Why Does News Lean Toward the Negative?

People who work in the television business are under intense pressure. The competition is unbelievably stiff. In any given hour, a television show is competing with lots of other stations for your attention. When you're watching television — you or any other viewer — it's very easy to change the channel, right? You don't even have to get up out of your chair. A television show is not only competing with other shows, it is competing with anything else you might want to do: Go sailing, read a book, visit a friend.

If a station can't capture enough peoples' attention, the station loses advertising and they go out of business. So a top priority of any television producer is to prevent you from changing the channel. One of the most effective tricks a television producer can use is to scare you. Fear compels attention better than anything else. The threat of danger is captivating, arresting, mesmerizing.

When a station is thinking up ways to let you know about an upcoming program on healthy living, for example, they have a variety of possibilities. They could appeal to your natural desire to be healthier. They could appeal to your self-esteem, implying that watching their program proves you're a good person. And so on. Or they could threaten you with danger.

Here are two possible announcements of the same program; which is more compelling?

1) "Find out if your children are safe from this terrible disease."

2) "Get some health tips from a doctor."

The fear appeal is more upsetting, but it's more likely to get you to watch the program.

Other kinds of appeals work, of course, and television isn't all bad. But it is an important point of vulnerability. You are vulnerable to lamprey invasions (metaphor for pessimism, cynicism, and defeatism) when you watch television because producers and advertisers use fear to compel your attention. They even use certain kinds of voices to tell you about programs coming up. Listen to how the announcer tells you about an upcoming news program or drama. It sounds like he's telling you something of vital, life-saving importance. They do everything they can to make you feel you must watch the program.

In the Christmas movie, Scrooged, Frank Cross (Bill Murray) is a television producer. His staff shows him their latest ad for an upcoming Christmas special. Frank watches it and then gets angry at his staff. They protest: "People like the ad; it's getting a great response."

Frank bursts out, "That isn't good enough! They've got to be so scared to miss it! So terrified!"

Scrooged is a comedy. Frank's response is obviously a joke. But one of the things that makes a joke funny is the truth in it.

Producers and advertisers and television executives read about psychologists' experiments on what holds attention. Unfortunately, the threat of danger does very well in these tests. Our ancestors didn't survive by ignoring danger or potential danger. No animals could survive very long ignoring danger. So our emotional and perceptive systems are on stand-by alert for anything that seems threatening. Add to this the stiff competition between stations and what do you get? You get television stations that try harder and harder to scare you into watching their programs.

What do you think that does to your general perception of the world? What effect do you think it has on your world view?

Television is the most unprecedented point of vulnerability for lamprey invasions that has ever occurred. The television-watching population gets infected with pessimism, cynicism, and defeatism — against their will and without even supposing a single evil intention on the part of anyone.

I'm not saying there are no evil intentions in the television business. I'm sure there are, and I'm equally sure they're a minority. But even if a producer wanted to emphasize good news or create a positive attitude in viewers, or to simply slant the news in a less threatening way, what would happen? Imagine a viewer channel surfing. He'd find pleasant stuff on one channel, and gripping, compelling, threatening, can't-take-my-eyes-off-it stuff on another channel.

Guess which channel will have the most watchers over time (even against the watchers' will). Who will get more money from advertisers? Which station will eventually get taken off the air because it wasn't pulling in enough money from advertisers to support it?

After decades of this kind of competition, what we have are a lot of negative, alarmist, danger-oriented programs. Even some positive programs are advertised using the threat of danger. Television watchers are compelled by millions of years of natural selection to be taken in by it. Television programmers are no more likely to be evil than the rest of us. But like the rest of us, they need to pay their bills. To stay in business, they need to stay on the air. They need to get enough people watching their programs so they can have enough advertising money to keep going.

The result of all these ways of trying to exploit your most fundamental drive for survival is that you get the impression the world is a more dangerous place than it really is. You can easily get the impression things are getting worse, even when things are getting better.

News Infection

If you emphasize some points and play down trivial details when you're telling a story, it makes the story more interesting, more entertaining, or more attractive. Emphasizing some points and underplaying details is called "sharpening and leveling." Because of the pressures people in the media are under, and the fact that they are all competing with each other for your attention, they sharpen and level their stories fairly often, and the result is a misleading view of the world, broadcast to millions.

For example, a student at Duke University named Lee Fried gave an envelope to the president of the university. Supposedly the envelope contained a prediction about an important event.

A week later, the envelope was opened. Inside was a description of two 747 jet airliners that crashed into each other. The event had happened that week, killing 583 people. Astounding!

News media people interviewed Lee Fried. In the interviews, Fried told the interviewers that he was a magician and the "prophesy" was just a magic trick. The magician James Randi tried to find all the newspapers that covered the story. He found seventeen. Only one of those newspapers passed along the "trivial" detail that it was a magic trick.

