The Center for Media and Public Affairs did a study on network coverage of murder. Between 1990 and 1995, the murder rate in the U.S. went down 13 percent. But during that same period, network coverage of murders increased 300 percent. If you happened to watch a lot of news during that period, you would probably have gotten the impression that murders in America were escalating out of control, when in fact the situation was improving.
Between 1990 and 1996, the number of pregnancies in the United States dropped by 500,000. The most dramatic drop was for teenagers. During the time it was dropping, we got the impression teen pregnancies were increasing. People with something to gain by scaring us, scared us. Those who were trying to convince parents to teach children stricter morals talked about the teen pregnancy "epidemic." Those who wanted to do something about welfare or the school systems trotted out frightening statistics about teen pregnancy. I never heard at the time, "the situation is improving." That doesn't scare anybody and doesn't get ratings. It doesn't compel people to cough up money.
Our brains were not carefully designed. They weren't designed at all. They evolved and are not perfect in any sense of the word. The human brain evolved in a world where it was obviously adaptive to respond to potentially dangerous information with increased alertness. During the millions of years of our evolution, there were no advertisers or evening news programs. We evolved no defense against their negative influence. So we have a built-in reaction to potential danger and the media exploits this natural instinct.
Teams of persistent people scour the world to find the unusual, the shocking, the scary, the things that will compel the viewers' attention and won't let them turn away or change the channel. They gather it all up and pack as much of it into a half hour as they can, giving your brain and nervous system the impression that this is happening in your world, and making you feel more threatened and more helpless than you really are.
Studies have shown that most television news leaves the viewer depressed, because it is primarily bad news the viewer can do nothing about. The problems shown on the screen are too big or too far away or too permanent to do anything about. This sort of news nurtures a pessimistic view of the world.
A research team edited news programs into three categories: Negative, neutral, and upbeat. People were randomly assigned to watch one category of news. The viewers who watched the negative news became more depressed, more anxious about the world in general, and had a greater tendency to exaggerate the magnitude or importance of their own personal worries.
The point of view from which news is presented is similar to the negative view of depressives.
It is a fact that feelings of helplessness and hopelessness cause depression and the health problems related to depression. And studies have shown that the greater majority of network news is about people with no control over their tragedy. "What the evening news is telling you," said Christopher Peterson, one of the first researchers to show that pessimism negatively affects health, "is that bad things happen, they hit at random, and there's nothing you can do about it." That is a formula for pessimism, cynicism, and a generally negative attitude toward the world and the future.
In one study of network news, 71 percent of news stories were about people who had very little control over their fate. This is neither an accurate or a helpful perspective on the world.
Here's the bottom line: Highly trained professionals scour the world to find stories like that and the way the stories are presented gives the impression that those kinds of events are more common than they really are.
Professor of psychiatry Redford Williams suggests asking yourself these two questions when you're watching or reading the news:
1. Is this important to me?
2. Is there anything useful I can do about it?
If you answer no to either of those questions, change the channel or find something better to read.
Adam Khan is the author of Antivirus For Your Mind: How to Strengthen Your Persistence and Determination and Feel Good More Often and co-author with Klassy Evans of How to Change the Way You Look at Things (in Plain English). Follow his podcast, The Adam Bomb.