As the presidential election closes in, the barrage of news detailing the newest scandal becomes all the more rapid. What begins as a scan of your Facebook newsfeed or a few clicks on your favorite website unravels into an inexorable descent. After several minutes or several hours, we finally breach the surface, gasping for air, with a vague mix of negative emotions still haunting us. This election, especially as it spotlights the horrors occurring in Aleppo, Syria, has been an unprecedented circus in its capacity to both entertain and horrify, highlighting a disconcerting truth about modern media: Negativity sells.
The media’s proclivity for the morose and shocking reflects that of the film industry. For years, scholars, critics and medical professionals have decried the film industry’s predilection for violence. Violent displays of physical force have become sexy, irresistible tropes that viewers ravenously consume and filmmakers willingly offer. Filmmakers fight off concerns about how their content might influence destructive, real-world behavior by framing their products as innocuous means of escape. The film industry’s indifference is ultimately indicative of its desire to make money. The same appears true in the news media, which has constructed stories as entertainment, to the detriment of its viewers and readers.
The potential consequences of a news culture permeated with negativity are manifold. Most importantly, there are of course concerns about the consumers’ health. According to some psychologists, violent and negative media may have serious, long-lasting consequences. The work of Graham Davey, a British psychologist whose research focuses on the psychological effects of media violence, indicates that exposure to violent or negative media may exacerbate or contribute to the development of anxiety, depression, stress and even post-traumatic stress disorder. Moreover, negative news may color the way one perceives the world around him or her. For example, if the media makes one anxious or stressed, then one might subconsciously fixate on negative events, and be more likely to perceive neutral events as negative.
“These images change our overall mood to a more negative one — more sad or more anxious — and it is this change in mood that leads to psychological changes in the way we attend to things around us,” Davey said in his work. “This can have a vicious cycle effect on mood generally for some time.”
What is clear from the research is that more positive news is needed to counteract the negativity we encounter in the media. In late 2014, Stephen Pinker and Andrew Mack, a psychologist and international studies professor, respectively, wrote in a Slate article that the world, in contrast to the shocking images that media headlines evoke, is actually becoming more peaceful. Violence across a spectrum, including the prevalence of mass killings, is at an all-time low. Though we should neither discount human suffering where it exists nor neglect to address it, we should also recognize positive events and the alleviation of human suffering. With regard to the media, Pinker and Mack advocate for an “evidence-based mindset” that distinguishes real versus perceived danger facing our communities. Such a mindset, they argue, would limit the pernicious influence of terrorists, wayward journalists, misguided filmmakers and other “violence impresarios.”
When negativity sells and the promise of positivity is not guaranteed, the onus falls on the viewer or reader to consciously consume the news. If the media leaves you in a sad fog every day, then take some simple steps to distance yourself from the negativity, like deleting news apps on your phone or allocating specific times to read or watch the news.
Bailee Ahern is a senior majoring in political science and international relations. “’Lend a Hand” runs every Monday.