Viewpoint: TV News Shouldn’t Hype Powerball

Incessant coverage by the media feeds the lottery myth and preys on the poor, argues the former president of ABC News

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EDUARDO MUNOZ / REUTERS

A woman buys a Powerball lottery ticket at a convenience store in New York City, on Aug. 7, 2013.

The media may not be telling us much these days about radical Islam in Nigeria or corruption in our local city or town, but there’s one story that no one can escape: the Powerball lottery drawing. Last week, the most recent Powerball awarded $448 million in winnings, the third highest in history (so far). And the networks were all over it.

We learned that a third of the pot will go to a group dubbed the Ocean’s 16, employees at a garage in New Jersey that normally services state vehicles but who took some time out to buy some lottery tickets. We learned that another third will go to Paul White, a project engineer from Minnesota, who will use some of his new wealth to buy his father’s first car, a 1963 Chevy Impala. And, we’re just a bit frustrated that we don’t yet know where the remaining millions are heading. But rest assured, once the winner or winners come forward, we’ll hear the story in great detail.

Everyone loves to hear about ordinary people who turn into millionaires overnight. It’s hardly any wonder, then, that lottery stories lead the national and local newscasts across the U.S., spawning countless human-interest stories about the people who won, the people close to the people who won, and even the people who sold the tickets to the people who won. You can’t blame the news outlets; they’re giving us just what we want.

But the media are only covering part of the story. What we don’t learn is that these Powerball lotteries raise enormous amounts of money for the 43 states that participate — and they do it through an exorbitant tax on everyone who buys the tickets. Experts estimate that, for every dollar spent on lottery tickets, only about 50 cents goes to the prizes, about 12 cents goes to run the lottery, and the remaining 38 cents goes to the state — a much higher take for “the house” than you’d find in Las Vegas or Atlantic City.

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An astonishing 60% of the overall population buys lottery tickets, and in general we all spend about the same amount regardless of how much we have. This means that the lottery states are taking proportionately more from the poor than they are from the rich. And many studies show in different ways that the poor are substantially overrepresented in spending their money on lotteries. For every big winner, there are tens of millions of the least fortunate among us who are frittering away what little they have in the hopes that, against all odds, they may improve their lives.

The media make things worse by hyping the winners of the lotteries nonstop across all outlets. Not only does the incessant coverage feed the myth that you, too, can be a winner, but it amounts to one of the biggest promotional giveaways around today. The state lotteries couldn’t buy the sort of publicity being given to them for free on TV news. You may think that state lotteries are a good thing or a bad thing, but by covering only the good — and none of the bad — the media are no longer just reporting a news story. They’re urging us all to join in the frenzy.

16 comments
jmorseva
jmorseva

Play 1 you are a dreamer ... 2 (or more) you are a sucker.  When I play at high $$$ I am buying a chance to imagine I am mega rich for a few days, which is good entertainment per hour for a $1 (I won't pay more than $1).  Otherwise media coverage should really say what the real range of return on a ticket is ( $0.10-0.20?) and say that $400M is not the cash amount and is pre-tax - which makes it more like $150 M, and is split on average for big jackpots so its $75M.  But it is a easy minute of news chit chat so they don't need to cover anything real ... 

Mr.Equity
Mr.Equity

Its the only tax most of these people pay so I am all for it!

yangescat
yangescat

why do you mention that the workers 'took some time out from work' to buy the tickets?  what does that have to do with anything?

NebuchadnezzarII
NebuchadnezzarII

We call playing the lotto "contributing to the Redneck Retirement Fund". ;> I wouldn't play Powerball anyway, just looking at the winner location histories, it seems that an abnormally large percentage of winners are found east of the Mississippi, so if I played anything it would be an in-state lotto....

clell65619
clell65619

As it's been noted elsewhere, the Lottery is a tax on people who can't do math.  Acting surprised that so little of the funds garnered by the lottery return to the 'players' is a bit simplistic.

hivemaster
hivemaster

People play lottery because they've given up on using the system to move up.  It's really that simple.

frustrated_by_ignorance
frustrated_by_ignorance

Okay so I agree that lottery winner get way too much media coverage and understand why people can be against the lottery. And I take issue with things that inherently take advantage of the less fortunate. But getting mad at the government for taking a larger share of the profit is missing the point of why states legalize lotteries in the first place. They get money. The money goes to help programs in the state, usually education. Now you can definitely argue that the money is then not spent well but that's a different story. And if you buy a lottery ticket, then you know what you might win. You can't miss those giant billboards. It is ridiculous to think that more of your $1 should go back to you. You chose to play the lottery. The rules are simple. You buy a ticket for the set price, if you win you get the prize that was stated before you bought the ticket. If you look at the amount of money that winners have spent and compare it to what they have won, it's a pretty small investment with a gigantic return (at least in the big lotteries). If you invested 10,000 dollars in one year on lottery tickets and won 100 million, that would be a 10,000% return on your investment. Not bad.

Denesius
Denesius

Come on guys, it's not a racket. If it was a take on food, or transportation, then I'd agree. It's a lottery ticket for Gods sake, hardly a necessity in life. So the dummies of the world go out & buy tickets hoping to strike it rich. If you didn't have the lottery, they'd be betting on horses, or marbles or something else. Let's enjoy the benefits of the money that comes into the government coffers, and quit whining about the disproportionate amount that comes out of the pockets of the poor. At least we're giving them the dream that they MAY strike it rich, and the dream keeps them happy & content. I can't think of a better revenue stream.

hummingbird
hummingbird

I have been saying the same thing as we know most people will never, ever win the lottery. I started switching channels yesterday as I got tired of seeing and hearing about the Ocean's 16. So many people have wasted money on the MANY lottery games that they could have invested in something that would give them positive results.

datapower.development
datapower.development

Lotteries are a tax on the stupid or at least a tax on the mathematically unqualified. Small world theory assures that many know someone who knows someone who won. But one thing is for sure you have a far greater chance of dying this week than winning.

ptcruiser5850
ptcruiser5850

The "real" story is government's take of this "numbers" racket.

Article19
Article19

you describe winning the lottery as a "myth" which is "a widely held but false belief or idea". since your story describes people "winning" the lottery and people "win" lotteries all over the world on a weekly basis then it follows that "winning" a lottery is not at all mythical. it's hard, depending on the lottery game, but winning a lottery is a very real thing and not at all mythical. yes, lotteries, especially scratch card games, are used more by lower income people but you discredit your own writing when you drop in the hyperbole and make completely false statements.

hivemaster
hivemaster

@NebuchadnezzarII Until a couple of years ago when PB an MM ended their territorial agreements, most of the Powerball states WERE East of the Mississipppi.  There hasn't been enough of a sample with the newly added Western states to show a clear trend.  There has never been a winner from TX, but I don't expect that to continue with it being the 3rd most populous state.

hivemaster
hivemaster

@hummingbird Like what, if you live in "the 'hood"?  I'm thinking if I'm hearing gunfire and knowing people who are killed, I'm going to buy some lotto...

halothane
halothane

@datapower.development   Please do us all a favor and stop eating the paint chips.  "Mathematically unqualified"?  What in the he** does that mean?  Oh and by the way it has nothing to do with math Einstein and everything to do with statistics.