By Dirk Vandereyken, COO of the Association of European Journalists Belgium
It seems to be a reproach that has been common throughout the last century or so: journalism often favours sensationalism. It sells more newspapers, buys more subscribers, and gains more followers – or, at least, so does popular opinion contend. Unfortunately, in this case, popular opinion is – at least partially – right.
Over the last few years, sensationalist news has been on the rise. Perhaps even more worryingly, it is positively correlated with distrust in the news media (Kleemans, Hendriks, Beentjes, & Helsinga, 2017), and even seems to be causing some of this disbelief. Indeed, our all too human bias towards negativity makes us pay more attention to bad news than to the many fun and uplifting stories that are to be found out there, and thus it should come as no surprise that negativity helps to sell stories, although some demographics grow too tired and weary of it if served in large enough doses too fast.
I already wrote about how we should fight on the side of facts in the war against them, with the other side overrating the value of opinion over unfalsified hypotheses… but should we also take the effort to write more lighthearted stories? To feature the granddad who managed to save his grandkid’s dog from a burning building more heavily? To talk more extensively about how sweeteners like steviol can be added to chocolate in order to keep down or eliminate sugar?
I would say ‘yes’, but there’s a caveat: many of us don’t have enough time to read or hear about more trivial stories, unless they are about a hobby of ours or they’re funny reviews of a great show like ‘House of the Dragon’ – or about an abysmal one like ‘Rings of Power’. The truth, however, is quite often that bad news matters.
I know a lot of people complain that we’re being too bleak and dreary, that we’re way too focused on dark stories, and that we’re scaring people… but I would dare to say we’re sometimes not scaring them enough.
Maybe far less people would have died if they had taken the corona pandemic more seriously. Maybe some bad international policy decisions wouldn’t have happened. Maybe we’d all support war victims and refugees more unflinchingly if we’d really have been morez immersed in what they they had to go through.
I know it’s an unpopular opinion, but let’s have the debate nonetheless. Are we, as press, doing enough to give people a better sense of the atrocities still being committed on an hourly basis in so many regions or the world? Maybe being just a little scared, without becoming depressed, helps many of us to be empathic and react humanely. It certainly helps in being prepared.
Finding the right balance, then, becomes an issue: being able to live full, physically and mentally healthy lives, love other people and support those who need our help needs to be the ‘ying’ of an important, realistic ‘yang’ sense of danger – not just to us, but to others as well. What’s happening on our planet is, after all, pretty damn frightening sometimes and we shouldn’t let our aversion or avoidance of fear dictate our actions, desensitize us, or make us care less. It is by facing our fears head-on, not by turning our backs at them, that we can grow as individuals as well as a society.