In the 2004 documentary “Super size me”, Morgan Spurlock kept a McDonald’s-only strict diet for a month to show the effects of junk food on our physical health. Even experienced physicians found the size of the damage after just a few days very alarming. Lately, I’ve went through a similar junk food diet, only this time it was food for the mind.
I’m the equivalent of a “health nut” when the subject is media consumption. Besides not owning a TV set, I carefully select which kinds of videos and reading material I consume, subscribe to specialized publications, blogs and websites (such as HBR and TED), have replaced the local newspaper for non-fiction books and use my Facebook network of inspiring friends as a way to gather important information of what’s going on in the world. This has been my routine for over a decade and I consider myself not only happy and energized, but also well-informed.
The spark for the change in habit came from the outside: my mother underwent surgery and I’ve made her company watching for a couple hours a day her favorite news shows: Fantastico and Globonews. At this point, it’s important to mention that those are not Fox Channel or Daily Mail type of news. They’re supposed to be serious, smart, well-thought journalism. It was surprising, though, much like in Spurlock’s experiment, how fast the quality of my thoughts deteriorated during such a short period.
Over the past 18 months Brazil has been going through a severe political crisis initiated after a historical corruption investigation that led to millions of people protesting in the streets, on several occasions. Economically, the country is entering a downward spiral of austerity and recession. At first, I felt better informed, getting additional information of what was going on, but gradually hopelessness, blame, fear and disconnection crept in.
The chip fell when I’ve found myself complaining to friends, during an hour-long tantrum, about the country’s current situation. In 2 weeks, I became the type of person I despise: angry and helpless.
Upon realizing it, I decided to take a step back and analyze what it is about news that changed my behavior so radically. More importantly, how powerful is it in maintaining the status quo, turning otherwise educated and rational citizens into distracted, manipulated sheep? And here’s what I realized:
News is considerably biased towards hopelessness, blame, fear and disconnection
News feeds on negative emotions. Psychologically, we all know that! We’ve learned through traditional marketing that fear and outrage sell much better than love and solidarity.
On a subconscious level, however, we’re often unaware of the negative/positive ratio we’re subjected to and the impact this priming has on our perception of reality. Unless we make a conscious effort to analyze the news agenda and the compounded impact of each segment, very quickly we mistake them for reality.
News relies heavily on “facts” rather than on their meaning
Data is probably the news most powerful tool in rationally convincing us of the objectivity of their perspective. In the collective consciousness, numbers and graphs are associated with objective information. While in themselves they are objective, we tend to forget that their selection is nothing but subjective. People can select, present and highlight data to prove their point of view.
I’m not saying here that every news agent is purposefully selecting data to serve special interest groups. Though we know this happens sometimes, what I’m saying is much more subtle: the news claimed aversion to subjectivity is a handicap. Anyone can easily confuse their perception of reality with the only reality.
Rather than drown people in data, viewers want and need to hear the meaning behind those facts. How will they affect their lives, in a balanced and realistic way? What can they do to adapt to adverse effects?
News relationship with time exacerbates unpleasant emotions
The way that the media approaches news also increases our feelings of inadequacy and hopelessness.
Reporters excessively focus on “why you did this” instead of “what could be done to prevent it in the future”. Immediate past events are geared towards (and stimulate) blame, vindication and justification. Lessons learned from a more distant past or from abroad are systematically put aside.
On top of that, the repetition of incremental revelations, as in the year-long “Lava Jato” investigations, creates an atmosphere of soap opera cliffhangers. It keeps the audience connected to the subject from one day to the next but rarely produces a meaningful ending. Rather than resolving, the issue is over-discussed to exhaustion until the next piece of news grabs the attention.
Rather than plain uncertainty, the future is portrayed with the impending certainty of doom. The fear mongering becomes even more powerful by presenting the viewer’s helplessness in the face of external, larger than life agents like “the economy” or “the government”. All you need is to take a look at last year’s predictions to realize how exaggerated these can be.
At the individual level, this repeated lack of resolution and hope leads to anxiety and anger. We’re left with the false impression that nothing ever changes, that nothing can be done and that the future will only be worse.
Issues are oversimplified, decontextualized and correlated problems are separated
It’s no news that we’re living in an ever more complex, interconnected world. Problems have multiple causes, different stakeholders and an infinite amount of emerging outcomes.
At the same time, the media continues to portray issues as simple dichotomies, presented in a linear fashion. “If we take route A, it’ll certainly lead to point x. If we take route B, it’ll certainly lead to point y.” All the complexity is stripped away to fit into a soundbite: the context and the ripple effects of the solution throughout the system are ignored. It becomes a matter of finding a quick fix for an immediate problem, with disregard for other problems that might arise from the solution or that remain out of sight.
This gives us, once again, a rather biased perception of reality. Take for instance the issue of urban violence and criminal majority age. “Will the reduction of criminal age impact urban violence?” is an all too simplistic correlation, because it chooses to ignore the whole system in which is embedded.
Today, the news presents a series of disconnected cases of urban violence. Tomorrow, it informs us of the voting for the reduction of criminal majority. Another day, it denounces prison infrastructure. Another day, it shows the increase in drug trafficking and consumption. Yet another day, it reveals the deficiencies in health and education within a poor community. Another day, it gives us data on youth unemployment. You get the picture…
By doing so, it keeps us disengaged from the complex, slow (and yet possible), sustainable solutions. Moreover, like a general that, instead of providing the direction that the war is taking, only announces the defeats in battle, it destroys morale.
The “other” is presented as the enemy
At the heart of our sense of helplessness is the introduction of the “other” as the responsible for our collective problems. In most news shows, there are only 3 possible roles: victim, savior and persecutor.
This serves well the binary, simplistic view of reality. It gives traction to blame, fear, revenge and punishment. By presenting the world as “us” vs “them”, “good” vs “evil”, it puts the veil on the complexity of the issues, on the multitude of interests and viewpoints. It exempts the viewers from all responsibility in the roles they play in maintaining the status quo (which does not help sales).
By doing so, it breeds paralysis, fear and disconnection. We feel isolated and taken advantage of. Enraged! Moreover, it creates the impossibility of any resolution to our social conflicts outside the zero-sum game.
Outside mental prisons
When I was getting ready for college entrance exams, I remember how my teachers used to stress the importance of watching the news to keep up to date. Maybe that was true then, but is it really the case now?
With the Internet, we have the possibility to take a much more active approach on selecting our sources. We can choose to walk away from falsely unbiased news to openly biased sources that allow us to connect to different viewpoints.
We could focus on razor sharp issues or let ourselves travel from related topic to the next.
We can become interested on how the current issue came to be and how other regions of the world approached it.
We can bring our attention to the feelings news brings us and select those that allow us to have a more energetic approach to life.
We can let ourselves be drawn to the pre-canned cuteness of baby animals on Sunday night TV or we can consume books, movies, blogs and documentaries that allow us for a greater range of positive emotions, such as feeling challenged, exhilarated, connected, hopeful, nostalgic or proud.
Anywhere I’ve been, the societal issues were plenty and most of the time they felt overwhelming. They affect and remain a part of my life, but that’s all they are: a part. There’s a whole section of my reality that the news don’t cover and that I choose to focus on.
If you want, so can you.