Janine Lazarus
Janine Lazarus

Is society’s fascination with negativity more pervasive that we might realise? JANINE LAZARUS thinks so

 

To hell with complacency, I am sick of it. Absolutely and utterly done. If one of my compatriots in the media gets charged one more time with covering only the bad news and doing diddly-squat for nation building, I might blow a gasket. Reporters may not provide their readers with a smorgasbord of sunshine, lollipops or rainbows, but like it or not – disaster is way more compelling. Sensationalism and fear sells. This unfortunate fact of life won’t change anytime soon.

This subject made for an interesting debate on seasoned host Ashraf Garda’s media@safm talk show when he invited his listeners to call in with their views on why a daily parade of suffering seems to fill the news space.

I think we can all agree that our planet is not a kind place. In fact, if you read the news, you’ll know unscrupulous politicians, rapacious bankers, debauched priests, racist college students and hordes of armed zealots populate the world. And let’s not even begin the conversation on crime and social violence … all bleak stuff.

But the point I made which fell in line with the view of Sunday World Editor Abdul Milazi, but perhaps not with Wits Professor of Journalism, Jane Duncan, was that while the media may sell negative world views, it is a business that succeeds by attracting viewers and readers. It is not that reporters, writers and editors are by nature pessimistic. The fact is that good news doesn’t sell.

What may more important than casting blame at the media for a steady diet of death and deception, let’s examine what this depressing slant says about its audience. Russian news site City Reporter attempted to report only the good news to its readers for a day. Only ‘silver linings,’ feel-good stories and openly optimistic alternatives were permitted in its coverage. Bad news was verboten.

The result: The City Reporter lost two-thirds of its normal readership that day. Psychologists at McGill University in Canada term society’s predilection for bad news a “negativity bias.” So our attraction to bad news may be more complex than pure journalistic cynicism.

People in an information-rich environment may have more to lose from neglecting to learn about a negative trend or event, than to gain from awareness of a positive one. And people may inadvertently seek out bad news because they don’t want those bad situations to happen to them.

As a former crime reporter, my job was to report on the darkness that lies within so much of society – not to catch the rapists, paedophiles and killers. That was the job of the authorities. And when they didn’t get it right, I made it my business to report on it.

I don’t believe that it’s the job of the media to nation-build. We have an elected government to do that. And if they get it wrong, then we are duty bound to ask the tough questions and to bring their failures to light.

The role of the media in a democracy is to monitor error, to be the public’s vigilant watchdog. There no choice for the mass media but to expose all instances of injustice found at every level of society.

And let’s not forget that bad news can actually be good news because it illustrates a society that still cares when bad things happen to good people. To hell with complacency!