Pat's View: Breaking news
By Patrick Robinson
In 1951 Billy Wilder wrote and directed a film called Ace in the Hole. It starred Kirk Douglas. In it a reporter uses a news story to build his personal reputation which then spirals beyond his control, ending tragically. While it didn’t get good reviews at first, the message it carried was that journalism for all it’s high mindedness and sense of self importance was often ruled by human tendency to be drawn to the most horrific news and pictures. In the film the lead character says, “Bad news sells best. 'Cause good news is no news.”
That idea persists today with the more graphic phrase “If it bleeds, it leads.”
But why is this so?
I believe it boils down to the most base responses in the human brain.
The brain consists of three primary structures.
The reptilian brain, which is involved with primitive drives such as fear, anger, thirst, sexuality as well as habits.
The paleomammalian brain, where our motivation, and memory reside.
The neomammalian brain, which enables language, abstraction, reasoning, and planning.
The reptilian brain, that most primitive part of human beings, is often the most easily manipulated. This is where the “fight or flight” impulse arises from. When facing a threat or a highly stressful situation the reptilian brain sends signals to the adrenal glands (atop your kidneys) to produce adrenaline and as the stress continues, cortisol.
In the distant past when facing a threat, we evolved to produce these hormones to enable survival. But that’s not how humans typically live today, yet the mechanism remains.
And humans have been using it to manipulate other humans ever since.
Hence breaking news. How important is it to you and your own life that a train derailed in Guatemala? Or that a chemical plant in South Carolina had a fiery explosion? Not much in reality. But if fresh video of something like this exists, you are very likely to hear about it.
I understand that it feels very important in the moment. I understand the sense of urgency. I’m human too. But I’m telling you that this feeling is being used by news media (and less effectively these days by advertisers) to get and keep your attention. That’s the currency here. Your mind and time focused for as long as they can on what they want to communicate. Your presence is then turned into numbers (pageviews, time spent, click throughs, paths through the site and much more) to show to advertisers.
Recently, a story was widely shown in the media about an “active shooter” on a school campus. Like all breaking news, it was communicated in breathless terms, with next to no details. Police and aid cars rushed to the school. The call had come in through 911 and we were told in minute by minute updates what was being said on police and fire radio calls. Parents dropped everything and drove as quickly as they could to the scene. Forty minutes later it was all over. False alarm. It was a hoax. Worse, even though 911 calls are recorded and the numbers noted, there was no reported follow up.
Am I saying we should not be notified if such an event was real? Of course not. But the need to know about in the first 3 minutes has very little value. What action would you take in those first minutes even if real? Driving to the scene of such an event would only complicate matters as hundreds of cars arrive, clogging roads, impeding other help. Hundreds of people calling the school would not have a positive effect.
What I am saying is that if we hire police, fire and other emergency responders to do their job we must trust them to act in the best way possible since we ourselves cannot help. There are certainly cases of course where they have failed but even then, knowing about it with an update every three minutes honestly has little meaning.
Breaking news won’t help them or us in any way I can imagine.
Aside from traffic, imminent threats, or emergency information, breaking news really only serve the media providers, not the public.
Many media outlets almost literally chase ambulances expressly because it garners attention, satisfies that reptile brain level need to know, lets those who know then share it, in almost a gossipy way thanks to social media.
What happens when you leave town for a vacation? Not paying attention to the breaking news clearly has very little effect or meaning. That’s a pretty good test for its value. Isn’t it?
I have no illusions that people will stop being hooked by media masters who want to command your attention for their own purposes. I can only offer advice.
Stop letting media manipulate you and your reptilian brain for their own purposes.
Your time really is more valuable than you think it is.