The Center for Media and Public Affairs
did a study on network coverage of murder. Between 1990 and 1995,
the murder rate in the U.S. went down 13 percent. But during
that same period, network coverage of murders increased 300 percent.
If you happened to watch a lot of news during that period, you
would probably have gotten the impression that murders in America
were escalating out of control, when in fact that situation was
Between 1990 and 1996, the number of pregnancies
in the United States dropped by 500,000. The most dramatic drop
was for teenagers. During the time it was dropping, we got the
impression teen pregnancies were increasing. People with something
to gain by scaring us, scared us. Those who were trying to convince
parents to teach children stricter morals talked about the teen
pregnancy "epidemic." Those who wanted to do something
about welfare or the school systems trotted out frightening statistics
about teen pregnancy. I never heard at the time, "the situation
is improving." That doesn't scare anybody and doesn't get
ratings. It doesn't compel people to cough up money.
Our brains were not carefully designed.
They weren't designed at all. They evolved and are not
perfect in any sense of the word. The human brain evolved in
a world where it was obviously adaptive to respond to potentially
dangerous information with increased alertness. During the millions
of years of our evolution, there were no advertisers or evening
news programs. We evolved no defense against their negative influence.
So we have a built-in reaction to potential danger and the media
exploits this natural instinct.
Teams of persistent people scour the world
to find the unusual, the shocking, the scary, the things that
will compel the viewers' attention and won't let them turn away
or change the channel. They gather it all up and pack as much
of it into a half hour as they can, giving your brain and nervous
system the impression that this is happening in your world,
and making you feel more threatened and more helpless than you
Studies have shown that most television
news leaves the viewer depressed, because it is primarily bad
news the viewer can do nothing about. The problems shown
on the screen are too big or too far away or too permanent to
do anything about. This sort of news nurtures a pessimistic view
of the world.
A research team edited news programs into
three categories: Negative, neutral, and upbeat. People were
randomly assigned to watch one category of news. The viewers
who watched the negative news became more depressed, more anxious
about the world in general, and had a greater tendency to exaggerate
the magnitude or importance of their own personal worries.
The point of view from which news is presented
is similar to the negative view of depressives.
It is a fact that feelings of helplessness
and hopelessness cause depression and the health problems related to depression. And
studies have shown that the greater majority of network news
is about people with no control over their tragedy. "What
the evening news is telling you," said Christopher Peterson,
one of the first researchers to show that pessimism negatively
affects health, "is that bad things happen, they hit at
random, and there's nothing you can do about it." That is
a formula for pessimism, cynicism, and a generally negative attitude
toward the world and the future.
In one study of network news, 71 percent
of news stories were about people who had very little control
over their fate. This is neither an accurate or a helpful perspective
on the world.
Here's the bottom line: Highly trained
professionals scour the world to find stories like that and the
way the stories are presented gives the impression that those
kinds of events are more common than they really are.
Professor of psychiatry Redford Williams suggests asking yourself
these two questions when you're watching or reading the news:
1. Is this important to me?
2. Is there anything useful I can do about it?
If you answer no to either of those questions, change
the channel or find something
better to read.