In the process of making a story more compelling, sometimes stories fail to give an accurate impression of what really happened.

Along the same lines, Michael Kinsley, writing in Slate.com says U.S. citizens are suffering from a terrible sickness called social hypochondria. This is an unreasonable terror of horrible diseases and trends that are wiping out or traumatizing huge numbers of Americans. Child abuse, suicides, teen pregnancies, cloning, whatever. Americans are worried. Why? Is it because we're stupid? Gullible? Prone to anxiety? Or because we have enough wealth and leisure to watch enough television programming that results in the seemingly legitimate point of view that the world is a frightening, dangerous place?

I remember once asking thirty-four people I worked with whether they thought the world was going to be a better or a worse place a hundred years from now. Thirty-three said worse. I couldn't believe it.

If you get your information about the world primarily from the evening news, you'd definitely say "worse." If your main source of news is Scientific American, you'd definitely say "better." Why? Science is all about solving problems.

Think about the headlines you normally see in any given newspaper. The most common kind of headline says something terrible has happened or is happening or is about to happen. Contrast that with some headlines from a typical ScienceDaily (an email update on what scientists are working on) for the week of January 7th to 11th, 2002:








I didn't give you all the headlines for that issue. There were fifty in all. But you get the idea. A few were negative findings, some were neutral (about the composition of the sun or primordial air). But as you can see, the overall impression is that things are being found out and problems are being solved. Smart people are spending their time making the world a better place. That is an entirely different impression than you get from television news.

You're not just getting facts from news sources. You're getting a feeling about the world you live in, and often that feeling is not an accurate reflection of the world. The more you know about how it works, the easier it will be for you to protect yourself against a "pessimism infection."

When Newscasters Catastrophize For Profit

I was watching CNN'S "Situation Room" today. They were covering the story of the collapsed Minneapolis bridge. I try to avoid programs like that, but it was right in front of me when I was on an exercise machine. As much as I've ranted about the media's negative bias, I was still amazed. Every statement they made and every question they asked seemed overloaded with catastrophizing. They tried their best to make the worst of everything. Yes, it was an unfortunate event, but they made it as upsetting and disturbing from as many different angles as they could.

The word "catastrophize" was coined by cognitive-behavioral therapists to describe one of the errors people make in their thinking that makes them upset needlessly. It is a style of thinking used by people who suffer from anxiety disorders and depression. It leads to unnecessary misery. Catastrophizing makes mountains out of molehills.

Remember one of the ways to protect yourself from a pessimism infection is to question the motives of the source of your information. A news producer's motives may not be evil, but they may not be in your best interests. Newscasters and news producers catastrophize to make a story more dramatic, or to find the alarming angle to a story. They're trying to get your attention. They're trying to get you to keep watching and not change the channel. They're trying to get their story on the air rather someone else's story.

In other words, they are motivated by ambition and competition, which is fine for them but when you watch it and listen to it, you are tainted by it because while you watch, you are not only getting facts, you are also getting a perspective. You're getting a point of view. In this case, you're getting a cynically pessimistic worldview that shines a spotlight on every possible negative, alarming, upsetting angle they can find.

I've talked a lot about thought-mistakes, otherwise known as "cognitive distortions." These are mistakes all of us make. The reason we make these kinds of mistakes in our thinking is that the human brain is wired up a certain way, which makes us 1) very intelligent compared to other animals, and 2) prone to certain kinds of mistakes.

Researchers and therapists have listed these thought-mistakes in various ways, and all the lists cover the same ground but divide it up differently. Catastrophizing is a combination of overgeneralization, black-or-white thinking, exaggerating, false implications, and negative guessing.

In other words, these catastrophizing news programs are literally sick. Mentally unhealthy. For your own sanity, I strongly urge you to stay away from them, no matter how tempting it may be to watch.

You may be surprised that something so negative could be "tempting." But our brains are tuned to survival. And potentially dangerous information is keenly sought by your brain. If something seems scary or upsetting, your brain will pay attention, and that's exactly why these news programs use it. So it "sucks you in," sometimes against your will. Your brain overrides your conscious will if survival seems to be at stake, just as you cannot kill yourself by holding your own breath.

So if those news programs are in the vicinity, you almost can't help but watch. They are too tempting in a negative sort of way. So don't allow them in your vicinity if you can help it. If you want to find out what's going on in the world without having to be exposed to the catastrophizing pessimism, I highly recommend The Week. It is not "positive news," but it doesn't go out of its way to alarm, anger, or frighten you. It only informs you.

The media is one form of negative bias you are exposed to. Find out what the other three are and what you can do about them by clicking here.

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.

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