A Proposal to Make the Media (and Society) Better

I am concerned by what I’m viewing in our national media lately. Viewed from outside (and also from within the USA), it would appear that our nation is obsessed with, and plagued by, an increasing spree of horrible crimes and abuses of human rights. Is this really what it is like to live in America, or is this simply the media’s extremely biased reporting?

The media of any social organization, whether a small community or an entire nation, serves as the primary means by which the members of that organization understand and assess the state of the whole. As such the media serves a function to a collective that is similar to “self-awareness” in an individual person. Self-awareness is a feedback loop. It not only serves as a mirror by which an organization can view reflections of its state, it also conditions the planning and execution of further actions by its organization. When people look in the mirror of the media, they not only understand the system they are in, but they also may make choices and further actions based on what they see there.

The pivotal role of media as the central influencer of societal psychology and behavior is often underestimated. And it is through this lens that I view the recent headlines, which are primarily focused on school killing sprees and abuse of children as of late — with sadness and concern. By sensationalizing such tragedies, and providing lurid details over and over again, the media is actually contributing to the ongoing proliferation of these same behaviors. While I’m not suggesting that censorship is a better alternative, I do think that leading mass media organizations, in their blind quest for more attention and ad dollars, are behaving irresponsibly by sensationalizing — indeed almost celebrating — murder, torture, sexual abuse, and other horrible acts as if they are the latest attractions in some kind of societal variety show.

These atrocities should be reported, but the style and manner in which they are reported should be the opposite of sensationalism. They should be more like funerals — which is after all what these stories are really about. There should be an element of sadness, respect for those affected, concern for those who might read or view such images and stories, and restraint. In particular details of how various horrible crimes were planned and executed are not necessary and not beneficial in telling the story — they only serve to inspire, trigger and teach would-be copycats to do the same thing. Furthermore by rewarding perpetrators of such crimes with massive publicity (which in many cases is what such egomaniacs are hoping to achieve by committing their crimes) the media is actually playing right into their hands.

As usual I have a radical proposal to fix this: What if the media gave exposure to stories in direct proportion to the number of people actually affected by those stories?

What if stories were evaluated on several dimensions to determine how much exposure to give them — for example, geographic range, number of people directly impacted, political relevance, etc? The size of a story would therefore be determined by its real effect on the population. Contrast this to what the news media does today where in fact the prominence of a story is often inversely proportional to the number of people directly impacted by it. The media currently amplifies the most shocking news, regardless of how many people are directly affected or involved. A shocking crime that directly affected only 2 people is quickly amplified to the main national headline of the day for a population of 300 million. That is simply out of balance with reality.

For example, horrible as they are, the recent school killings only directly affect a relatively tiny percentage of the national population: So why should they be the main focus of the national news headlines for weeks on end? According to this proposal, such stories would be mere blips on the collective radar. They would not be headline news for the entire nation, and/or if they were they would quickly fall out of the headlines. I’m not downplaying the importance of these stories to the affected people and communities — nor am I downplaying the broader significance of the trends they may be indicative of — I’m simply pointing out that these stories, tragic as they may be, get disproportionately too much national media exposure compared to other stories that affect much larger segments of the population such as for example — stories related to the economy, the environment, the war and upcoming elections, etc.

If the news accurately reflected the issues and stories that affect the population, in proportion to the real impact those issues and stories have on the population and the number of people directly impacted, then the news would be a lot less sensational, and a lot more substantial. This would also be better for the collective psyche. Instead of the media feedback loop focusing increasingly on sensational atrocities that affect only small numbers of people, the feedback loop would focus on the larger issues.

Consider this analogy — only a small percentage of the population is or ever will be criminally insane. Yet the media focuses a relatively large percentage of its coverage on the crimes committed by criminally insane people. This has the unfortunate effect of focusing the attention of the vast majority of non-criminally insane citizens on acts of criminal insanity. One cannot help but wonder whether by doing this, the media is actually driving up the amount of criminal insanity in society? It’s a reasonably hypothesis. And in fact, such effects can be verified in simple experiments. Whether with oneself or a group of people, if you obsess about any particular issue over and over again and it will start to become the main thing everyone thinks about — and this in turn will start to drive further behavior around that very issue — it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.

