Profit of Doom: Why the Media Has a Negative Bias

It started out innocently enough. I asked a friend of mine whether he thought the world would be a better or a worse place a hundred years from now. "Worse," he said. We had a short conversation about it and then went on about our business.

A few days later, he said he wanted me to look at a magazine called Colors. Published in Italy, it illustrated some of our global problems graphically. For example, on the back cover were two pictures: One was a man in a polyester jump suit standing on a well-manicured lawn with a nice house in the background, and he was feeding a tidbit to his well-groomed poodle. The other picture was five young boys, dirty and ragged, living in a hole in a street.

The magazine did a good job contrasting how wealthy many of us are in industrialized countries with how horribly many people live in developing countries.

Later, my friend asked me how I liked the magazine.

I replied, "It was disturbing."

"It's real!" he said with a kind of I'm-not-afraid-of-facing-the-truth-like-most-people self-righteousness.

What disturbed me was not the reality of it. I'm well aware how miserably much of the world lives compared to how even a poor American lives. What bothered me was that the "information" in the magazine was delivered in a context of hopelessness. There wasn't any indication anywhere in the magazine that you, the reader, could do anything about it. "The world is a horrible place," it seemed to say, "and you are helpless to effect it."

If the information had been delivered in the spirit of, "Here's some bad news, but here's what you can do about it," the same information might have been motivating.

But if a reader feels helpless about global problems or thinks the situation is hopeless, the reader would be better off not reading it, and I'll tell you why.

Studies have shown that most television news leaves the viewer depressed because it is primarily bad news that 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.

In an experiment, a research team edited news programs into three categories: Negative, neutral, or upbeat. People were randomly assigned to watch one category of news. The ones 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 bias of depressives. It is a fact that feelings of helplessness and hopelessness cause health problems. And studies have shown that the greater majority of network news is about people with no control over their tragedy. Christopher Peterson, one of the first researchers to show that pessimism negatively effects health, said, "What the evening news is telling you 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 their inevitable result: anxiety and depression.

In one study of network news, seventy-one percent of the news stories were about people who had very little control over their fate. This is neither an accurate nor a helpful perspective on the world. 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.

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 thirteen percent. But during that same period, network coverage of murders increased three hundred 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.

Pessimism produces a feeling of helplessness. Pessimism leads very directly to depression and anxiety, mild or severe. This is not just an opinion. Lots of research has been done on this subject. A tremendous amount of evidence exists and it all points in the same direction. Pessimism makes people less capable of acting effectively, even in their own best interests. It produces apathy, hopelessness, and lethargy.

Pessimism is bad for your health, and bad for the planet because pessimism not only saps motivation to take constructive action, it is contagious.

Raw, in-your-face reality is fine but is only halfway there. The other half is what can be done about it? If nothing can be done about it, why tell anyone? If something can be done about it, why not give that news too? It is a crime against humanity to do otherwise.

Because of the shock value and attention-getting power of tragedy, horror, and cruel irony, a pessimistic, unconstructive attitude is infecting the minds of more and more people.


A survey by the Harvard School of Public Health found that although a person's risk of getting seriously injured in a car accident is only about five percent, most people believed it was more like fifty percent. Men thought they had a one in three chance of getting prostrate cancer, but it is actually more like one in ten. Women thought they had a forty percent chance of getting breast cancer when actually it's more like ten percent. And for diabetes, HIV and strokes, most people thought they had twice the chance as they actually do. That's a lot of unnecessary and unwarranted worry and anxiety.

Where do you think we get these worries? Newscasters have a vested interest in scaring the bejeezus out of us.

Many forms of media besides television use fear to capture your attention or motivate you to buy. Why? Because it works. A scary sentence or image arrests attention better than an interesting, helpful, or entertaining sentence or image.

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 news media. If there had been, we might have evolved some defense against them. But we haven't. So we have a built-in reaction to potential danger. News media and advertisers exploit those natural instincts — they use our instincts against us for their selfish purposes.

This is not an indictment against the people in the news business. This is just a description of how things work out when you have different channels competing against each other for viewers and advertisers. There are quality programs and plenty of journalists with integrity, bless them, but they can't stay on the air unless they compete successfully against the competition.

You can fight it if you want. Write your congressmen, boycott products, etc. But you know what? It will continue anyway because it will evolve on the basis of "survival of the fittest."

To see how this works, let's imagine a major ban on scaring people with advertisements. Imagine it becomes illegal. What would happen? Some would use other appeals, as many do now. But others would simply use scare tactics more subtly and even though it was subtle, it would still have more attention-arresting power than other appeals, so it would bring in money to the company that uses it, thus producing more offspring than its rivals (more clients for the advertising company). This new mutant would spread and propagate, just like bacteria exposed to an antibiotic that kills all but a few organisms which just happen to have a little resistance to the antibiotic. The drug has killed off the mutant's rivals, leaving the field clear to reproduce without competition.

What good does it do you to know this? Simply this: You subject yourself voluntarily to adrenaline-inducing sources when you watch the news or watch TV with commercials or read a newspaper. And you can reduce your general perception of the world as a scary place by spending more time dealing with reality — solid reality like your neighborhood, your friends, your real life — and less time in the artificially-selected, artificially-created, designed-for-impact world of the news media and advertisements.

Specifically, I recommend canceling your subscription to the newspapers, not listening to news on the car radio, never watching television news, watching rented movies rather than TV, and getting your news from a clean source (for example, I use Google's news service — I tell it what kind of news I want and that's all they send me, ad-free).

I've had many debates with friends of mine about the virtues of "knowing what's going on in the world." It is of doubtful value. It is a common belief, almost as universal as was "people can't fly" before the invention of airplanes. If you have that belief, I invite you to really examine its merit and I think you'll find it comes up short. It is probably another fear-tactic used by the news media: "Something bad will happen to you if you don't know what's going on in the world."

I haven't read a newspaper or watched TV news or listened to it on the radio for about 18 years now, except for very few brief glimpses, and nothing bad has happened to me. And something good has happened: I have saved myself from being steeped in a world view that makes the world a scarier, more depressing, and more dangerous place than it really is.

Keeping abreast of current events gives workmates something to talk about besides the weather, but that's not much of a benefit, considering the cost of living your life in a frightening world, which from what I've seen is the end-product of years of "keeping up on the news."

Because of the constant use of scare-tactics to arrest attention — to get you to watch channel six's news rather than channel five's — the end result after years of this is a general world view that would never have formed if the only thing you dealt with was the real world you live in.

You don't need it. Give your adrenal glands a break.

Adam Khan is the author of Self-Reliance, Translated and Principles For Personal Growth. Follow his podcast, The Adam Bomb.

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