Steven Pinker opined in the Guardian on February 17th that there is an overwhelming trend towards negative reporting in news outlets. For a child growing up with cable and satellite television and the myriad channels dedicated solely to the dissemination of news and having seen first hand how the lead topics of every nightly report are murder, rape, war, and graft, this trend is no surprise. I have only ever known the news to report first and foremost on the worst of the worst. As Mr. Pinker pointedly remarks, the adage of the day is if it bleeds, it leads. Having also lived in a small town, then a big city, and then to a small city, I have seen a wide spectrum of how this plays out. On the local channels there is typically a nod to a trending national headline (almost always negative) followed by local headlines. In the larger towns this usually starts with who was murdered that day or if no one was, the next most egregious list of crimes that occurred.
In our current situation we are fortunate that the list of crimes is usually fairly short and mercifully aligned with drug overdoses or bank robberies, not mass murders or worse. It has gotten to the point where I no longer watch the news because frankly, I am not interested in hearing about all the bad things that have happened that day. I have no doubt they occur and I am not supposing that ignorance will yield bliss or make the problems go away. But simply put, there really is nothing I can do to stop a drug dealer from dealing his drugs. I cannot stop a group of gang members from shooting each other, and I cannot intervene when a parent abuses his children. The Federal and state authorities are tasked with this effort. Instead, I try to focus on the areas that I can impact. I look for the politicians who will support tough crime laws that will directly empower those authorities tasked with preventing or at least cleaning up the mess left behind by evil. I look for opportunities to create positive outcomes for our community so that there will be fewer people who feel helpless and turn to crime as what they perceive to be the only solution to their predicaments in life. I try to find ways to bring good to the world when it seems all we hear is bad.
As Mr. Pinker points out, the statistics reflect that there is a propensity for apathy or inactivity when the situation seems hopeless. Why do anything if everything you do has no effect? Pinker also published a study which reflects statistically that the world is currently in the most peaceful era it has ever seen (as measured by violent deaths per 100,000 people). There are fewer wars occuring now then any other time in known, recorded history. Would you have believed that from watching your news feed today? I know from my personal experience that if I had to answer whether I thought the world was safer or more unstable and dangerous I would have to default to the latter. Why? Because despite the evidence to the contrary (evidence which goes underreported or not reported at all) the multitude of news stories is focused on the negative. I don’t know if this is a function of the human condition or not. Are we so guilt ridden from original sin that we cannot fathom to be deserving of peace and prosperity? Maybe we just need violence and disruption in order to feel important.
I cannot begin to speak for anyone other than myself but I will say that there was a time when I intensely obeserved the news, formulated my strong opinion about the need for a crackdown in all phases of life to stop the bad guys, and vowed to be vigilant in the efforts of justice in the face of lawlessness. And then I had children. I watched them play unassumingly and unaware of the evils and dangers that were, according to eyewitness news accounts, around every fathomable corner. My children weren’t, fortunately, in danger of imminent abduction or murder. Now, I count my blessings that I have been fortunate to live in neighborhoods where gang violence and drug abuse are not prevalent but crime doesn’t just happen in these places and the news is all too happy to report this.
So after careful observation I started focusing more on the positives. Laughter, empathy, friendship. And while I am aware that danger still exists, I am also focused more on how my children have given me the hope and courage to focus on the positives in the world. You see, it’s easy to gravitate to the negative. It makes you feel good to not be the bad guy. It’s easy to say you did the right thing by condemning the man who raped his neighbor or the “sicko” who shot up a country music concert. But it’s hard to do something about it beyond the words. It’s hard to give up a Friday evening to go serve dinner to 100 strangers who have no home and are in desperate need of a hot meal to fill their stomachs. It’s hard to volunteer your time at the county jail to bring comfort to a man who may have committed unforgivable crimes and to remind him that he is still a man, flawed like us all, but deserving of love nonetheless. It is hard to forego that next latte or round of golf so you can donate to a charity that serves those in need, or those who are sick, or those who may not look, believe, or think like you. Fortunately, there are a lot of people out there that make those sacrifices. I only wish the news spent more time lauding their efforts, mundane as they might seem for the ratings gurus.
Perhaps the ratings for good deeds are low because those good deeds remind us of how we all could do more. And the reminder that we aren’t as profundly good as we think ourselves to be is a turnoff. It certainly is a lot easier to feel good about myself when I see all the bad things others are doing that I am not. I can boast of my goodness relative to those who are stealing, murdering, and waging a war of unjustice. But looking at the great deeds of others puts into stark relief that which I am not doing. Am I living the life of Christ, a life for others or am I living a life of me, focused on my happiness, my personal gains, my status in society? If the answer is the latter then it is no wonder that I am drawn to negative news as a buffer to my own falibility.
The great news is that we can all break this habit if we deep down desire to do so. It is not easy, no habit is easy to break. But in doing so we will live a life far more fulfilling and far more impactful than the one we live by just not being that guy on the news whose mugshot is the lead story. We need those good news stories to challenge us to be better. It’s okay for us to look at others and feel bad for not doing more. In fact it might be really healthy for us. A reminder that we can be better and should try. Seeing someone just like us who is capable of making a difference should inspire us and give us the confidence that we too can do the same thing. It doesn’t take someone special to do something good. Quite the opposite. If you really look at it, it takes someone special to commit an act of evil, if not, then there would be a lot more people committing crimes in this world right? The fact is that we don’t need to be, and probably outght not be, special. We just need to be us and we need to make a committment to do good for others. The ratings might not be there but the path to salvation, to a happier life, and a safer planet surely is.