In the media, if it bleeds, it leads

I am a big fan of the British-American writer Bill Bryson. And I think it’s unfair that he tends to get categorised as a travel writer. He is much more than that, though it is very difficult to categorise him. His latest book is called The Road to Little Dribbling—More Notes From a Small Island. In this book, one of the things that Bryson talks about is the uniquely British phenomenon of attacks by cows on human beings, making national news.

As he writes: “In America, cow trampling would never make the national news other than in highly exceptional circumstances. If, let’s say, Dick Cheney was trampled to death by cows (and we can always dream), that would be national news.” But the same is clearly not true about Great Britan.

“In Britain if a single cow tramples a walker anywhere in the country, it will almost certainly make national headlines,” writes Bryson.
Cow attacks on human beings are pretty rare. But the surfeit of news in the British media about cow attacks, leads the British to believe that cow attacks are very common in Britain. This belief comes from reading about the attacks in the media at regular points of time.

Economists and psychologists refer to this tendency as an availability bias. As Leonard Mlodinow writes in The Drunkard’s Walk—How Randomness Rules Our Lives: “In reconstructing the past, we give unwarranted importance to memories that are most vivid and hence most available for retrieval. The nasty thing about the availability bias is that it insidiously distorts our views of the word by distorting our perception of past events and our environment.”

Air-crashes are an excellent example of this. As Jason Zweig writes in The Devil’s Financial Dictionary: “Flying is among the safest ways to travel, but on the rare occasions when an airplane does crash, the fireball on the runway is broadcast worldwide and burned into the brain of everyone who sees it.”

This leads people to believe that airplane travel is unsafe. But what they don’t realise is that the media does not report about the thousands of planes that land safely every day all over the world. It also does not report the many car crashes that happen all over the world every day, unless a celebrity is involved.

The same logic works in case of a stock market. Every big fall is reported on the front pages of newspapers and by the other media. As Zweig writes: “Market crashes are rare, too, but the spectacular damage they cause is also seared into the collective unconscious. That leads many investors to miss out on the gains stocks can generate during the surprisingly long periods between crashes.” Like safe airplane landings, the media does not report the small gains (or losses) that add up, over a period of time.

Further, the advent of cable TV has brought war into our drawing rooms. But is the world more unsafe that it was let’s say 70 years back or 100 years back or may be even 500 years back? The feeling that the world has become more unsafe than it was in the past, is another excellent example of the availability bias.

As Steven Pinker writes in an essay titled A History of Violence: “Several historians have suggested that there has been an increase in the number of recorded wars across the centuries to the present, but, as political scientist James Payne has noted, this may show only that “the Associated Press is a more comprehensive source of information about battles around the world than were sixteenth century monks.” Associated Press is a wire news agency, which reports from all over the world.

This is not to suggest that the world is a totally safe place and that wars have come to an end. Nevertheless, things are not as bad as they seem to be.
To conclude, dear reader, when you are reading a newspaper or a digital publication, it is always worth remembering that old saying in journalism: “If it bleeds, it leads.”

(Vivek Kaul is the author of the Easy Money trilogy. He can be reached at [email protected])

