People who work in the television business
are under intense pressure. The competition is unbelievably stiff.
In any given hour, a television show is competing with lots of
other stations for your attention. When you're watching television
you or any other viewer it's very easy to change
the channel, right? You don't even have to get up out of your
chair. A television show is not only competing with other shows,
it is competing with anything else you might want to do: Go sailing,
read a book, visit a friend.
If a station can't capture enough peoples'
attention, the station loses advertising and they go out of business.
So a top priority of any television producer is to prevent you
from changing the channel. One of the most effective tricks a
television producer can use is to scare you. Fear compels attention
better than anything else. The threat of danger is captivating,
When a station is thinking up ways to let
you know about an upcoming program on healthy living, for example,
they have a variety of possibilities. They could appeal to your
natural desire to be healthier. They could appeal to your self-esteem,
implying that watching their program proves you're a good person.
And so on. Or they could threaten you with danger.
Here are two possible announcements of
the same program; which is more compelling?
1) "Find out if your children are
safe from this terrible disease."
2) "Get some health tips from a doctor."
The fear appeal is more upsetting, but
it's more likely to get you to watch the program.
Other kinds of appeals work, of course,
and television isn't all bad. But it is an important point of
vulnerability. You are vulnerable to lamprey invasions (metaphor for pessimism,
cynicism, and defeatism) when you watch television because producers
and advertisers use fear to compel your attention. They even
use certain kinds of voices to tell you about programs coming
up. Listen to how the announcer tells you about an upcoming news
program or drama. It sounds like he's telling you something of
vital, life-saving importance. They do everything they can to
make you feel you must watch the program.
In the Christmas movie, Scrooged,
Frank Cross (Bill Murray) is a television producer. His staff
shows him their latest ad for an upcoming Christmas special.
Frank watches it and then gets angry at his staff. They protest:
"People like the ad; it's getting a great response."
Frank bursts out, "That isn't good
enough! They've got to be so scared to miss it! So terrified!"
is a comedy. Frank's response is obviously a joke. But one of
the things that makes a joke funny is the truth in it.
Producers and advertisers and television
executives hire read about psychologists' experiments on what
holds attention. Unfortunately, the threat of danger does very
well in these tests. Our ancestors didn't survive by ignoring
danger or potential danger. No animals could survive very long
ignoring danger. So our emotional and perceptive systems are
on stand-by alert for anything that seems threatening. Add to
this the stiff competition between stations and what do you get?
You get television stations that try harder and harder to scare
you into watching their programs.
What do you think that does to your general
perception of the world? What effect do you think it has on your
Television is the most unprecedented point
of vulnerability for lamprey invasions that has ever occurred.
The television-watching population gets infected with pessimism,
cynicism, and defeatism against their will and without
even supposing a single evil intention on the part of anyone.
I'm not saying there are no evil intentions
in the television business. I'm sure there are, and I'm equally
sure they're a minority. But even if a producer wanted to emphasize
good news or create a positive attitude in viewers, or to simply
slant the news in a less threatening way, what would happen?
Imagine a viewer channel surfing. He'd find pleasant stuff on
one channel, and gripping, compelling, threatening, can't-take-my-eyes-off-it
stuff on another channel.
Guess which channel will have the most
watchers over time (even against the watchers' will). Who will
get more money from advertisers? Which station will eventually
get taken off the air because it wasn't pulling in enough money
from advertisers to support it?
After decades of this kind of competition,
what we have are a lot of negative, alarmist, danger-oriented
programs. Even some positive programs are advertised using the
threat of danger. Television watchers are compelled by millions
of years of natural selection to be taken in by it. Television
programmers are no more likely to be evil than the rest of us.
But like the rest of us, they need to pay their bills. To stay
in business, they need to stay on the air. They need to get enough
people watching their programs so they can have enough advertising
money to keep going.
The result of all these ways of trying
to exploit your most fundamental drive for survival is that you
get the impression the world is a more dangerous place than it
really is. You can easily get the impression things are getting
worse, even when things are getting better.
If you emphasize some points and play down
trivial details when you're telling a story, it makes the story
more interesting, more entertaining, or more attractive. Emphasizing
some points and underplaying details is called "sharpening
and leveling." Because of the pressures people in the media
are under, and the fact that they are all competing with each
other for your attention, they sharpen and level their stories
fairly often, and the result is a misleading view of the world,
broadcast to millions.
For example, a student at Duke University
named Lee Fried gave an envelope to the president of the university.
Supposedly the envelope contained a prediction about an important
A week later, the envelope was opened.
Inside was a description of two 747 jet airliners that crashed
into each other. The event had happened that week, killing 583
News media people interviewed Lee Fried.
In the interviews, Fried told the interviewers that he was a
magician and the "prophesy" was just a magic trick.
The magician James Randi tried to find all the newspapers that
covered the story. He found seventeen. Only one of those newspapers
passed along the "trivial" detail that it was a magic
In the process of making a story more compelling,
sometimes stories fail to give an accurate impression of what
Along the same lines, Michael Kinsley,
writing in Slate.com says U.S. citizens are suffering from a
terrible sickness called social hypochondria. This is an unreasonable
terror of horrible diseases and trends that are wiping out or
traumatizing huge numbers of Americans. Child abuse, suicides,
teen pregnancies, cloning, whatever. Americans are worried. Why?
