Is the World Really That Bad?
How the news media often represent the world as worse than it really is.
Posted Aug 28, 2018
Some people say that they feel that life is meaningless because the world is full of evil and suffering. When I suggest that it also includes a lot of good and contentment, they often ask me, incredulously, whether I ever opened a newspaper or watched the evening news.
Indeed, the news media tell us of immense suffering and evil: natural disasters such as hurricanes, tsunamis, earthquakes, and fires, and human wrongdoing such as murders, rapes, frauds, and criminal negligence. We also know that much that is bad in the world does not get reported at all because human badness is often concealed, and there is just not enough space to report all the evil and suffering. On the basis of this information, it is easy to develop the view that there is suffering and evil all around, and that the world is pervasively bad.
However, it is important to remember that the news media usually present a skewed picture of the world. Their reporting is slanted not only in the sense that it often leans to this or that political position, but in the sense that it leans towards a disproportional representation of the negative aspects of reality. News media hardly report on goodness and contentment; instead, they focus almost exclusively on wrongdoing, evil and suffering. Thus, they give us a radically mistaken picture of what the world is like.
For example, an increase in the crime rate typically receives more attention than a decrease in crime rate. In newspapers, an increase in crime will be discussed in longer articles that appear closer to the front pages and headed by larger titles than would a decrease in crime. In broadcasted news the decrease in crime may well not be reported at all.
Likewise, a hundred cases in which passersby assist a senior citizen who experiences some difficulty in the street, or show sympathy for her, will not be reported. One case in which a passerby mocks a senior citizen will be reported. If the passerby stole something from the senior citizen the headlines will be yet larger. And if he also hurt her physically, the news item is more likely to make it to the front page.
Forty years of a person's consistent honesty are not reported. One case of dishonesty is. Ten thousand people who do not steal are not mentioned. One person who does is discussed in detail. Newspapers do not mention good, decent, or law-abiding conduct; you don't get to hear in the news about the many cases of honesty, justice, loyalty, decency, trustworthiness, kindness, charity, reliability, appropriateness, warmth, contentment, harmony, and happiness, as if they never existed at all.
The news media, then, are strongly slanted towards reporting the negative aspects of reality. They report many more negative events than positive ones, describe the negative ones with much more detail, and emphasize the negative ones with larger headlines that people remember better. The picture of reality the news media present is much worse than reality in fact is, simply because an important aspect of reality—that having to do with goodness and contentment—is largely filtered out.
Of course, there are reasons for the way the news providers conduct themselves. One is that many journalists see the news media as an important instrument for guarding society against corruption, inefficiency, cruelty, and other types of wrongness and evil. By pointing out bad phenomena, news media help direct attention to them, thereby increasing the likelihood that they will be corrected. The news media perform an important social role. Put differently, news media focus on the dysfunctional rather than on the functional because the functional does not need to be mended.
Another reason for the focus on negative phenomena is financial. Many find suffering and evil interesting, but contentment and goodness boring. Crime fascinates, law-abiding doesn't. Conflict, danger and crisis sell; harmony, safety and peacefulness don't. And news media certainly want to sell.
There are more reasons for the strong bias towards negativity in reporting. But the present point is that this strong bias exists. Thus, if we rely on the media uncritically, that is, without reminding ourselves that it is heavily slanted towards reporting the bad rather than the good, we can find ourselves getting a mistaken, overly negative impression of reality, which may lead to wrong views about the meaning of life.
Indeed, there is much that is bad and terrible in the world. There are some horrific events happening all the time. But there is also much that is good and wonderful in the world. There are also some splendid things that happen in it all the time. It is important not to ignore the negative or positive aspects of reality. Many of us need a more balanced picture of the world than that offered in the news, and should remind ourselves that it is slanted.