The news misrepresents reality

By Josiah Odigie

In short: the news is observably predominantly negative. Radio, television and printed news certainly seems largely negative and there is evidence to back this up. The Big Think published an article focused on understanding this bias, writing that at the moment 90% of television and newspaper news was negative.

So perhaps the more pertinent amended question should be why is the news predominantly negative? I have decided to begin from the most basic evolutionary point: survival. Fear helps us with self-preservation and within the limbic system of our brain lies the amygdala, the area responsible for both sensing fear and preparing for it. Although it may not feel that way, we as human beings are still hardwired for survival and in a modern society we are constantly bombarded with information – far more than we can possibly take in. Therefore, an internal subconscious filter that alerts us to the negative, endangering news while sifting out the more mundane certainly makes sense. Thus serving as a cognitive explanation for the phenomenon of dominant negative news.

However, there remain myriad more factors to consider in what constitutes an eye-catching piece of news. Of course being in the public interest is a fundamental of journalism, but growing from that common denominator, a news item surely has to be topical, enticing in either a funny or shocking manner and truthful. Fear sells is a common phrase and rings true among the mainstream newspapers of the UK. Simply Google search the three words ‘Daily Mail’ and ‘Muslim’ (a current hot topic within said publication) and you are confronted with nine articles all of which function as a warning of dangers that face you. Moving on to the Daily Mail’s main website there is a distinct dichotomy of news coverage, namely a large section dedicated to the female celebrity anatomy and the latest, you guessed it, articles warning of various impending dooms and people that are threatening your family. A peruse of the printed edition’s headlines echoes this diversity of focus. So one might conclude that, as well as our innate inclination to articles cautioning us against all manner of evils, we have the added bonus of major news companies profiting from this.

Then there is the question of the often undeniable and glaringly obvious bias that underpins many news stations. Certain news stations, such as Fox News, gleefully spew vitriol week in week out about their favourite target groups within society – such disproportionate coverage begs the question of a hidden (or not so hidden) agenda. This phenomenon is evidenced in a report conducted in ‘Confronting racial and ethnic differences in American juvenile justice’. It is quoted to say “News media depictions of crime do not reflect either rates of crime generally, the proportion of violent crime, or the proportion of crime committed by minorities but instead systematically misrepresent reality”. Powerful and sadly accurate words, they shine a light on a society whose media still employs methods commonplace throughout our deeply iniquitous history. As a case study example of this they write “During the 1990s overall crime rates decreased by 20% while news coverage increased by 83%, and homicides declined by one third whilst network news coverage increased by 473%”. Although staggering, they are still somewhat unsurprising given the relentless efforts of some of the more conservative areas of news coverage to inhibit social change every step of the proverbial way.

So concluding a sobering, revelatory and relatively depressing combination of factors, it seems as if our innate leaning towards fear mongering news, the frequency of coverage of said news and the disproportionate coverage of newspapers and television on these negative topics, all add up to an overwhelmingly negative media.

Illustration: Romina Swan

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