Do journalists have a responsibility for our feelings?
In recent weeks Radio Four's flagship programme, Today, has been criticised for its negative coverage of the security challenges with the London Olympics.
Listeners are fed up, it would appear, with the Olympics being talked down. Today, no doubt, would counter that this is a major story and it is newsworthy.
Just this week, there were news reports of a young boy who managed to board a flight without the appropriate documentation. Again, it's a great story and merits attention.
But if you were thinking of going to the Olympics next week, might you be less inclined to do so as a result of the coverage of security problems. And if coverage creates fear, should journalists be held responsible for the way that they choose to cover particular stories?
Coverage affects behaviour
Research shows that we can be affected by news coverage. Following the Paddington Rail Crash, for a time, fewer of us travelled by train. The same thing happened when planes hit the Twin Towers - plane travel decreased. And when the government announced that there was a link between the birth pill and thrombosis, the use of this form of contraceptive fell in the ensuing months, leading to an increase in unwanted pregnancies.
In all three instances, there was extensive coverage.
But should journalists be aware of the potential emotional impact of their reporting on our feelings and actions?
Journalists could argue that they simply report the facts. But the nature of the reporting can distort our view of reality. For example, violent crime is given a disproportionate amount of coverage. The coverage of crime does not reflect the nature of crime itself. But since the majority of crime is not newsworthy - petty theft, unless it involves a celebrity or a respected figure is not interesting - journalists will focus on things that grab our attention.
The purpose of news, it might be argued, is not just to inform us. There are many things going on in the world but few of them really matter - at least not in terms of the net impact they might have on our lives. News must also entertain us, excite us, make us fearful (in a safe way - this could have happened to you, luckily it didn't) and, we must not forget, make us want to buy more news.
But if our main source of information about the world out there is from the mainstream media (which still outstrip social media in terms of reach and impact), there is a risk that journalists could create unhelpful unintended outcomes.
Take the recession, currently in the news as the UK bumps along the bottom after three quarters of negative growth. It could be argued that continually covering stories of gloom, doom and despondency does nothing to build our confidence in the future. Where we cease to be confident, we cease to spend. Where we voluntarily spend money on things we don't need but want, the economy will grow. But if every time we look at the world through the Media Window we see dark clouds, we might just decide to keep our money in the bank or under the mattress.
It's not that journalists shouldn't cover the recession. It is real and it has real consequences. But the way they choose to cover this running story could have an impact on how we feel. Stories about people who are taking chances and rebuilding their businesses could inspire us all. Tales of entrepreneurs who have triumphed over the tragedy of business failure to emerge again may cause us to believe that things are getting better.
There are many ways to tell stories. Journalists might argue that they put the facts before us and we make up our own minds. But there's no thing as value-neutral reporting. All selections and representations of the world create a perspective. Many stories given wide coverage will create emotional outcomes. News that leaves us unaffected, arguably, isn't news.
Whether those emotional outcomes are intended or not is the point in question. If editors have no regard to how we might feel when they decide how a story should be handled, we may respect their dispassionate analysis of the events that shape our lives.
But if they consciously find the angle that will create the biggest emotional impact, then maybe it's time they thought about the potential long term, corrosive impact of sustained negative news.
Bad news is bad news.
Follow Mark Fletcher-Brown on Twitter: www.twitter.com/morque