Comment Writer Jonathan Korn analyses the negativity of our news providers, arguing that we would benefit from a more optimistic outlook on current events
“I always turn to the sports pages first, which records people’s accomplishments. The front page has nothing but man’s failures.”- Earl Warren
Earl Warren had a point. News outlets of all shapes and sizes accentuate the negative and minimise the positive, whilst even the most cheerful stories fall prey to journalistic cynicism and hateful online trolling. Human tragedies, economic slumps and political crises dominate the front pages of our newspapers, websites and social media platforms. Mistakes are magnified and good deeds marginalised. Just look at the stories currently in the headlines. Brexit paralysis and broken Prime Ministerial promises. President Trump’s abandonment of the Kurds in Northern Syria. Racist abuse directed at the Duchess of Sussex and at England football players. The tragic deaths of 39 Vietnamese migrants trapped inside a metal container. These are just snapshots, but they reveal a greater truth. The news, in its current form, is fundamentally negative.
This is obviously not always a bad thing. Papers and TV channels shouldn’t stop reporting on and exposing the very worst that goes on in our society. If a war is raging in Syria or in Yemen, it is nothing less than the duty of news outlets to make sure we know about it. Muckraking journalists couldn’t exactly do their jobs if there was no muck to rake, and most observers would be inclined to agree, for example, that Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein performed an act of heroism when exposing the Nixon administration in the Watergate scandal. However, reporting the good, the bad and the ugly is not the same as reporting the bad, the ugly and the uglier. Reporting bad news is good, but tragedy having a monopoly on the front pages should be a cause for more widespread concern.
You may view this trend as inevitable, and you’d be right to an extent. Mundanity doesn’t sell papers, and morality probably wouldn’t sell many either. No one wants to hear about “The guy who wasn’t stabbed”, or “The countries that didn’t go to war because of brilliant diplomacy and painstakingly negotiated bilateral agreements.” Sensationalist news is exciting, even when it is horrifying. Our eyes are drawn on social media and on TV to stories that pull at our heartstrings, and rightly so. Another problem, more exclusive to tabloids, is that celebrity scandals, especially those of a sexual nature, attract interest. Stories exposing the behaviour of the rich and famous are calculated to appeal to those who relish drama as entertainment; would a similar story of a celebrity donating money to charity raise as much interest, even if given the same number of column inches? Probably not.
The proliferation of social media has increased this problem exponentially. Online trolls, armed with the protection of anonymity and invisibility, freely whip up hatred and poison the well of news even further. Even positive stories are hijacked by bullies with vendettas.
The problem runs deep. Discourse has deteriorated, in part because relentless negativity prevents us from seeing anything but the worst in those we disagree with. Opponents become “traitors”, “scum”, “enemies of the people” or “fascists”, rather than civic-minded people who happen to think differently.
Why does it matter though? What are the real problems when negative news proliferates? I can’t claim to have all the answers, but I’d like to tentatively posit a couple of them.
Firstly it affects our mental well-being. Our society is not in a good place when it comes to mental health. Support services may be improving at a glacier-like pace, but they remain chronically ill-equipped and underfunded. Anorexia is rising, with hospitalizations for eating disorders in children under the age of twelve increasing by 119% between 1999 and 2006. Social media sites, with their streams of glamorous pictures, parties and celebrations, create the appearance of a perfect life, a life its users feel inadequate for not having. Videos offering advice to those thinking of self-harming are not taken down with urgency. In this context, news outlets of all kinds do not help when they saturate the news with negativity. Steven Pinker notes that “Consumers of negative news, not surprisingly, become glum.” If positive reinforcement is one answer to the mental health crisis, the doom and gloom we hear every day is its antithesis. Those already feeling like society is weighing them down could be tipped over the edge by remorseless reminders of society’s ills. Take an example closer to home. The avalanche of posts on Facebook detailing crimes which occur in Selly Oak are undoubtedly motivated by the best of intentions. However, they paint a picture of a crime-ravaged town, and make people scared to walk around on its streets. Since sites like these accentuate the negatives (or our eyes are drawn to them), we gain an excessively gloomy, and often inaccurate, view of the world.
Secondly, news paints an unreliable picture. Bad things happen. However, life is demonstrably better today than ever before. Racial hatred may be alive and kicking, but separate drinking fountains have been consigned to the scrapheap of history. Diseases like smallpox have been eradicated from the face of the earth, and malaria looks set to follow. Vast economic inequalities remain, but millions of people have been lifted out of absolute poverty, particularly in China, as the dream of economic prosperity opens itself up to more people than ever before. Whilst the internet has its pitfalls, the new opportunities we have to communicate with like-minded people outweigh that of any previous generation. As Pinker shows in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature, violence has been declining throughout history (contrary to popular perception), particularly since 1945. The younger generation is at the forefront of a profound shift towards liberalism, as recent polls show there is greater tolerance of the LGBT community today than ever before. Since the news does not operate in long-term trends but in short-term controversy, these overwhelmingly positive developments are not widely talked about. Instead, a relentless stream of negativity makes people think that the world is getting more dangerous and more morally bankrupt, when it isn’t. People become not only misinformed, but excessively frightened, and this fear is capitalised on by extremist politicians of all stripes to peddle hatred and division.
If there are solutions, they certainly aren’t simple. A reset on the language that politicians use is important if we want to remove toxicity from political debate. A greater number of positive stories in more prominent places could help turn the tide. Satire programmes like Mock the Week make us laugh at the news even when we want to cry about it, whilst positive news websites like the Good News Network are a great way to escape from relentless, all-consuming pessimism. We should support these ventures wherever we find them.
Warren’s quote has stood the test of time for too long. It’s time for news outlets to prove him wrong and show everyone that the world isn’t such a terrible place after all.
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