, and believes that what they saw is true. They’re being accurate.
But other witnesses saw through their lens, providing a different angle. When those different views are combined, it provides a more accurate picture of the entire scene – a wide-angle perspective.
I’ve learned to watch the news more deliberately. What I see is a single view from a close-up lens. It’s accurate – but it’s distorted if I assume it’s a wide-angle lens.
The news doesn’t bother me as much when I keep my lenses straight.