Preface: If anyone reading this is in the news industry, I apologize if this comes off as condemning your work. That’s NOT the intention and I have the utmost respect for investigative journalism and accurate reporting. That said, we need to all be introspective in all of our endeavors to ensure that they are all working as designed and, if intervention is necessary, we must pursue it with rigor and steadfastness.
Day in, day out, we are surrounded by the news. It’s accessible 24/7 at our fingertips. As such, I thought I’d devote a blog post to analyzing what is considered newsworthy and whether or not the way we currently decide it is healthy.
Most people have heard the concept of a story being “newsworthy”. This idea really boils down to a reporter or journalist asking the question “Will people consume the news if this story is published?”. “Will they switch to a competitor as a source of news because our story is too __________?” For example, is the story too taboo for the society it’s being targeted to? If the story will “sell” and people will consume it, then it’s newsworthy. Often we don’t think of the news industry as very competitive but after some brief analysis one can see that it really is. Even all over the world the news industry is actually pretty competitive when you take into account the number of mediums we can get the news in (newspaper, TV, mobile, radio, social media, etc.) along with the number of companies/organizations in each medium.
One consequence of this is that whatever your interest is, you can find news specifically catering to it. Its great that we have such a choice. We can find news about technology, the financial system, science, religion, and just about everything in between. That’s awesome that we can find any of this instantaneously at our fingertips. This also means that on the whole, if you are a news organization and want to cater to the largest number of people – and have the largest chance of making the most money and surviving long term- you have to cater to the most common of human interests. You are going to have a difficult time surviving long term if your news organization is solely devoted to covering something specialized such as, say tennis.
So I don’t jump around too much, it might make sense here to look at human interests in light of what desires and tendencies marketers utilize to try and sell us products and services. The strategies marketers employ to sell us current events or plain old deodorant or even cheeseburgers really tend to be similar and are driven from basic psychological drivers of human behavior. If you’re familiar with the concept of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (see here if you’re not) this may be familiar. Ultimately, marketers try to get people to consume their product by catering to these basic human desires/needs. With deodorant, that would be to not stink around others – which really boils down to fitting in and being socially accepted. Stinky people aren’t generally seen as socially acceptable. Deodorant, like many products, also utilizes the strategy of sexual appeal; another basic human desire. “You will attract others because of how good this smells.” For clothing: “You will look attractive with this on…etc.” Most people would think the news using sex appeal to sell would be very distasteful – meaning that it’s effectively taboo to try and sell the news in that manner.
Sexual appeal and social acceptance are both innate human desires. We can look at this in terms of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs but with caveats. Each of these marketing techniques relates to a level in this hierarchy of needs. However, the biggest caveat is that you wouldn’t even satisfy a biological need (food or water) if you are getting eaten by a Saber tooth tiger. You would try and get yourself out of harms way first. That’s your ultimate driver of behavior, being secure enough to be able to pursue your other desires. None of those desires matter if you aren’t alive. Thus pain, the physical response to harm, and fear, the mental tool used to avoid harm, become incredibly powerful drivers of human behavior. Thus the ultimate marketing tool and consequently the most powerful manipulator of behavior is wrapping your product in nugget-sized bundles of security.
The product the news is selling is current events. If they can package current events in safe nuggets of fear and play to our innate desires of safety and security, similar to having an attractive person pose with your product on TV, they will sell more. Consequently the news almost constantly reports on the newest dangers and issues facing society or any negative changes in old dangers or issues. Since we are constantly bombarded by these messages of new dangers and issues facing society, one would naturally assume the world is a pretty dangerous place. One would assume that terrorists are overrunning Europe due to an influx of refugees and immigrants are overwhelming the US social infrastructure and stealing our jobs. One would think North Korea is going to lob a bunch of bombs over and kill us all.
One would think these are all serious threats to all of our livelihoods. Those assumptions would be incorrect. I won’t go into the details here, but you can research them for yourself because there is plenty information out there from respectable institutions that have made their mark not by selling purely fear but by selling 3rd party verifiable truths (albeit wrapped in fear). In researching this article I did find one source – https://mediabiasfactcheck.com/ – that you can use to check media organization’s bias and factual reporting rankings. The website could use a lot of improvement and their methods could be more rigorous, transparent, and objective; but it’s a start and better than nothing. Another good resource I found was a comprehensive study done by researchers at Harvard on media bias and propaganda in the 2016 election. You can find it here: https://cyber.harvard.edu/publications/2017/08/mediacloud.
It always amazes me that we are generally more prosperous, more healthy, more knowledgeable on how the world works, and safer than we ever were in the past, but you’d never hear that in the news. It isn’t newsworthy – uplifting largely doesn’t sell. This complete contradiction between what we are constantly exposed to by the news organizations and what actually happens imbues people with a warped sense of reality which is consequently acted upon. This plays out in politics by parties catering to offering a sense of security to the particular issue you feel most frightened about – whether it’s immigrants or climate change.
What I must make clear is this isn’t meant to be a condemnation of the media because it’s through the media that we enjoy the society we live in today. Free press as an institution is integral to the success of a free society. The majority of news outlets also present 3rd party verifiable facts. They just only present the facts that people want to consume just as any market member in any market only provides what people will buy. We just have to be humble and recognize that its not healthy for ourselves or society to gorge our minds on mental candy.
The question now becomes what to do about it? Should we change what’s considered newsworthy? Does the news really enhance our lives to the effect that we could consider getting rid of it altogether? Should we be making the news a more accurate reflection of well rounded coverage of the new happenings that occur in instead of largely only focusing on the new happenings that sell? This is a conversation that we must have but we have to recognize the problem in order to address it.