Our Insatiable Appetite for Gloomy News

New Zealand Herald, August 20, 2003

Denis Dutton


You’ve heard the news: after years of overcast, cool summers with damp garden parties and drenched concerts in the park, the British have something novel to worry about - an unusually hot, sunny summer.

You’d think they would be grateful, but that’s not how the mind works: for every silver lining, a dark cloud must be found. It’s been frightfully hot in the underground, there’s insufficient air-conditioning in shops, trains last week were running slow for fear of buckled tracks, a 92-year-old man was found dead on a park bench.

So what else is new? It’s the hottest average European summer in half a century, which means, by the way, that 50 years ago it was pretty hot, too.

There is a psychological pattern in this. We love bad news. Don’t blame it on editors: our addiction to gloom, doom, and misfortune is as persistent a fact of the human psyche as our love of sweetness and fat.

During the million-plus years of our hunter-gatherer evolution, we developed more than just genetic preferences in sex and food. We also evolved universal tastes and preferences for how we process information — the kinds of stories that engage our interest.

It’s no use demonising Rupert Murdoch: our news tastes predate Morse’s telegraph or Gutenberg’s printing press by a million years. Journalism did not create them, it simply serves them. So herewith a basic diagnosis of the news preferences of homo sapiens:

First, we enjoy good news but pay more attention to bad news. This might have been a useful preference for Pleistocene hunter-gatherers trying to avoid danger, but it makes for distorted understandings today.

In 1998, much was made of the “disastrous” El Nino that caused floods, mudslides, crop damage and at least 10 deaths across California, as well as killer tornadoes in Florida. Anyone who followed the news of that episode would have been aware of these terrible facts.

Later on, the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society totalled up the costs of the 1998 El Nino and balanced it against benefits: 850 fewer human deaths from cold, lower oil use, fewer ice-caused traffic injuries, diminished spring floods..

The costs of that El Nino were US$4 billion (NZ$6.7 billion), while the benefits stood at $19 billion, plus the incalculable value of the hundreds of lives spared. Few ever saw this final reckoning. The mainstream media ignored it: they were undoubtedly pursuing their next climate disaster.

Secondly, we are more impressed by personal stories of joy and distress than by tedious facts and figures.

Journalistic puff pieces about alternative medicines, for instance, usually begin with a heart-warming tale of hope and apparent healing. This always trumps authentic medical research showing that the therapy doesn’t work. So a joyful mother tells us how she cured her colicky baby with aromatherapy. Did it work? Of course it did. Who ever heard of a colicky 18-year-old?

This eye for the personal — probably a heritage of having evolved in non-literate bands where information was always communicated face to face — is well understood by astute feature editors.

Television producers, who think the zoom lens was invented for close-ups of tears rolling down cheeks, know how to exploit it. But it means that important though abstract issues are not adequately reported or understood.

Thirdly, we are persistently rational in the extent to which we prefer to see important, unexpected news events as part of large, coherent plans. When religion held sway weather disasters were seen as rational acts of God, usually punishment inflicted on us.

Today, even people who’ve given up on God still like the idea of a rational world — hence their love of conspiracy theories. That Princess Diana stupidly placed herself in the hands of her irresponsible boyfriend and his drunken chauffeur is hard to accept, so many will prefer to blame it on a plot involving the Queen and MI6.

The assassination of President Kennedy and the events of September 11 have generated equally loony theories. It makes for a more comprehensible world.

Besides ascribing intelligible causes to shocking events, conspiracy theories also feed our desire to find someone to blame, or to extract a moral lesson from every misfortune. We feel more comfortable living in a morally just world.

The New Zealand media are particularly adept at finding some hapless soul — usually a harried, underpaid social worker — to blame for any violent family breakdown, or some doctor to pillory for every misread x-ray or misdiagnosed disease.

Even the weather has become a stage on which good or evil act out their parts. Newsweek’s Howard Fineman reports that French media are blaming the European weather on the Americans, for not signing the Kyoto Protocol — odd, since the Kyoto treaty would not have any effect for years.

Of course, Fineman says, France is not itself at fault, even though its vehicle fleet contains millions of diesel engines and its nuclear power plants are turning French rivers hot enough to boil mussels.

By the way, the world is not generally more prone to natural disasters today than in the past: there were mighty tornadoes and deadly heatwaves in the 1930s, and dreadfully cold weather in the 17th century. What has changed is reporting.

Years ago, a hurricane in Panama or landslide in Laos would barely register a wire report. Today, video footage from anywhere can be uploaded through satellites and seen everywhere. Since it is likely a dramatic weather event is happening somewhere on Earth every day, TV will always have plenty of footage of extreme weather. What has changed are damage costs: the same tornado that would have merely churned up empty Florida farmland in the 1930s demolishes housing today.

We have not outgrown what were probably the tastes of our ancestors for sexual gossip, drama and morality stories in whatever counted as “news” in the Paleolithic age. Our ancestors needed accurate information to survive, and you’d think we would prefer accurate news today.

But some scientists have argued that our ancestors were none too choosy about the truth of their myths and ideologies. Even false ideas, fervently believed, can powerfully unite a people. The history of religion, down to the modern era, seems to bear this out. Why do we expect that the news values of modern media should be much better?

This is a depressing notion for those of us who value truth and fact over delusion and wishful thinking. But maybe we should all just relax and enjoy the weather. A letter last week from my sister-in-law in Germany expressed pleasure in the splendidly warm summer. And in a side-effect of the heat, French and German wineries are predicting a spectacular year, perhaps even better than the legendary 1947 vintage.

Great weather? Superb wine? Surely the media will be able to turn that news into tales of deadly heatstroke, skin cancer and alcoholism. Don’t shoot the editors. They are giving us what we want.