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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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.