Is it because we're stupid? Gullible? Prone to anxiety? Or because
we have enough wealth and leisure to watch enough television
programming that results in the seemingly legitimate point of
view that the world is a frightening, dangerous place?
I remember once asking thirty-four people
I worked with whether they thought the world was going to be
a better or a worse place a hundred years from now. Thirty-three
said worse. I couldn't believe it.
If you get your information about the world
primarily from the evening news, you'd definitely say "worse."
If your main source of news is Scientific American, you'd definitely
say "better." Why? Science is all about solving problems.
Think about the headlines you normally
see in any given newspaper. The most common kind of headline
says something terrible has happened or is happening or is about
to happen. Contrast that with some headlines from a typical ScienceDaily
(an email update on what scientists are working on) for the week
of January 7th to 11th, 2002:
CANCER-FIGHTING DRUG MAY WORK IN PREVENTION
NEW CONTACT-LENS MATERIALS WILL REVOLUTIONIZE
THE INDUSTRY, UT SOUTHWESTERN RESEARCHERS REPORT
MICROBE FIRST TO BREAK DOWN PCBS
PHYSICS RESEARCH SUGGESTS IT MIGHT BE POSSIBLE
TO LENGTHEN BATTERY LIFE
CLINICAL TRIALS FOR "CYTOBRUSH"
DETECTION TECHNIQUE SHOW PROMISE IN FIGHT AGAINST ORAL CANCER
NEW TREATMENT EXTENDS LIFE FOR PATIENTS
WITH SMALL-CELL LUNG CANCER
PROTEIN POINTS THE WAY TO SALT-TOLERANT
CROPS, PURDUE SCIENTISTS SAY
I didn't give you all the headlines for
that issue. There were fifty in all. But you get the idea. A
few were negative findings, some were neutral (about the composition
of the sun or primordial air). But as you can see, the overall
impression is that things are being found out and problems are
being solved. Smart people are spending their time making the
world a better place. That is an entirely different impression
than you get from television news.
You're not just getting facts from news
sources. You're getting a feeling about the world you live in,
and often that feeling is not an accurate reflection of the world.
The more you know about how it works, the easier it will be for
you to protect yourself against a "pessimism infection."
When Newscasters Catastrophize For Profit
I was watching CNN'S "Situation Room"
today. They were covering the story of the collapsed Minneapolis
bridge. I try to avoid programs like that, but it was right in
front of me when I was on an exercise machine. As much as I've
ranted about the media's negative bias, I was still amazed. Every
statement they made and every question they asked seemed overloaded
with catastrophizing. They tried their best to make the worst
of everything. Yes, it was an unfortunate event, but they made
it as upsetting and disturbing from as many different angles
as they could.
The word "catastrophize" was
coined by cognitive-behavioral therapists to describe one of
the errors people make in their thinking that makes them upset
needlessly. It is a style of thinking used by people who suffer
from anxiety disorders and depression. It leads to unnecessary
misery. Catastrophizing makes mountains out of molehills.
Remember one of the ways to protect yourself
from a pessimism infection is to question the motives of the
source of your information. A news producer's motives may not
be evil, but they may not be in your best interests. Newscasters
and news producers catastrophize to make a story more dramatic,
or to find the alarming angle to a story. They're trying to get
your attention. They're trying to get you to keep watching and
not change the channel. They're trying to get their story on
the air rather someone else's story.
In other words, they are motivated by ambition
and competition, which is fine for them but when you watch it
and listen to it, you are tainted by it because while you watch,
you are not only getting facts, you are also getting a perspective.
You're getting a point of view. In this case, you're getting
a cynically pessimistic worldview that shines a spotlight on
every possible negative, alarming, upsetting angle they can find.
I've talked a lot about thought-mistakes,
otherwise known as "cognitive distortions." These are
mistakes all of us make. The reason we make these kinds of mistakes
in our thinking is that the human brain is wired up a certain
way, which makes us 1) very intelligent compared to other animals,
and 2) prone to certain kinds of mistakes.
Researchers and therapists have listed
these thought-mistakes in various ways, and all the lists cover
the same ground but divide it up differently. Catastrophizing
is a combination of overgeneralization, black-or-white thinking,
exaggerating, false implications, and negative guessing.
In other words, these catastrophizing news
programs are literally sick. Mentally unhealthy. For your own
sanity, I strongly urge you to stay away from them, no matter
how tempting it may be to watch.
You may be surprised that something so
negative could be "tempting." But our brains are tuned
to survival. And potentially dangerous information is keenly
sought by your brain. If something seems scary or upsetting,
your brain will pay attention, and that's exactly why these news
programs use it. So it "sucks you in," sometimes against
your will. Your brain overrides your conscious will if survival
seems to be at stake, just as you cannot kill yourself by holding
your own breath.
So if those news programs are in the vicinity,
you almost can't help but watch. They are too tempting in a negative
sort of way. So don't allow them in your vicinity if you can
help it. If you want to find out what's going on in the world
without having to be exposed to the catastrophizing pessimism,
I highly recommend The Week. It is not "positive news,"
but it doesn't go out of its way to alarm, anger, or frighten
you. It only informs you.
The media is one form of negative bias
you are exposed to. Find out what the other three are and what
you can do about them by clicking here.
Click here for a