Why is it that “all the news that’s fit to print” is so often bad news? The old saying that “if it bleeds, it leads” is not just a saying. Studies have shown that new agencies disproportionately report on crime, and that this is one of the things that causes people to overestimate their likelihood of criminal victimization. I don’t know if it has been studied empirically, but there is certainly a sense that some more dramatic crimes like spree killings are influenced by news coverage of previous events. And even suicide might also be “contagious” in being passed from person to person through news coverage.
So, I was interested to hear this morning that The Huffington Post is going to devote more of its news resources to cover “What’s Working” – i.e., good news. Founder Ariana Huffington told NPR’s All Things Considered that the choices media organizations have made to “focus mostly on bad news — crazies, rapes, mayhem — is having real consequences,” Huffington says. She added, “I believe that human beings, all of us, are a mixture of good and evil, if you want. And that the more we can encourage the better angels — it’s like strengthening a muscle — the more that will be the dominant behavior.”
I noted her reference to “better angels” because I have been reading and re-reading Steven Pinker’s massive (700 page) book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, for some time now. In it Pinker has documented in mind-numbing detail that “… violence has declined over long stretches of time, and today we may be living in the most peaceable era in our species’ existence.”
In drawing this conclusion, Pinker looks at evidence from every conceivable form of violence, including warfare, murder, slavery, sadistic punishment, rape, hate crimes, deadly riots, child abuse, and animal abuse. He finds that they have all declined over the course of human history.
If you don’t have time to read his 700 page door-stopper, you can get a 90 minute version in a video posted on the website edge.org.
And yet judging from the news, the world is going to hell in a hand basket. Both pro- and anti-gun people use fear of violence to promote their ends (though in different ways). Neither side has an interest in accepting that the world we live in is becoming ever safer, even if in some ways less predictable. Which reminds me of a conclusion that Barry Glassner comes to in his book on The Culture of Fear: “The more things improve, the more pessimistic we become.”