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Will TV news make you a paranoid nut?

Kamilla Berdin mentioned a study by Gerbner on how TV News impacts how people view the world.  Well, I wanted to find out about that, so I searched, and couldn’t find the actual study, but did find the articles on “Mean World Syndrome” and “Cultivation Theory“.  MWS is George Gerbner‘s idea that people who watch television a lot view the world as more hostile than it is.

I can believe it.  I occasionally watch my local news, and the two main takeaways are:

  • There are people all over the place committing heinous crimes
  • Sports.

Crime and sports seem to be the big-ticket items on local news.  The National news, on the other hand, is focused mostly on politics, health issues and foreign relations.  The major points here are:

  • Republicans and Democrats hate one another.
  • There are many diseases and/or foods that will kill you.
  • People in other countries hate one another and, usually, us.

I have been taught from a young age to view everything with a critical eye, so I like to believe that I’m capable of realizing this isn’t an accurate picture of the whole world; just the serious bits of it.  But still, if you had a steady diet of this, you’d think we were living in the world of A Clockwork Orange.  How telling is it that the least angry and life-threatening stories in all are about sport, which is basically a proxy for war?

That’s just the news, which is supposedly what the really well-informed people watch.  Then there are tons of both real and fictional cop shows where people commit bizarre and horrible crimes, just to really drive home the point.  And that’s just the over-the-air television.  I don’t get cable, but I don’t get the impression most of the programming on there is geared more towards thoughtful, civilized thinkers.  I could be wrong.

I remember there was an early “Dilbert” comic where Dogbert starts a “Good News” news network. Ironically, I think this is pretty much what segments like the “Making a Difference” bit on NBC News  are trying to do.  But they come at the end, after we have already been visited by the crime-ridden hellscape that the news presents.

People always ask: “why don’t they report good news”?  Well, there are a few reasons:

  1. It’s almost never urgent  I don’t need to hear about the people who had a nice day,  I need to hear if a gang war is breaking out.
  2. It’s boring.  A part of us is entranced by lurid and violent stuff.
  3. When you factor in the first two reasons, what do you think gets more viewership?

Finally: sometimes, good news does get reported.  The end of wars, for example, tends to get lots of attention, though you could argue that’s not good news, merely the cessation of bad news.

But what about the effect TV has on people?  Does it do what it did to Faye Dunaway’s character in Network?  (Yes, I am aware of the irony in using an analogy from a movie to talk about this.)   But how could you avoid concluding from TV that the world is a horrible place you should minimize contact with? It seems to me that the only options are (a) assume most of what they say on TV is a lie, which is dangerous because you might become a 9/11 truther or something if you do that, OR (b) not watch it, and run the risk of not being “up” on current events.

Lastly, of course, there is the internet; which should allow you to customize your news.  The only problem with that is TV news problem 2, above, which leads us back to where we started.

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  1. August 8, 2012 at 11:00 pm

    I’m glad you took the time to find Gerbner’s study. As I mentioned before, it’s not without its flaws, one of them being the fact that the internet wasn’t as popular at the time and that people didn’t have thousands of news networks, indie newspapers and bloggers to get different world news and opinions from.
    In a way it’s great that we have so much choice nowadays, but at the same time we may not have time to hear about every single important thing that is going on in the world (Even with that, there are differing opinions on topics like wars and politics which makes it even more confusing).
    I guess we can only wait and see what kind of technologies we will have to present us with news in the future, as well as how we will perceive them.

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