Scaring the news
Good news doesn't sell. Bad news does. Perhaps it’s the primeval impulse to protect ourselves that alerts us to stories of fear and horror. We need to understand, if only to be assured, that the latest terrible incident was far away or happened in such unique circumstances that we could not possibly be affected. Newspaper proprietors recognise and exploit these fears. It’s better business to make the news disturbing so that we will click urgently on an Internet link or rush into a newsagency to read more lurid detail.
In the past, such items were the territory of ‘the yellow press’ but the techniques of yellow journalism have now become mainstream and more widespread. Such journalism relies on scandal, sensationalism, exaggeration and a sense of impending doom. As a nineteenth century American pejorative, the term ‘yellow press’ is not much heard these days and has been replaced by more modern expressions such as ‘beat-up’ and ‘spin’.
Despite the unceasing violence and catastrophe promised in bold headlines, many of the reports that follow describe surprisingly unthreatening events or are embroidered to the point of incredulity. Vehement words now intensify even sports reports, economic news and the food section . We have become used to them. It seems that sports teams these days are never soundly defeated, they are ‘slaughtered’ or ‘massacred’. The stock market does not merely fall, it ‘plummets’ and investors are ‘wiped out’. Even the food pages are full of recipes for pulled pork and smashed avocado!
The so-called War on Terror has provided nourishing fodder for such journalism. Random attacks and indiscriminate bombings have made us all nervous. We are keeping a watchful eye on television news and trying our best to be alert but not alarmed. The atmosphere of threat is good for newspaper sales, especially if journalists can conjure a daily diet of sensational headlines. It’s a losing battle for print media though. Newspaper sales are dropping as we obtain the latest news almost immediately via the Internet and social media. The large black headline is being replaced by clickbait.
The Internet, where gossip, rumour and conspiracy theories abound, has become fertile ground for newspaper online editions where they reside as semi-credible sources among millions of other websites. The readers’ task is to discern fact from fiction but this is difficult with increased hyperbole and sensationalism. The following entirely unscientific analysis of a single day’s headlines in a major newspaper shows something of the tone.
Readers might have thought that 31 August 2016 was a particularly violent day in the history of the world, that people all over the planet were assaulting one another with more than ordinary gusto. Here then is a list of words that assailed readers on that day:
The Age Online Homepage, Wednesday 31 August
What a wearying and miserable trudge it was to follow the items down the page. How unsettling and nerve-wracking! Foregoing my usual morning coffee I settled for a cup of camomile tea and a good lie down.
(Above image of newspapers courtesy Erin Fields UBC/Wikipedia)