The media knows what sells—negativity. Newspapers, social media, and TV broadcasts can smell it in the air like a wild animal, nose upturned to pinpoint the threat.
The coronavirus pandemic and other recent events have sharpened the media’s instincts to a whip-thin edge. They’ve always known the key to a reader’s heart is through emotion, and negative ones grab our attention quicker than others. But as they hone their skills, reporters and bloggers have tapped into the one emotion that is strong enough to overpower our logic and reason.
Fear has turned reasonable and smart people into something ugly, and mostly, unrecognizable. We all struggle to gain control of our fear, a powerful emotion that can eat away at our humanity. Fear is an emotion hefted with threats to our safety. It gives people permission to react with primal vigilance to their surroundings, as animals who feel they must destroy so they can live.
The success of fear-based news relies on drama and frames headlines around the adage: if it bleeds, it leads. The fear quotient has soared to new heights, or perhaps more accurately new lows, with the COVID reporting. Fear is in every headline, and it’s changing the way people behave toward one another.
✔︎Yes, the pandemic will change our life, if not in the long-term then certainly in the short-term.
✔︎Yes, we need to take precautions, heed the advice of health care professionals, wear masks, and keep social distancing.
✔︎No, we do not need yet another interview with a self-proclaimed expert who predicts everyone who gets COVID will die of it.
✔︎No, we do not need more white-collar people who can work from home as easily as from the office to tell the rest of us we can’t go to work so we can pay our bills.
✔︎Yes, we need responsible reporters and bloggers to staunch the panic seeping into our society.
Here are tips on how to overcome the power of fear-based media:
1. Understand Negative News Is Meant To Sell To You
Fear gets our attention, and the media knows it. A vast body of research confirms that destructive emotions are stronger than pleasant ones. We shouldn’t shove all the blame on the media. We, as consumers of news, have trained reporters and journalists to focus on grim news.
We have a strong negativity bias that keeps us safe from threats in our environment. It’s thought to be an adaptive evolutionary function. Good news is nice, but not essential for our survival.
Our negativity bias explains why we:
Think about insults more than compliments
Respond quicker to negative information
Dwell on unpleasant or traumatic events more than pleasant ones
Focus our attention more on negative rather than positive information
How To Make It Work For You: One of the most effective ways to get a handle on our negativity bias is to look at your situation objectively. Even in the worst of circumstances, we can find silver linings. We may need to hunt to find those silver linings, but more often than not, what we are truly mourning is a death in the way we thought our life would unfold. A mentally tough person believes they will survive their circumstances rather than believe their circumstances will change.
Whether it’s a blog, TV newscast, or newspaper, take the time to read beyond the headline. Never forget that news is a money-making industry and negative headlines are meant to grab our attention. The days of Walter Cronkite and straightforward news is history.
Instead, fear-based news stories prey on our anxieties and then hold us hostage. Cable news stations and newspapers work with headline consultants and train their editors to pull together headlines that will induce fear.
How To Make It Work For You: If you read the article to the end, you’ll soon discover that the headlines are often misleading or sensationalist. The headline highlights the most negative point of the story so that the “frightening fact” is more fiction than fact. Choose print media to update you on what passes for news rather than visual media because it reduces the likelihood that you’ll be exposed to junk images intended to squeeze out a few tears.
3. Fear Produces Irrational Behavior
Life can be scary. Loss of a job, a pandemic, or violence set off alarm bells for any normal person. Lots of anxiety and stress create emotional reactions that smell a lot like fear. This becomes a problem because fear has a direct effect on our behavior.
We’ve already seen how people made fools of themselves as they carted off a year’s worth of toilet paper at the beginning of the quarantine. Was that logical behavior? Of course not! We do stupid things when we don’t understand events that could threaten our safety and health.
What the media doesn’t realize, or maybe they do deep in their dry little hearts, is that panic is contagious. When people see that Costco has sold out of toilet paper and bottled water, they tell themselves they also need to stock up.
The herd mentality (also known as mob mentality) means that people think and imitate the same behaviors as those around them and often ignore common sense in the process. For anyone who ever attended high school, this is a social concept called conformity, and it’s a huge reason we follow the crowd to fit in.
How To Make It Work For You: We’re all social beings and want the approval of our peers. If they buy baskets of bananas during a pandemic, we’ll do the same thing. If they trash stores and burn cars during a protest that’s turned into a looting spree—wait. No, you don’t always have to follow the herd.
Protesters are activists fighting injustice. Looters are thugs feeding our fear.
Bottom line—check your gut. Is this something you’re doing because you need some modicum of control in your out-of-control life? Is this something you’re doing because others are doing it? Or does this feel like something you need to do at this point in time? Take a break and figure it out.
4. Know Your Triggers
The first time I pulled the trigger on a shotgun at the FBI Academy the recoil was so powerful that my right shoulder felt like someone had hit it with a sledgehammer! I didn’t fall backward, but I needed to regain my balance before I lowered the muzzle and prepared for the next shot.
Instinctively, I became afraid of a weapon that could literally kick my butt. As I hesitated, my firearms instructor started shouting, “Lean into it! Treat it like a lover. Hold it close and hold it tight.”
That day I learned something important about fear—to increase safety, move toward the threat. The more we get to know about it, the less power it has over us.
Fear left in darkness will continue to grow until you bring it into the light.
How To Make It Work For You: Before you can master your fear, you must first acknowledge it. Rather than avoiding it, notice it and use it as a guide to sharpen focus and decision-making. Do not let fear generating by the media get out of control and become panic. A little fear keeps you on your toes. It keeps you from becoming complacent. It can be an excellent opportunity to develop courage, confidence, and discipline. Ask yourself, “What can I learn from this?” “How much of my fear is coming from the media’s need to generate sales?”
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