THE CENTER FOR MEDIA and Public Affairs
did a study on network coverage of murder. Between 1990 and 1995,
the murder rate in this country 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
A research team edited news programs into
three categories: Negative, neutral, or upbeat. People were randomly
assigned to watch one category of news. The ones who watched
the negative news became more depressed, more anxious about the
world in general, and they had a greater tendency to exaggerate
the magnitude or importance of their own personal worries.
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. 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.