“If it bleeds, it leads.”
America, and perhaps the whole world, has gotten itself into quite a twisted fix with the rise and domination of anxiety-stoking, for-profit news. Long gone are the “just the facts, ma’am” reporting of Walter Cronkite.
Today, corporate titans and startups alike, do battle for our eyeballs, ears and ultimately our minds. Staid announcers no longer diligently deliver “just the facts,” interrupted only by 60 seconds for “a word from our sponsor,” featuring some utilitarian household product.
Today, we’re bombarded with hair-on-fire headlines from uncountable websites, thousands of podcasts, billions of YouTube videos, and even regular television — and all of these, absolutely everyone, is selling us something…
And wow, do all these compete for our attention! They thrust and grab and scream from the screen for our attention. Through repetition, they gain our devotion and even addiction.
Don’t believe it? Watch your grandparents, glued day and night to Fox News and other for-profit outlets. Now, try to turn it off…
And how better to grab us by the neck and shake us up than with blood, guts and fear. Evoking a primal reaction, blood and guts and sensationalized everything grab us by the spine and suck us in. And, often, reinforced by a ribbon of shocking news running over and again at the bottom of your screen…
“Capitalistic motives associated with journalism have forced much of today’s television news to look to the spectacular, the stirring and the controversial as news stories… In order to get advertisers, so that profits soar. …In truth, watching the news can be a psychologically risky pursuit, which could undermine your mental and physical health.” – Psychology Today
Unfortunately for us, standing in the way between for-profit news and the profits they seek happens to be our very minds, our thinking ability and our psychological well-being.
As everything we see and hear is bent toward the sensationalized and frightening, the less connected we become to the real, actual world. Over-exposure to the over-sensationalized risks our balance and objectivity. We even risk our mental wellness.
Some news shares routine and similar formats, until much seems “all the same.” Local stations often work with consultants who providing “canned,” fear-based subjects, with pre-scripted, talking point video shots with “experts” at the ready – all designed to promote anxiety in the viewer. Objectively, many news websites begin to read like a worn script. Yet this formulaic “reporting” keeps the scary stuff coming and our anxious eyes glued to the screen.
And “bleeding leading” isn’t restricted to literal blood and guts: Economic news, too, is sensationalized with monetary bloodletting and fear and anxiety all around – as we’re confronted with one financial existential threat after another.
No wonder only a third of Americans regularly get a good night’s sleep…
It’s true we get to choose what we see – but it’s also true we are what we eat, and we become that with which we surround ourselves. As a result of over-stimulation and over-saturation, many Americans are paranoid that crime is out of control; they overestimate their chances of being a victim; and they believe the outlook for their future is gloomy and getting worse. The problem with all this fear is that it shrinks our world and diminishes our lives.
Fear drives us inward and isolates us from wider contacts and greater friendships. Fear closes our minds and causes us to close ranks in associations. We isolate more toward those of our similar minds and in extreme cases, we grasp strange conspiracy theories to make sense of the madness we see playing out on our screens.
Fortunately, there’s an antidote for all this fear manipulation:
First, “Shut it off.” We’re over-exposing ourselves to electronic clutter and marketing. Turn off all your toys and enjoy walks, hobbies, interests, neighbors.
Second, “Pick it up.” Importantly (and you’re doing it right here), switch to print media for news. Trusted newspapers and thoughtful magazines are much less likely to be overly sensationalized and certainly don’t (yet) have annoying ribbons at the bottom nor pop-up ads at the top. Print media also usually covers topics with more detail and facts – and you can read at your own speed instead of constant brain-splattering shock and awe.
Sorting the sensationalized from fact and truth from fiction is necessary for our sanity and critical thinking. Everyone is selling us something, so it’s “buyer beware” when pressing the “on” button.
Keep reading newspapers and hit the “off button” on your electronics, frequently, long and hard.
Gary Horton’s “Full Speed to Port!” has appeared in The Signal since 2006. The opinions expressed in his column do not necessarily reflect the opinions of The Signal or its editorial board.