Our family gets together every Sunday for dinner at my aunt's house. It's been a tradition since before I can remember, and I really enjoy the opportunity to reconnect with my loved ones. Last Sunday, I found myself seated next to my 93-year-old grandmother at the dinner table. She's lived through so much and has an incredible amount of knowledge locked up in her brain; I have yet to speak with her without learning something new about the world, or my family.
However, she caught me off guard this weekend when she said, quite plainly, "The world is going to hell." I was stunned. Here's a woman who has lived through some of the scariest times in our history, yet today she claims everything has changed and we're on a catastrophic course. I listened as she rattled off events happening in other parts of the country and the world: the economic meltdown of 2007-2009, terror attacks in Paris, and civil unrest over plans to exit the European Union.
Then the news broke on Wednesday that an EgyptAir A320 had disappeared over the Mediterranean Sea. Immediately the news services (cable, radio and internet) went into overdrive reporting on every speculation and development (along with a lot of non-developments). As I watched how the news outlets gorged on the story, a thought creeped into my consciousness. What if the reason my grandmother has such a dim view of the world is because she is glued to TV news and the morning paper? What if the world view she has been given, through second-hand accounting, is being impacted more by ratings than by facts and balance?
1. Sensationalized Headlines
As you scroll through the homepages of online news sites, and even the morning paper, you'll see sensational headlines designed to grab reader attention. According to Medical Daily, "...the things covered by the media are usually what get the most attention - death, accidents and war." To stay in business, and outperform the competition, news providers must attract viewership; driving ad-revenue.
For example, an article in Reuters covering the disappearance of EgyptAir MS804 starts off with the header: "EgyptAir jet vanishes after mid-air plunge over Mediterranian." The title draws an image in the reader's mind of a plane violently crashing back to earth after a tragic accident. The article quotes multiple government officials, who at the time of the interview have very limited information, speculating that the cause of the crash is probably related to terrorism.
2. Fear-Based Context
International context is provided in the Reuters article by quoting the Los Angeles Airport Police: "In light of the disappearance of EgyptAir Flight MS804, we have heightened our security posture and enhanced our counter-terrorism security measures." The author inserted a quote from a law enforcement official literally half way around the globe. I would speculate that the reason for cherry-picking this particular quote is that if includes "counter-terrorism" and "heightened...security posture".
Adding context to articles that increases fear and anxiety helps hook the reader, causing a subconscious need to read the entire article for more information.
3. Agenda-Driven News
When news outlets are between catastrophic events that drive ratings, an increasing number of news sources are becoming opinion-driven. Their goal is to cater to loyal target audiences that will consistently tune into their programming. To gain audience loyalty, a news station needs to identify what the viewers believe in and care about. Once they know how to appeal to viewer bias, they can shape their presentation to reinforce those views. This ideological reinforcement leads viewers to believe the news their watching is "better" and "more honest".
One of the largest television news markets in the world is the United States. In fact, the reach of US news media travels far beyond its borders. Television viewers in a multitude of countries can subscribe to packages that provide live streams of US cable news, like Fox News, CNN or MSNBC. In areas where a traditional cable connection isn't available, online streaming is likely an option.
To hold onto their biased viewership, news media relies on painting the opposite side negatively. The reason is simple. As reported in an article from the Proctor Gallagher Institute, "...[people] store bad memories more easily, and recall them more frequently." If you want an audience to remember what you're telling them, or in the case of news media, where they got it, you need to provide the audience with palatable bad memories that conform to their pre-existing bias.
This is one of the many reasons that Fox News is reportedly the highest-rated news network in the United States. They have perfected the art of crafting a palatable, memorable message to their viewing audience. In the UK, the laws governing television news are a bit different from the US and limit outright political bias. But, have no fear, the newspapers in the UK more than make-up for the lack of political spin in TV news.
The Daily Mail is reportedly the most-read newspaper in the UK. It's known for its unabashed conservative, right-wing leanings. The Daily Mirror comes in second place, with a strong tilt to the liberal, left-wing political readership. This alone tells you that news sources with a goal of becoming the most read need to have a targeted, somewhat biased approach to news coverage.
This bias, when combined with sensational headlines and anxiety-inducing content can lead viewers to feel like the world is far worse off than it really is. I promise, there are great things happening in your local community every day, if only you're willing to put down the paper and turn off the TV, choosing instead to experience the world for yourself.