Spotlight

Description

The Spotlight fallacy is committed when a person uncritically assumes that all members or cases of a certain class or type are like those that receive the most attention or coverage in the media. This line of "reasoning" has the following form:

Xs with quality Q receive a great deal of attention or coverage in the media.
Therefore all Xs have quality Q.

This line of reasoning is fallacious since the mere fact that someone or something attracts the most attention or coverage in the media does not mean that it automatically represents the whole population. For example, suppose a mass murderer from Old Town, Maine received a great deal of attention in the media. It would hardly follow that everyone from the town is a mass murderer.

The Spotlight fallacy derives its name from the fact that receiving a great deal of attention or coverage is often referred to as being in the spotlight. It is similar to Hasty Generalization, Biased Sample and Misleading Vivideness because the error being made involves generalizing about a population based on an inadequate or flawed sample.

The Spotlight Fallacy is a very common fallacy. This fallacy most often occurs when people assume that those who receive the most media attention actually represent the groups they belong to. For example, some people began to believe that all those who oppose abortion are willing to gun down doctors in cold blood simply because those incidents received a great deal of media attention. Since the media typically covers people or events that are unusual or exceptional, it is somewhat odd for people to believe that such people or events are representative.

For brief discussions of adequate samples and generalizations, see the entries for Hasty Generalization and Biased Sample.
 

Examples

Bill: "Jane, you say you are a feminist, but you can't be."
Jane: "What! What do you mean? Is this one of your stupid jokes or something?"
Bill: "No, I'm serious. Over the summer I saw feminists appear on several talk shows and news shows and I read about them in the papers. The women were really bitter and said that women were victims of men and needed to be given special compensation. You are always talking about equal rights and forging your own place in the world. So, you can't be a feminist."
Jane: "Bill, there are many types of feminism, not just the brands that get media attention."
Bill: "Oh. Sorry."

Joe: "Man, I'd never want to go to New York. It is all concrete and pollution."
Sam: "Not all of it."
Joe: "Sure it is. Every time I watch the news they are always showing concrete skyscrapers, and lots of pollution."
Sam: "Sure, that is what the news shows, but a lot of New York is farmlands and forest. It is not all New York City, it just receives most of the attention."

Ann: "I'm not letting little Jimmy use his online account anymore!"
Sasha: "Why not? Did he hack into the Pentagon and try to start world war three?"
Ann: "No. Haven't you been watching the news and reading the papers? There are perverts online just waiting to molest kids! You should take away your daughter's account. Why, there must be thousands of sickos out there!"
Sasha: "Really? I thought that there were only a very few cases."
Ann: "I'm not sure of the exact number, but if the media is covering it so much, then most people who are online must be indecent."