Why is there so much bad news?

Bad news sells. Local house on fire: tune in to see the dramatic footage. We interrupt this program to bring you this special report: violent crime, mega-storm, trial-of-the-century, police car chase . . . we’ve all had our shows interrupted.

“If it bleeds it leads” is a common saying in news rooms across the country. It suggests that if a story includes death or injury, then it will likely lead to higher ratings. Let’s assume that for-profit media companies do what they do to make a profit. Consider news programs. They pick stories that build and maintain an audience. The more people watch, the more money they make.

So what attracts us to these stories? We have evolved as cognitive misers; that is to say, we have trained our brains to detect the unusual. We pay attention to the unusual because it may be a threat or opportunity. This has proven very useful in our development and survival.

As we go through our daily lives, a very small number of us see a tornado or violent crime. So to see a tornado, a house fire, or a crime scene; is novel, unusual and stimulating to our brains. It is like some unseen force draws us to pay attention. Have you ever noticed traffic backed-up when all the lanes are clear; but there are cars on the side of the road that have been in an accident? People slow down to look, and traffic resumes normal speed immediately after the wrecked cars.

So they show us the unusual and we watch. Everybody wins?

The danger is that we fill our focus and attention with negative news; and neglect the truth that the vast majority of people are kind and help others. If we look for bad news we will find it. If, instead, we look for opportunities to be kind and to help; that is what we will find.

If we are not mindful, it is easy to think of the overrepresented “bad news” as more common than it is. Thankfully, people are generally kind. Being nice is not unusual. We are likely to experience good deeds in our daily lives. It is up to us to renew our focus on good deeds and being kind.