Spotlight Fallacy

Also Called:

  • Misleading Vividness
  • The Volvo Fallacy

A close cousin to the Anecdotal Fallacy. The Spotlight Fallacy is making a generalization based on how much news coverage a subject gets. This is fallacious because the news media tends to focus heavily on events that are less common in real life. However, because the news covers them so extensively, it's an easy mistake to make.

It's said that "'Dog Bites Man' is not news; 'Man Bites Dog' is news." Using that example, this trope is when somebody assumes that men biting dogs is more common than the reverse, because it appears in the papers more often.

Compare The New Rock & Roll.


  • News media often seize upon similar stories in the wake of a large event; for example, following a story of a very rare unprovoked attack by an urban fox in Britain, newspapers are covering a far more minor case of a child who was bitten after pulling a fox's tail. Such spates of similar stories create an impression that a massive problem exists, when the only real difference is that every event is now being reported on.
  • School shootings are given extensive media coverage and are a common fear for parents; in fact, even in the USA they are so rare that a US child is more likely to be struck by lightning than to be killed by a mass-murderer (let alone one who targets a school). Needless to say, for the 95% of us who don't live in the USA that chance is several dozen times less likely still - to the point that you'd be wiser to fear sharks and vending machines.

    Moreover, some shootings get hyped more than others: to hear some reporters talk during the wall-to-wall coverage of the Columbine shootings, one would think school shootings had never happened before then. In fact, several students had been shot in schools in previous years. The reason their shootings didn't get so much coverage? Most of these took place in poor inner-city schools in high-crime neighborhoods with a high percentage of racial minorities, and were the regrettable but predictable results of violent gang activity. Columbine was only extraordinary due to the shootings taking place in a better funded suburban school serving a relatively wealthy and low-crime neighborhood populated mostly by white people, where gang violence was all but nonexistent.
  • Parents are terrified of their children being abducted by strangers, due to overwhelming coverage of such events (think Elizabeth Smart). However, the vast majority of kidnappings are committed by immediate family members or close friends.
  • Many people are scared of flying since plane crashes are covered almost every time one happens; car crashes are much rarer in the news. Multi-car pileups and fatalities are occasionally covered but still uncommon. But it is about 200 times more likely for a person to die in a car crash than in a plane crash, even taking into account that people spend much more time driving than flying.
  • Summer of the Shark. Due to the national coverage of a shark attack on a young boy in 2001, coverage was given to every attack that happened for the next few months, and it only stopped because of 9/11. Shark attacks were actually down from 85 to 76, and there were only 5 shark-related deaths in 2001 compared to 12 the previous year. It has also been said that that was the lowest number of shark attacks in a decade.
  • Many people assume by default (or joke) that all Catholic priests are Pedophile Priests, even though only a few dozen priests have been convicted for the crime of sexually assaulting children - the vast majority of Catholic priests who sexually assaulted people targeted vulnerable teenagers and adults (exclusively). Leaving aside the questions of why they did it (delight in holding such power over people, lack of empathy/compassion, lust) and why the Church would do its damnedest to cover it up and avoid bringing the criminals to justice or compensating the victims (reputation to uphold, budget to balance, genuine faith criminals could be reformed) , this makes perfect sense: only a tiny minority of the population (1-2%) are sexually attracted to children. That this statistic should be reflected in the number of kids raped by Catholic priests is fair enough, when you think about it.
  • Similarly, the number of reports of school teachers caught molesting their students has skyrocketed with the advent of the internet. The number of reports has—not necessarily the amount of molestation going on or the number or proportion of child-molesting teachers to teachers in general. There's a bit of False Cause in play here as well, as the rising number of reports may be for any number of reasons: better monitoring and oversight means child-molesting teachers get caught sooner and more often, reformed social attitudes mean victims' complaints are more likely to be believed and acted upon a lot sooner, and various new media are even more eager than the old media outlets to report and keep a Long List of incidents involving child-molesting teachers. In the case of both the priests and the teachers, it's also worth noting that child molesters naturally tend to gravitate to positions that grant them access to potential victims; as such, religious and secular educators are likely to have more child molesters among them than, say, cleaners or desk jockeys or workers in any other primarily grownup-oriented occupational field.
  • This fallacy can be exploited for advertising purposes. For example, for quite a while virtually every computer in a movie or television show was a Mac, despite the fact that more people still use Windows.
  • If It Bleeds, It Leads also tends to fuel this trope. With all the crime reports you see on television, do you ever get the impression that crime rates must be worse than ever? Sometimes crime rates have increased, but don't go jumping to conclusions: one reason you see more reports of crime these days is because the ubiquity of cell phones and other easily portable cameras has made capturing footage of crimes in progress a lot easier, while the rise of the internet has made disseminating these reports to the public a lot easier too. In many cases, the actual crime rates have actually decreased somewhat even as the number of crime reports has increased astronomically.
  • Whenever a band or musician becomes controversial, it's very common for parents/teachers to become scared and assume that one band/musician represents all popular music. Even though only a select few popular bands ever become controversial, and in many instances, the ones who do become controversial aren't nearly as popular (or as outrageous) as their media coverage would have you think.