The column originally appeared in the Bangalore Mirror dated December 2, 2015

What made Ranchi famous before Dhoni came along

Vivek Kaul
Bill Bryson, probably the best travel writer of this age, once wrote “You can never make a waiter see you before he’s ready to see you, you can never beat the phone company, and you can never go home again.”
The flourish of the statement notwithstanding it clearly isn’t a law of physics. Mahendra Singh Dhoni is going home again today and playing an international cricket match in a city where it all began for him. Life has come a full circle for Dhoni.
Dhoni put Ranchi, a city of around 10 lakh people, and no heroes other than freedom fighter Birsa Munda and Param Veer Chakra winner Albert Ekka, on the map of India and the rest of the world. He explains it best when he says “When I started my international career, people during the overseas tours used to ask me where I came from. I would first say India, then Jharkhand and then Ranchi. The next question invariably was, ‘Where is Ranchi?’ I had to explain in different ways by saying, ‘It’s near Calcutta, near Jamshedpur from where Tata originated. It’s India richest state in terms of minerals.”
Having been born and brought up in Ranchi I can totally relate to what Dhoni is trying to say here. My childhood retort to the question ‘Where is Ranchi?’, used to be that its the city through which the Tropic of Cancer passes, not knowing that the Tropic of Cancer was an imaginary line passing through a lot of other places in India as well.
Also Ranchi was Agra’s less famous cousin. In popular speak “Agra jaana hai kya” has never meant visiting the Taj Mahal, but the famous mental hospital in the city. Along similar lines Ranchi was famous, at least in parts of Eastern India, for its Kanke Mental Hospital, with the phrase “Kanke jaana hai kya” being seen as an insult on anyone it was used.
After Dhoni burst onto the cricketing scene in 2004, questions about the geographical whereabouts of Ranchi were confined to the dustbins of history. Having said that the question I try and answer in this piece is that what was Ranchi before it became that city from which Dhoni comes from?
One of the surprising facts that I learnt from my social studies text book in the third standard was that Ranchi is also called the hill station of Bihar (since 2000, Ranchi has been the capital of Jharkhand, before that it was a part of Bihar).
A few years later I understood that the textbook had not been updated since the 1960s when Ranchi actually was a hill station where the Bengali bhadralok came to visit and stay during the summer months. The story goes that the industrialist Aditya Birla and his wife Rajasree honeymooned in Ranchi. What would have given the city the tag of a hill station was the fact that it rained a lot even during the summer months.
But as the city expanded and the forests and the greenery was cut down, the temperatures rose, crossing 40 degree Celsius during the summer months, and it could no longer be called a hill station.
The next big thing to happen in the city was the setting up of a large number of public sector enterprises. This included the Heavy Engineering Corporation (HEC), Central Coalfields Ltd(CCL), Steel Authority of India Ltd (SAIL), MECON Limited, formerly known as (Metallurgical & Engineering Consultants (India) etc. This was primarily because the area around Ranchi was richly endowed in minerals.
Dhoni’s father Pan Singh was an employee at MECON Ltd. The setting up of public sector enterprises brought people from all over India to Ranchi, and this included Pan Singh as well, who originally belonged to the Almora district in Uttarkhand.
Jawahar Lal Nehru’s big decision of setting up public sector enterprises and not encouraging entrepreneurship and private business may have cost the country dearly, but it did give us a Mahendra Singh Dhoni. It is unlikely that Dhoni would have become what he has if his father would have continued living in his village in Almora. If it was not for Nehru’s vision which screwed up India, Dhoni might have been a humble farmer in Uttarkhand. Even unintended consequences can be healthy at times.
The other interesting thing that happened starting in the 1980s was that Ranchi started sending an astonishing number of students to the IITs for a city of its size. In the mid 1980s, St Xavier’s College, Ranchi, send in 73 students to the IITs in a single year. And this was before coaching became the norm. What cities like Kota are doing now, Ranchi did in the 1980s.
The year 1983 also saw Ranchi fall to the Hip Hip Hurray phenomenon. Hip Hip Hurray was the first film directed by the now famous director Prakash Jha. And he shot the movie in two schools in Ranchi, Vikas Vidyalaya and the Bishop Westcott. I remember seeing posters of the film being plastered all over the city and the elders being quite excited about a full Hindi film having been shot in the city.
So that was as exciting as the city got while I was growing up there. Another important landmark for Ranchi was in the early 1990s when the entire city did not have power during the peak of summer for a period of 15 days. Rumor mills were abuzz that Lalu Yadav had got the entire thing done, so that power could be transmitted to Patna and other parts of North Bihar, which were reeling under a heat wave. This was the last nail in the coffin for Lalu Yadav and his party when it came to winning elections in Jharkhand.
Dear reader, if you have managed to read this far, you will realise that Ranchi, the city where I and Dhoni grew up in, was a city where nothing much happened. The modern sense of the term being, it was boring. It did have its odd ironies though, like the fact that the most famous shopping complex in the city was owned by the Gossner Evangelical Lutheran Church.
But to me Ranchi will remain the city of dark clouds and rain. And red gulmohar in all its glory. And power cuts. And studying under a kerosene lamp with the hope that power would come back by the time Chitrahar started. And learning tricks of how to rekindle extinguishing candle flames. And listening to the brilliant Ameen Sayani host the Binaca Geet Maala with me making notes of the song rankings. And h
aving sofites at Firayalal. And boarding auto-rickshaws with even nine people at times. All this before it got that man called Mahendra Singh Dhoni.
The trouble with nostalgia is that if it gets too nostalgic, there is a danger of creating a time and a place, which did not exist. So let me stop here.
The article originally appeared on on January 19,2013.

(Vivek Kaul is a writer. He was born and brought up in Ranchi. He can be reached at [email protected]