“Entertainment has superseded the provision of information; human interest has supplanted the public interest; measured judgment has succumbed to sensationalism.”
- Franklin, ‘B, Newszak and News Media’, (1997)
If you regularly read or watch the news, it’s easy to feel like there’s danger around every corner. Every time you step on the London Underground you’re looking around, trying to identify any suspicious backpacks that could contain bombs. When you walk the streets in the dark of night you quicken your step and plan your escape route if you so much as sense another human close by.
Of course, there is danger around us. But the reporting of this by the media seems distorted, with the majority of news reports and articles negative and focused on crime — making society seem a much more dangerous place than it may actually be in reality.
A 2018 study by University of Amsterdam researchers attempted to discover whether there was truth in this; whether the news did disproportionately represent crime, danger and negativity compared to reality.
The study looked specifically at plane crashes over the previous 24 years, and found that the total number of crashes had reduced over the years due to technological advances. However, they also found that media attention for plane crashes increased significantly over the same time period. So although air travel was actually becoming safer and safer, if you tuned into the news regularly you would be excused for believing that plane crashes were common and deadly. The researchers concluded that:
“News develops a life of its own and that the complex process of news selection and production is partly guided by other factors than reality.”
Terrorism, and particularly Islamic extremism, is something that is extremely prevalent in the media. A Chapman University survey in 2016 found that terrorism was the second highest fear of most Americans (‘corruption of government officials’ was the first). However, The New American Foundation reported that Islamic extremists had actually killed just 94 people between 2005 and 2015.
To put that into perspective, 301,797 people were killed during the same decade by shooting. That means that an average American citizen was 3210 times more likely to die by being shot than in a terrorist attack during this period. And yet, that average American citizen is far more fearful of terrorist attacks than shootings.
The blame doesn’t just lie with the journalists. Today’s media companies are focused on generating profit, and they do this either through subscription fees or by in-platform advertising. Either way, they need their readers to keep clicking through to new articles, and reading them. This means that if media companies see a trend of which articles their readers are clicking on, they’ll simply keep creating more of them. And we love those negative stories.
Psychologists have long been aware of our ‘negativity bias’: we humans pay more attention to negative events and happenings than positive ones. We also tend to remember negative events more than positive, meaning that they stick in our memories and have more of an influence on our ongoing lives. This is (theoretically) with good reason, evolving from a primal need to keep ourselves out of danger . Our brains simply won’t allow us to disregard danger, in the hopes that we will respond to it and keep out of harm’s way.
‘If it bleeds, it leads’ is a common phrase in journalism. And that’s why: those stories of negativity, danger, and crime are guaranteed ways to pull in readers. So those stories have become more ‘newsworthy’ than other, more positive, stories. Take this screenshot from The Guardian website, for instance, which shows the most viewed news stories that day (23 Sept 2019):
There are clear themes in terms of what people are reading, and that’s stories of sexual assault, abuse, and knife stabbings. These are the stories that we’re most attracted to and that we want to read, even though they also make us anxious, sad, and fearful (Johnston & Davey, 2011).
So what can we do about it?
Psychologist Steven Pinker convincingly argued in his 2011 book The Better Angels of Our Nature that, despite what the media tells us, violence has actually been hugely on the decline and that now is the most peaceful time in the whole of history. Wars are less common, capital and corporal punishment are no longer the norm, medical advances mean we live much much longer and healthier lives. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
With that said, I think if you are a regular reader or watcher of The News, it’s worth viewing articles with a critical mind. Be aware of the research outlined here, and know that the portrayal of violence and crime on news outlets is not representative of reality. Be aware that media companies are vying for your click, and that headlines are likely to be sensationalised to get that click.
And if you do feel anxiety or fear after viewing negativity in the news, then try taking a step back and reducing your consumption of the news. I recently deleted The Guardian’s app from my phone and unsubscribed from their email alerts. I can still access news and information if I want to, but it isn’t a constant feature in my day.