Good Spiel

If journalism is a faithful mirror of the world then humanity is in trouble.  Most of its coverage consists principally of bad news, to such an extent that there seems to be no other. The BBC's Tom Stafford explained that it's not the industry's fault.  It covers the dark side because it's what audiences want to see.  Journalists just give people what they want: humanity at its bomb throwing, head-chopping and conniving worst.

In that view the front page is a mirror of mankind. It is a selfie of our sad existence on earth. As proof he cites a study by two researchers at McGill University.

Trussler and Soroka invited participants from their university to come to the lab for "a study of eye tracking". The volunteers were first asked to select some stories about politics to read from a news website so that a camera could make some baseline eye-tracking measures. It was important, they were told, that they actually read the articles, so the right measurements could be prepared, but it didn't matter what they read. ...

The results of the experiment, as well as the stories that were read most, were somewhat depressing. Participants often chose stories with a negative tone – corruption, set-backs, hypocrisy and so on – rather than neutral or positive stories. People who were more interested in current affairs and politics were particularly likely to choose the bad news.

And yet when asked, these people said they preferred good news. On average, they said that the media was too focussed on negative stories. ..

The researchers present their experiment as solid evidence of a so called "negativity bias", psychologists' term for our collective hunger to hear, and remember bad news.

There's no question that many people are fascinated by sordid scenes. The attraction of programs like Bait Car or Cops may lie in the endless spectacle of human wreckage caught in the act of committing genuinely stupid crimes, often under the influence of drugs or alcohol which they invariably make worse by "fighting the poh-lice".  The sight of these ugly, mean and often disgusting people Trussler and Soroka explain, makes us feel good since by comparison most of us are 'better'.  It's schadenfreude pure and simple.

But the McGill University study doesn't explain where the good news went.  Like Dark Matter, good news must exist, even if it is invisible, simply because it must logically be there. The world after all, keeps turning.  Something must be doing it -- besides Space Aliens. Good news does in fact exist and in massive quantities too, ironically hiding in the last place we would look, in those sections regarded as lesser, like the business announcements, entertainment, sports and the advertisements.

Consider the ads.  Allowing for the exagerrations of scammers and con men, they are where the progress of the world is chronicled.  Better gizmos, nicer places to go, niftier cars, better dietary supplements, wider screen displays, more effective relief from aches and pains.  These are things that people constantly produce.  Dig up your old computer and compare it to your new one.  It's a lot of good news.

The real business of the world isn't reported in the headlines but hidden in the inner pages.  Consider Obamacare and medical advances.  Obamcare hogs the front pages while advances in medicine are followed only by obscure trade journalists.  Yet the former doesn't actually do anything except introduce friction, waste money and make unkeepable promises while the latter will bring mobile medical devices, telemedicine, working robotic prosthetics, genetic therapies and nanomedicine -- individualized therapy too -- to the general public within a few short years.

The same is mostly true across the board.

If you had to name ten things "which changed everything" in the last 2 decades nearly all the good stuff will have crept out of woodwork from the inner pages while all the bad stuff was parading above the fold.  You can even think of the inner pages as being in an endless war with the front page, in an unending battle between the ordinary working stiff and the self-important leaders.  The working stiff makes and the self-important leader taxes and wastes. Booms happen when the regular Joe can temporarily outpace the great men and the years of the locust occur when the opposite is true.

To be fair not everyone is oblivious to stuff percolating from the inner pages.  The BBC recently glanced at the ordinary world instead of upward at the Great and the Good and came away horrified by what it saw.  "Be afraid, very afraid," it warned, "the robots are coming and they will destroy our livelihoods". Simona Weinglass of TalkMarkets warns that "massive job loss may be just around the corner", citing two Oxford professors who argue "that half of all jobs in most developed countries could be automated as soon as the next decade or two, leading to large-scale unemployment and social instability."

Where did the robots come from?  Why aren't the guys who invented them as famous as Hillary?   And have you heard? It's been one year since the last polio case was detected in Africa.  One year. The politicians will try and take credit for eradicating the disease, but honestly, most of it was probably the achievement of scientists, doctors and people we've never heard of.   The Guardian reliably informs us that obesity is Africa's new crisis; and that the culprit is the fast food industry. Aren't we lucky to have politicians who can solve this new problem?

Politicians like to pretend they're in control, yet in a fundamental sense maybe they are just along for the ride. They hog public attention attention, but perhaps they're not nearly as important as they think. Mostly they generate bad news.  Without them, what we do for despair?  Maybe the seven o'clock news is just Bait Car or Cops starring Ivy League graduates.

But apart from the occasional glimpses into its terrifying power, the world of the ordinary provides us with most of our good news.  It's where we go when we don't have to answer to the great; it's where humanity seeks refuge, amid the comforting circumstances of home, to repair the stuff the Smart People have broken.


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