Why the News Is Loaded With Violence
The answer involves attention systems of the brain.
Posted Jan 14, 2016
If it bleeds, it leads according to a journalistic aphorism. This emphasis distorts reality and reinforces grisly crimes. But where in the human psyche does it come from?
One way of answering this question is to look at the design of the brain as an attention system. Attention is controlled in the brain stem through the reticular activating system (RAS). This functions as an alarm so that an animal gets moving quickly if it detects a dangerous predator.
The Reptilian Brain and Attention
Journalism aims to get people's attention, which is another way of saying that it activates their RAS that sends a jolt of electrical excitement throughout the entire brain. The best way of stimulating the RAS is to depict frightening events, whether it is natural disasters, terrorist attacks, fires, floods, homicides, or grisly traffic accidents.
These facts of basic brain biology help to explain why so much of news coverage revolves around body counts. Journalism is analogous to an electrode that is permanently implanted in a rabbit's brain stem, and sends periodic jolts of fear.
Does Media Violence Serve any Useful Function?
What is the point of sending jolts of fear through the audience every day? One obvious justification is that journalism keeps us informed about threats to our life and limb so that we can avoid that traffic pileup, or dress warmly if there is a life-threatening wind chill, or cancel a trip to some country where a bloody civil war just broke out.
In general, though, coverage of violent events, such as school shootings, has minimal public benefit of this kind. Instead it is pure pandering. It is as though that rabbit within us had gotten addicted to its morning jolt of electricity.
Violence in news coverage is potentially harmful in two different ways. One is that it presents a distorted picture of reality. Most people believe that we live in a very violent world when the number of violent deaths is actually much lower than it had ever been before (1). This is not just a matter of factual confusion about homicide rates and warfare mortality. Unfortunately, it creates a great deal of unnecessary anxiety, not to mention delusions of danger, and gun purchases (2).
The other practical problem with the media obsession with bloodshed is that it may encourage insecure individuals to make a name for themselves by carrying out a mass shooting or other act of unprovoked brutality. Every age has its nutty narcissistic killers but modern media give them the instant celebrity that they crave.
Whatever about the motives of deranged murderers, one has to assume that violence does something for the audience. This impression is strengthened by the amount of violence in entertainment. What is reinforcing about witnessing fictional violence? Does this apply to violence in the news. Is it connected to sexuality in entertainment?
Sex and Violence in Entertainment
Journalism and fiction intersect in much popular entertainment from police procedurals to reality TV. The former are often extremely grisly with multiple homicide victims showing up in each episode, often with signs of torture, or mutilation. Why do people get out of viewing such fictional aggression. What are sex scenes so frequently intercut with violent episodes?
Research on responses to violent entertainment finds a number of reliable short-term effects (3). It increases physiological arousal consistent with the notion that people pay attention, or that the RAS is active. People who are exposed to a lot of violent entertainment also develop a taste for it, suggesting that it is somehow pleasurable.
Moreover, people who identify with perpetrators of violence in a story experience an increase in testosterone output (whether men or women, 4). In other words, they respond as though they were (a) in an actual fight and (b) winning the confrontation.
Such findings help to explain why violence is so common in many media types including TV news, fiction, and video games. All aim to grab our attention, and keep us interested.
That violence provides a jolt of physiological arousal is hardly a surprise. But why does the blood and gore so often come wrapped up in sexuality, whether it is a provocatively-dressed news presenter, or the intercutting of love scenes with murders in police procedurals?
Why is Sex Served along with Violence?
If violence grabs attention, then surely sex scenes would do the same? Sex scenes also get attention and increase autonomic arousal because they mimic events that our ancestors evolved to pay attention to (5).
This suggests that sexuality plays an artistic role in generally violent fiction, If it were all violence, however gory or frightening, the audience might get habituated and begin to tune it out. This is prevented by intercutting a sex scene that has a very different tone but still provides a jolt to the RAS.
So violence pervades journalism, and other video content, because it is an easy way to get our attention. Sexual content is included because it keeps our attention from wandering.
1 Pinker, S. (2011). The better angels of our nature: Why violence has declined. New York: Viking Penguin.
2 Mueller, J. (2006). Overblown: How politicians and the terrorism industry inflate national security threats and why we believe them. New York: Free Press.
3 Anderson, C. A., et al. (2010). Video game effects on aggression, empathy and prosocial behavior in Eastern and Western countries: a meta-analytic review. Psychological Bulletin, 136, 151-173.
4 Wierstall, R., et al. (2014). Testosterone reactivity and identification with a perpetrator or a victim in a story are associated with attraction to violence-related cues. International Journal of Law and Psychiatry, 37, 304-312.
5 Lull, R. B., and Bushmann, B. J. (2015). Do sex and violence sell? Psychological Bulletin, 141, 1022-1048.