We can see the roles of feedback in driving behavior in other areas as well — For example positive thinking, positive affirmations, positive feedback, and positive role models lead to more
positive behavior by individuals and groups over time. Similarly, negative thinking, negative affirmations, negative feedback and negative role models lead to negative behavior over time. Our media is obsessed with feeding us negative images of our society, ourselves, and our world — this cannot but have the effect of generating increasingly negative assessments, experiences and behaviors that further verify this negative world-view.

It’s a “chicken-and-egg” situation — the media leadership would answer this challenge by saying, “we just report the news. If you want to change the news, change society.” But that’s just not accurate. In fact, the media is not an objective reporter, there are all kinds of biases, not the least of which are commercially-motivated. The bottom line, as it’s oft said in newsrooms around the country is, “if it bleeds, it leads.” That has nothing to do with objectivity and everything to do with competing for eyeballs, ratings, and ad dollars. There are two ways to fix this chicken-and-egg problem — change the egg (society) or change the chicken (the media.) I am proposing that we change the chicken — which is a lot easier than changing the egg. Getting a few dozen national media organizations to be more objective and less sensationalistic is easier to accomplish than  going out and changing the minds and behavior of 300 million people — yet it will have the same long-term effect! And this is the beauty of this approach. Since the media is really functioning as the self-awareness of society, if we recalibrate the media, this will effectively recalibrate society as a whole. The fact is this is already happening — just in a negative direction. It would only require a small effort to make it trend towards the positive.

There are very few positive stories, very few positive role models, and very little to be happy about in the media today. But this is not an accurate portrayal of the society or world we live in. In fact, there is so much that is good in our communities, organizations, societies, and ourselves. Why is this not portrayed in the media with equal or greater visibility? It’s true that fear, horror, taboos, crime and conflict grab people by the adrenals and get their attention — and that leads to short-term attention and ratings gain. But long-term it leads to societal decay. It’s really no different than a drug addict chasing after quick fixes at the expense of their long-term health. Isn’t it time our society started looking at the media feedback loop more responsibly? And isn’t it time that people start complaining to the media about their unbalanced and biased coverage of current events?

Unfortunately humans are incredibly short-sighted — we tend to not see or pay attention to anything outside of the immediate present in space and time, and when it comes to thinking about societal health we are particularly myopic. After thousands of years of western civilization we still do not think about the health of our civilization with anything close to the models or discipline that we use to think about the health of the human body. But why don’t we? Why isn’t societal health more of a science today? Why is it still a subject that is relegated to a few non-profits and philosophers on the fringes? Why isn’t it taught in medical schools or the equivalent? Certainly we can and do measure the state of our society in many dimensions? And we certainly can see, and prove, the short-term and long-term causal effects of laws, policies, and even the amount of violence on prime-time television. So why do we not take this more seriously as a society?

Perhaps it’s the tragedy of the commons at work — everyone feels that someone else will take care of this, or at least that it is someone else’s problem. In the end everyone takes care of themselves and their own families, but the larger community is left virtually unattended to — save for those who would take advantage of it for their own (usually commercial) ends. Eventually the societal psyche becomes so polluted, neglected and abused that it falls apart entirely. This is when you have sudden changes — regime change, economic meltdowns, civil wars, dictatorships, and takeover by extremism and hate-oriented movements — such as the rise of Nazism in Germany in the 1930’s. It is guaranteed that just as is the case with the physical environment, the social environment will also oneday be everyone’s problem, unless we take steps now to guide it in a better direction.

I don’t know how to get the media to report stories in proportion to their impact, as I have proposed here. But I do know that it would make a huge difference by reducing the number of sensationally violent and
negative stories in the media every day. This would in turn lead to a happier, more emotionally healthy and less violent society, with a more positive collective self-image and culture. If in
addition the media actually made an effort to report good news even slightly more than bad news that would further improve things in dramatic ways.

Imagine the effect on your own psyche by thinking just a few positive, compassionate, life-affirming, happy thoughts every day. Now imagine that times 300 million people. Good news can be just as entertaining and interesting as bad news, but it has a much more beneficial long-term effect on the viewer and on society as a whole.

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