CAN WE BLAME THE MEDIA FOR OUR BAD MOOD?

The UN has 17 Sustainable Development Goals for addressing the world’s major issues which continue to draw criticism — unfairly, in my view. Objectors say there are ‘too many’ of them and that they are ‘making people suffer’ in the pursuit of these ambitious goals. What these people don’t realize is that each goal is part of an interconnected chain. For instance, if we can reduce poverty, we can give people more food, more access to clean water, education, and better health and wellbeing. This already goes some way to achieving six of the target goals.

On closer inspection, the problem is not in the number of goals but in the media’s scrutiny of them and our subsequent impressions. Our naturally negative state of mind is largely formed by the news we read which leave us thinking that the world is becoming worse, rather than better. But this is simply not the case. 


The psychology of manipulation

We are psychologically hardwired to be impacted by bad news to a greater extent than to good news. John Cacioppo, a Professor in Psychology, proved this in one of his tests. He showed students a variety of pictures, some with generally negative associations, some with neutral, and some with generally positive associations while measuring the electrical activity of their brains — specifically, the part which is in control of receiving information, the cerebral cortex. He found that there was an increase in electrical activity in response to ‘negative’ images.

This suggests that viewing negative content has a more profound impact on us than viewing positive content. In a room full of people that you have no issues with, if someone walks in that you hold a grudge against or know could pose a threat, your eyes fix on them and your stomach drops; in other words, you become more alert. This reaction is not surprising. Our protective mechanism kicks in whenever our mortality comes into question. The world is full of terrifying things that can happen to us which predisposes us towards a negative state of mind for the sake of self-preservation.

The media takes full advantage of this default mode. Bad news is more clickable. The result is greater bias, embellishment, and in some cases open lies all for the sake of keeping us tuned. It may be unethical, but it’s highly profitable.

Negative news sells, so the focus of reporting stays on a cheerless note.

Is the world getting better or worse?

Seventeen goals is no small number. But how bad are things, really? The Canadian psychologists, Steven Pinker asked this very same question in a 2018 TED Talk, breaking it down into the following categories:

Poverty

In 1990, the percentage of people globally living in poverty was 36 per cent. Today, it’s around just under 8 per cent. Additionally, there are approximately 2.7 billion more people in the world. So that’s 2.7 billion more people to help escape poverty. If we look at hunger, here too things have improved, with an estimated 10 per cent reduction since the 1990s. Given that there are now 2.7 billion more people to feed, perhaps we’re not doing too badly?

Education

While it’s hard to accurately measure how education has ‘improved’, there’s no doubt that improvements in technology since the ’90s have benefitted education. Thanks to modern tech, millions of children have been able to continue their education from home — something that has proven to be a lifeline during this pandemic, though regrettably not for everyone. Still, there is little dispute that the quality of education has improved overall, which is a tick for the UN’s goal number 4.

Conflict

Another area of improvement across the globe is crime and conflict. In 1990, there were 23 active wars. As of 2018, there were 12. That’s goal number 16 (peace, justice and strong institutions) looking promising. For 11 conflicts to have ceased the UN must be doing something right. Yes, we still have wars over religious differences — the Israeli-Palestine standoff in May being one ongoing example — but these are very tricky disputes. And what would be the UN’s solution? Abolish religion?

Once again, the media has been guilty of provoking negative generalisations. This is especially true of social media where people often express bigoted views on religion. Sweeping generalisations have been made about Muslims being responsible for acts of terror. And let’s not forget that Brexit was partly achieved in the hope of reducing the number of Muslims in the country.

Such obvious religious discrimination ignores a fundamental truth: British-Muslims contribute at least 31bn to the economy. The Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, also happens to be Muslim.

Negative headlines and ignorant comments produce a hostile environment and a negative state of mind. It’s a little like saying: ‘get rid of all the dogs in Britain because a few of them are rottweilers or bulldogs that kill several people each year.’ If this sounds absurd, it’s because it is.

Crime

The media’s preference for naming and profiling those responsible for acts of terror is another disservice to our worldview. The psychologist, Jordan Peterson, has argued that those responsible for these gruesome acts often do it for the fame. It’s the worst kind of fame, but some people prefer to be hated than to be ignored. The media’s tendency to name and shame gives them exactly what they want, while also encouraging others to follow suit in the knowledge that they will get a fleeting moment in the spotlight.

In the USA, the homicide rate was at 9.4 per 100,000 in 1990. By 2018, it was 5.0 per 100,000. Given all the debate and controversy surrounding Donald Trump and gun laws in the USA, one would expect this number to have risen. It seems then that despite the ongoing tragedy of mass shootings, murder is declining in America: fact.

So why are we not happy? Well, another fact is that in the last thirty or so years, the number of news outlets has substantially grown. False news, bad news, fake news — whichever name you prefer — this growth of a certain unreliable type of media has directly contributed to the ‘growing misery’ that is often being falsely and hyperbolically portrayed to us.

Now ask yourself this: do you think you are in a better place than your grandparents/parents were? and; would you change places with them? The answer is obvious if we ignore the media. This is the best world we have ever lived in.