Bad News Pays

Paul Harvey tells why journalists rarely publish good news

Editors’ Note: Every week, 24 million people “stand by” for Paul Harvey’s vivid and astute blend of news and views. In this excerpt from a speech delivered at Michigan’s Hillsdale College last year, Harvey explains why it seems that all we hear from the media is bad news. Read his opinion on bad news, followed by our commentary, and then share your opinion online with us.

     People often say to me, “Paul, why don’t journalists and broadcasters emphasize more good news instead of tragedy, destruction, discord, and dissent?” My own network once tried broadcasting a program devoted solely to good news. The program survived 13 weeks. In Sacramento, California, a tabloid called the Good News Paper printed nothing else. It lasted 36 months before it went bankrupt. A similar Indiana tabloid fared even worse; the publisher had to give it away. Evidently, the good news that people say they want, is news they just won’t buy.
     Listen to any broadcast, pick up any newspaper. Records are crashing; it is the worst wind or the worst fire or flood or earthquake or whatever, because noise makes news. On August 31, 1997, Chicago Tribune sales soared 40 percent due to coverage of the high-speed crash that killed a princess. The very next issue of People made it the lead story and sold more than a million copies. Newsweek and Time broke sales records when they followed suit on September 8 and September 15. For an entire month after the crash, Britain’s biggest newspapers gave 35 percent of their total news coverage to the death of Princess Di. Not even the end of World War II got this much ink.
     As I said, noise makes news. And one gunshot makes more noise than a thousand prayers. That does not mean it is more important–just that it sells more newspapers. The heads of all the major television networks understand this basic fact, and they make sure that news broadcasts are chock-full of noise, right down to the weather report, when the performing meteorologist warns that winter temperature isn’t just 0 degrees–the “chill factor” is 40 degrees below!
     With increasing media competition for our attention, noisy news is steadily increasing, and this leads to all sorts of contradictions: “These pills are bad for you,” or “they are good for you.” Take your choice. (Incidentally, in Jackson, Mississippi, the IRS office got a telephone call from an individual inquiring, “Are birth control pills deductible?” The answer was, “Only if they don’t work.”
     News isn’t news anymore. It is a sound-the-clock warning: “Don’t breathe–the air is toxic! And it is worse indoors than out. Don’t eat–food is contaminated! Don’t drink water with chemicals in it–and for goodness sake, don’t drink water without chemicals in it!”
     The headline writers keep blowing hot and cold:
     Oat Bran Reduces Cholesterol!
     Oat Bran does Not Reduce Cholesterol!
     Coffee Can Cause Pancreatic Cancer!
     Coffee Does Not Cause Pancreatic Cancer!
     Harvard Medical School has just reversed itself, says another news report. About what? You name it. Notes I have kept for my own medical file provide an education in vacillation.
     1950–Salt causes hypertension
     1960–Salt does not cause hypertension
     1970–salt causes hypertension
     1980–salt releases hypertension
     1998–the AMA Journal evaluates 114 separate studies and concludes that salt does not affect hypertension either way.
     One recent issue of the Wall Street Journal says, “Aspirin is good for you,” and “aspirin is bad for you.” And now the Food and Drug Administration wants to declare mother’s milk unsafe. Really!
     Bad news pays. I serve on a foundation board that dispenses large sums for research. Based on this experience, I can assure you that many scholars and experts attempt to secure money for research by producing bad news about our population, our natural resources, and our environment.
     There is a demonstrable fascination with bad news. You could even call it a “proven public preference.”

[Reprinted by permisssion from IMPRIMIS, the monthly journal of Hillsdale College]

Meridian Commentary
     I was interviewing LDS members of Congress for a magazine story several years ago and heard repeated several times, “The vast majority of Senators and Representatives are honorable, hardworking, and admirable.” It surprised me that I was surprised to hear it. Somehow I had bought, without knowing it, the idea that most politicians were riddled like swiss cheese with corruption and self-serving motives. Too much bad news had made me a cynic.
     It reminded me of the story of a woman who was looking through some old books and found one she had received as a child from her parents. The inscription read, “Given the day our great and beloved President Franklin Delano Roosevelt died.” The open respect and esteem for the political leader seemed like a sentiment from another world, another, almost imaginary, era. She couldn’t imagine anyone writing such an expression about any national leader today.
     We know we live in a world where some families are dysfunctional and some politicians corrupt, where violence, greed, and crime mark the lives of some people. But has the need of media and film to capture our attention given us a distorted picture that minimizes and overlooks the good and the noble, until we hardly believe it exists? Even if we don’t watch them, has the daily talk show with its parade of behavior aberrations altered our view of humanity?
     Sometimes it seems that our world, as seen through the media, is like a car’s side mirror with the warning: Objects in mirror are closer than they appear. We should be warned that media has its own distortions, making our world through its mirror often appear darker and meaner than it really is. God sees humanity as his children, laced with light and potential. The assumption behind much of what we see and hear in the media is that humanity is depraved.
     Bad news pays, apparently, but in my opinion, bad news also has its costs. In fact, it may cost dearly. One California newspaper has a back page titled “News of the Weird.” How long before readers who focus on that become certain that the world, in fact, is weird?
     Fed a steady diet of bad news, our outlook may be reshaped, until we become disheartened, convinced that misery and evil is the only reality. Apathy and numbness follow. “Numb and number” reads a local billboard advertising Altoid Mints. That’s the natural progression of our sensibilities as we are saturated with a focus on bad news.
     If Satan had carefully orchestrated a way to enervate us, he couldn’t be more effective than to teach us this sham–that the world is relentlessly mean, and evil is the rule. It’s the discouraging outlook that sometimes makes voters apathetic and dries up the energy for good causes with the cynical phrase: “You can’t make a difference anyway.”
     It’s that same tone that portrays happiness or goodness as superficial, simplistic, and out-of-touch. When LDS businessman, Mitt Romney, ran against Teddy Kennedy in the 1994 Massachusetts senatorial race, an article in the Boston Globe jabbed him for his solid, intact family, leaving readers with the assumption that the Romneys were just too good to be true, a sort of plastic Ken and Barbie.
     The problem with living in a media age is that our attention is so often directed by the noise to the negative, the seamy and the discouraging. Do we know how much this view affects and reshapes us?

     ~Maurine Jensen Proctor


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