William A Gardner

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27

March
2020

Culture and Societies

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The Emotional Media Deluge

Are we emotionally equipped to handle constant alarmist news?


Any media outlet irrespective of bias or ownership wants - needs - to gain your attention. The old axiom of any newspaper, 'if it bleeds it leads,' means that the most emotionally-charged stories, especially if accompanied by charts or photographs that engender an emotional response, are what belong on the front page above the fold.

There is a scene in The Shipping News where a seasoned reporter (Billy) is instructing a new reporter (Quoyle) about how to make his newspaper story attract readers. They are standing near the ocean and Billy says, "You have to start by making up some headlines. You know, short, punchy, dramatic headlines. Now have a look, what do you see?" He points at dark clouds some distance away on the horizon.

"Horizon Fills With Dark Clouds?" says Quoyle hesitantly.

"Imminent Storm Threatens Village," Billy corrects.

"But what if no storm comes?" Quoyle replies with a look of confusion.

"Village Spared From Deadly Storm." Billy says triumphantly.

Headlines are meant to catch your attention. Not to inform. The headlines of fifty or more years ago would be read, if it was a daily newspaper, over breakfast or after supper. If the available newspaper was produced weekly then it would normally be read, discussed and digested on the weekend. This was the in-depth news as compared to the radio which provided shorter and more current updates on special events. It was a pace of new information that allowed and promoted a measured response and reasonable understanding, often based on discussion within families and social groups. There was time to read beyond the headlines to the real story, and to frame the information within people's own experiences and historical context. There was time to move beyond the emotional tone of the headline and apply common sense and rationality.

This is not the case in today's world. Today we are constantly bludgeoned by the media into an emotional response. It is like an addiction, illustrated by people continually on their phone receiving the latest missive from their Twitter feed, or an instant message from some news outlet. This deluge has been amplified by the availability of inexpensive large televisions which broadcast the latest headlines by the minute from myriad locations, all about the current crisis. Have you noticed that today there is always a crisis?

During the Cold War it became apparent that a direct communication link between Washington and Moscow was of critical importance to prevent an accidental nuclear exchange. It went live on August 30, 1963 and was more than just a 'red phone' handset. It also included a teletype that allowed the leaders to exchange written messages. In fact, the most frequent communication was by teletype not just because it provided clear, written messages, but because it provided time for each side to carefully consider their response. It slowed things down. This purposefully reduced the emotional element of the interaction. The leaders, including President Kennedy, well understood the danger of emotionalism during times of potential crisis. The red phone was still available if necessary.

The news today is constant and strident. It is designed to keep you engaged and connected. It is the dream-come-true for the propagandist. It is Orwellian. In some ways it resembles the Eye of Mordor as it turns to focus on one crisis or another. It wants us to slide on the Ring and thus become caught in its gaze, unable to turn away, and filled with inexplicable terror for oneself and the future. The headline is the message, immediate and emotional. Fear sells.

The current crisis is the COVID-19 influenza pandemic. It is a serious and, for a few people, a potentially life-threatening disease. We all need to temporarily practice recommended isolation and social distancing to slow the spread and reduce the strain on our health care system. Nevertheless the crisis will pass and the hourly updates and daily press conferences will end. Most likely it will simply become part of the normal 'flu season' challenge that we face each fall. The economic dislocation, however, will take longer to deal with and ultimately be more serious.

The previous (and expected to rise again) crisis focus of the media was Global Warming. Most people understand that fossil fuels are limited by their very nature and a new source of energy is required to power our society in future. They understand the need to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. Yet despite all the hype and hysteria, the influenza pandemic has done more to reduce fossil fuel use than all the carbon taxes and hype combined. Remember Chaos Theory. In the vernacular, sh*t happens. We need to avoid straight-line thinking. The path to a complicated goal is never a straight line. We have time to act in a rational manner.

Do not misunderstand. These events, and potential events, are important and even calamitous occurrences. But historically they are not unique. The point here is two-fold: first that a surfeit of emotion does not make for good decisions, and second that we run the risk of an ultimate 'boy who cried wolf' response to 'scientific' claims.

We can avoid reacting to events in a completely emotional manner by strategic planning. Emotionally-driven responses tend to be poorly thought out. As one recent example, the government of Canada shipped a large quantity of medical protective equipment outside the country early in the epidemic. The press release proudly states, "To support China's ongoing response to the outbreak, Canada has deployed approximately 16 tonnes of personal protective equipment, such as clothing, face shields, masks, goggles and gloves to the country since February 4, 2020." It was a knee-jerk reaction to the epidemic originally centered in Wuhan and an action that may have contributed to medical personnel in Edmonton not long afterward refusing to test people for the virus due to a lack of medical protective equipment. It is possible that some Canadian medical personnel caught the virus due to lack of proper protective equipment. The old saw about fearing the person who says, "I'm from the government and I'm here to help" remains true and the larger the government bureaucracy the more to fear. Especially a government that makes decisions on an emotional and ideological basis.

The credibility of science, one of the absolute foundations of our modern civilization, is in some trouble. With regard to Global Warming, a quote by one of the doyens of science, Stephen Hawking, is instructive. He said, "We don't know where global warming will stop but the worst case scenario is that the earth will become like its sister planet Venus, with a temperature of 250 degrees C and rain sulphuric acid." This is hardly a rational comment. In another vein we can all remember when science told us to stop eating dietary fats because they made us fat and sick. Yet not much later science tells us that fat is a necessary part of one's diet and by itself will not make us obese. This is not to say that all science is bogus. We understand the pressure on academics to publish even when their science is not yet proven. But iterative computer models are not proof of future occurrences. It is instructive to remember that oft-repeated quote with respect to the extremely complicated issue of global climate change: "the science is settled." As a bit of perspective related to Newton's apple, physicists are still not sure about the mechanism and cause of gravity. Even that science is not settled. Science would be more credible with a bit more humility.

I would argue that the current emotional bias of the media, and our response to current challenges, correlates with the rise of social media and other changes to our culture. The effect of social media has been to encourage emotional responses and discourage thoughtful discourse. Exchanges on Twitter are not a real conversation, and Facebook is not a good source of news. Cute photos of pets, while often humorous, encourage emotionalism. A significant portion of the evening television news is often devoted to human interest stories rather than in-depth balanced reporting. We are being poorly served by our media at a time when very important issues require critical and informed thinking.

It would be worthwhile for the average person to take a step back from their phone, read more history, ask less from government, adopt a skeptical attitude, and become more self-reliant. We are a smart and adaptive species endowed with a measure of common sense. That needs to be reflected in our society when the Great Enigmatic Eye of the Media turns to another event.


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