Is the news informing or irritating you?


Few people trust those who make the news. Photo: Mijke Schaap (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)


Only 11% of Australians find television journalists trustworthy, according to research by Roy Morgan. The same survey found only 15% of Australians rated newspaper journalists as ethical and honest.

The news was envisioned as a public service to inform people of current events locally and from around the world. But contemporary news could be seen as moving from that noble concept, where what’s at stake commercially and political dogma are more important than the public interest.

As a behavioural scientist, the dominance of negativity in ‘modern’ news can be traced to documented negativity bias – that is, we are more inclined to focus our attention on bad news. This is thought to be because threats and corresponding fear are more important for survival than non-threats.

So, it’s not the fault of the audience – but this bias can be exploited by the media.

There are positive news sites like the Good News Network and positive news but let’s face it, the odds are you didn’t know they existed until just now and you might forget about them by the time you’re done reading this article.

Emotional Manipulation

A recent simple example of emotionally manipulative media is this article from where the commentator argues that a photoshoot with a supermodel and her 18 year old daughter is inappropriate, with the tag line ‘I would never pose with my daughter like Heidi Klum – it’s wrong’.

While the commentator makes good points about the exploitative nature of modelling, the article is a duplicate from the same source two days earlier with different copy but with riskier pictures than the original.

What was the actual point of the second article?

It didn’t require more pictures, or any at all; it’s a very incongruent message, with ‘this is bad in my opinion but it’s a free world’ kind of vibes with a dash of ‘aren’t they pretty’ thrown in.

A cynic would almost think that when they changed the text and duplicated the content from celebrities to parenting that they were just padding out copy and trying for a different demographic with which to engage.

Moral Panics

Moral panics take place when journalists report on a subject in such a way as to elicit an emotional response in the reader by having them believe that the moral foundation of society is under attack in some way.

The Baa Baa Rainbow Sheep “scandals” occurred in both the UK and Australia with articles claiming the world was going too far with “political correctness” when nursery rhymes came under attack for inferring a racial component to the colour of a sheep.

I’m sure a reader thought “won’t someone think of the children” while clutching at their imaginary pearls.

Subsequent reports that incensed the public into writing many angry letters were very different in their storytelling of the original UK and Australian incidents, leaving out the fact that it was individuals and not policy makers who made these decisions.

It’s almost like certain parts of the media wanted to undermine faith in public institutions’ inclusive policies by misreporting.

Missing White Girl Syndrome

This kind of story is a guaranteed attention grabber with the younger the victim the better, but why would this be considered manipulation?

Media companies know that audiences are more likely to respond to those in their perceived “in group”, so that they have a tendency to over report missing white girls compared to missing people of colour.

The media tends to saturate the story of a missing white girl for weeks, as opposed to coverage of a missing person of colour who might get a single report.

Recently in Australia the disappearance of Cleo Smith in remote WA caused media in the eastern seaboard to be saturated with the story.

Since this occurred during the pandemic, under normal circumstances WA is a week’s drive across multiple sates – with the lockdowns it was virtually impossible to cross state lines.

Why was the story so reported when there was an effectively zero chance that anyone in the eastern states would have any information.

In contrast children of colour do not get anything near that same response-unless they are taken by a serial killer they have little if any national recognition.

Since Cleo’s story had a happy ending reported around the world (for example in both the UK and USA) with her kidnapper being a lonely mentally troubled person who seemed to want to share his doll collection with a real person, the story had little follow up.

Unlike Daniel Morecombe who met a sad end, and whose story gets rehashed every few years, with the risk of re-traumatising his family members.

Incomplete Information

Which brings us to another technique that can be used, partial reporting or obscuring information – Alan Jones does an excellent job in this clip.

It’s beyond the scope of this explainer to go into all the factual errors in the video, but his assertions demonstrate the technique of selective reporting.

He links Australians enrolling to vote in elections and the Australian Electoral Commission being under resourced as being somehow related to instances of voter fraud.

He does mention methods of voter fraud but then conveniently leaves out the rate of actual instances of voter fraud, which is on average 0.03%, which won’t change an election outcomes.

Yet he did get the numbers of votes cast in US elections, for candidates and elections correct – so he knows how to use data when he needs to illustrate a point and when to conveniently leave it out.

Framing of the Situation

By using a technique called priming: the “journalist” frames a statement about a subject in a certain way creating a bias for, or against the statement.

Another fine point from that previous clip is this question of  “fear by the courts that militant violent destructive anti Trump left wing cabal leftist haters that the courts were afraid of entering that ring

He doesn’t answer this question, allowing him to move the statement along about claims of voter fraud undermining the legitimacy of any part of the opposing view.

In reality, questions about electoral legitimacy were answered very quickly, with Trump’s attorney general and his cyber security advisor both stating that everything was legit (and getting fired or quitting as a result).

That statement did not age well, given that Trump supporters stormed the Capitol and killed police.

Since then, conservative media tried to blame the storming of the capitol on Antifa and the FBI who historically have not gotten along (pick a lane!).

Negative news’ impact on political views

Looking at negative news might have an effect on audiences’ political and social views, as outlined in the concepts of Mortality Salience and Terror Management Theory.

Mortality Salience is the term for being reminded of mortality through viewing things that are gruesome or scary; it affects your way of thinking, and makes you more guarded and fearful shifting views to being more conservative; terror management theory describes the long-term effects of this process.

Beliefs tend to become more entrenched, and cognitive dissonance becomes less of an issue – for example,  if some people see adverts on how bad smoking is – with graphic imagery (mortality salience) – over a longer period of time they may be more likely to ignore those adverts and become a more militant smoker (terror management theory).

If you are bombarded with views on how things are horrible in your city and around the world you may become less inclusive, more conservative, more patriotic and potentially with the flow on effects more likely to want a stronger and more aggressive government.

Mark Chapman has worked in counselling and IT roles for government and mental health organisations. He has a bachelor of behavioural science from La Trobe University, where he is completing a graduate diploma in strategic communication.