IT STARTED OUT innocently enough. I asked
a friend of mine whether he thought the world would be a better
or a worse place a hundred years from now. "Worse,"
he said. We had a short conversation about it and then went on
about our business.
A few days later, he said he wanted me
to look at a magazine called Colors. Published in Italy,
it illustrated some of our global problems graphically. For example,
on the back cover were two pictures: One was a man in a polyester
jump suit standing on a well-manicured lawn with a nice house
in the background, and he was feeding a tidbit to his well-groomed
poodle. The other picture was five young boys, dirty and ragged,
living in a hole in a street.
The magazine did a good job contrasting
how wealthy many of us are in industrialized countries with how
horribly many people live in developing countries.
Later, my friend asked me how I liked the
I replied, "It was disturbing."
"It's real!" he said with a kind
of I'm-not-afraid-of-facing-the-truth-like-most-people self-righteousness.
What disturbed me was not the reality of
it. I'm well aware how miserably much of the world lives compared
to how even a poor American lives. What bothered me was that
the "information" in the magazine was delivered in
a context of hopelessness. There wasn't any indication
anywhere in the magazine that you, the reader, could do
anything about it. "The world is a horrible place,"
it seemed to say, "and you are helpless to effect it."
If the information had been delivered in
the spirit of, "Here's some bad news, but here's what you
can do about it," the same information might have been motivating.
But if a reader feels helpless about global
problems or thinks the situation is hopeless, the reader would
be better off not reading it, and I'll tell you why.
Studies have shown that most television
news leaves the viewer depressed because it is primarily bad
news that 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.
In an experiment, 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 had a greater tendency
to exaggerate the magnitude or importance of their own personal
The point of view from which news is presented
is similar to the negative bias of depressives. It is a fact
that feelings of helplessness and hopelessness cause health problems.
And studies have shown that the greater majority of network news
is about people with no control over their tragedy. Christopher
Peterson, one of the first researchers to show that pessimism
negatively effects health, said, "What the evening news
is telling you 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 their inevitable result: anxiety
In one study of network news, seventy-one
percent of the news stories were about people who had very little
control over their fate. This is neither an accurate nor 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.
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 thirteen percent. But during
that same period, network coverage of murders increased three
hundred 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
the situation was improving.
Pessimism produces a feeling of helplessness.
Pessimism leads very directly to depression and anxiety, mild
or severe. This is not just an opinion. Lots of research has
been done on this subject. A tremendous amount of evidence exists
and it all points in the same direction. Pessimism makes people
less capable of acting effectively, even in their own
best interests. It produces apathy, hopelessness, and lethargy.
Pessimism is bad for your health, and bad
for the planet because pessimism not only saps motivation to
take constructive action, it is contagious.
Raw, in-your-face reality is fine but is
only halfway there. The other half is what can be done about
it? If nothing can be done about it, why tell anyone? If
something can be done about it, why not give that news too? It
is a crime against humanity to do otherwise.
Because of the shock value and attention-getting
power of tragedy, horror, and cruel irony, a pessimistic, unconstructive
attitude is infecting the minds of more and more people.
A SOURCE OF ADRENALINE
A survey by the Harvard School of Public
Health found that although a person's risk of getting seriously
injured in a car accident is only about five percent, most people
believed it was more like fifty percent. Men thought they had
a one in three chance of getting prostrate cancer, but it is
actually more like one in ten. Women thought they had a forty
percent chance of getting breast cancer when actually it's more
like ten percent. And for diabetes, HIV and strokes, most people
thought they had twice the chance as they actually do. That's
a lot of unnecessary and unwarranted worry and anxiety.
Where do you think we get these worries?
Newscasters have a vested interest in scaring the bejeezus out
Many forms of media besides television
use fear to capture your attention or motivate you to buy. Why?
Because it works. A scary sentence or image arrests attention
better than an interesting, helpful, or entertaining sentence
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 news media.
If there had been, we might have evolved some defense against
them. But we haven't. So we have a built-in reaction to potential
danger. News media and advertisers exploit those natural instincts
they use our instincts against us for their selfish purposes.
This is not an indictment against the people
in the news business. This is just a description of how things
work out when you have different channels competing against each
other for viewers and advertisers. There are quality programs
and plenty of journalists with integrity, bless them, but they
can't stay on the air unless they compete successfully against
You can fight it if you want. Write your
congressmen, boycott products, etc. But you know what? It will
continue anyway because it will evolve on the basis of "survival
of the fittest."
To see how this works, let's imagine a
major ban on scaring people with advertisements. Imagine it becomes
illegal. What would happen? Some would use other appeals,
as many do now. But others would simply use scare tactics more
subtly and even though it was subtle, it would still have more
attention-arresting power than other appeals, so it would bring
in money to the company that uses it, thus producing more offspring
than its rivals (more clients for the advertising company). This
new mutant would spread and propagate, just like bacteria exposed
to an antibiotic that kills all but a few organisms which just
happen to have a little resistance to the antibiotic. The drug
has killed off the mutant's rivals, leaving the field clear to
reproduce without competition.
What good does it do you to know this?
Simply this: You subject yourself voluntarily to adrenaline-inducing
sources when you watch the news or watch TV with commercials
or read a newspaper. And you can reduce your general perception
of the world as a scary place by spending more time dealing with
reality solid reality like your neighborhood, your friends,
your real life and less time in the artificially-selected,
artificially-created, designed-for-impact world of the news media
Specifically, I recommend canceling your
subscription to the newspapers, not listening to news on the
car radio, never watching television news, watching rented movies
rather than TV, and getting your news from a clean source (for
example, I use Google's news service I tell it what kind
of news I want and that's all they send me, ad-free).
I've had many debates with friends of mine
about the virtues of "knowing what's going on in the world."
It is of doubtful value. It is a common belief, almost as universal
as was "people can't fly" before the invention of airplanes.
If you have that belief, I invite you to really examine its merit
and I think you'll find it comes up short. It is probably another
fear-tactic used by the news media: "Something bad will
happen to you if you don't know what's going on in the world."
I haven't read a newspaper or watched TV
news or listened to it on the radio for about 18 years now, except
for very few brief glimpses, and nothing bad has happened to
me. And something good has happened: I have saved myself
from being steeped in a world view that makes the world a scarier,
more depressing, and more dangerous place than it really is.
Keeping abreast of current events gives
workmates something to talk about besides the weather, but that's
not much of a benefit, considering the cost of living your life
in a frightening world, which from what I've seen is the end-product
of years of "keeping up on the news."
Because of the constant use of scare-tactics
to arrest attention to get you to watch channel six's
news rather than channel five's the end result after years
of this is a general world view that would never have formed
if the only thing you dealt with was the real world you live
You don't need it. Give your adrenal glands
Stop exposing yourself to mainstream