Every time a terrible news story hits us, it sometimes feel like a growing Atlas-style world of sadness is resting on our shoulders. So much suffering and awfulness in our faces, so despairing and fear-inducing, it’s hard to know how to respond properly.

I recently started seeing “bad news stories” a little differently, though, thanks to unusual perspective on advertising.

I was reading the book The Age of Persuasion by Terry O’Reilly, a broadcaster on the CBC. (The book is absolutely boring, I cannot recommend it to you at all.) But in one passage from the book, Terry says something like this (I’m paraphasing, not quoting):

People think advertising shapes our culture, and sometimes lament its effects on us. But here’s the thing: in the ad world, everything is tested and pre-tested until the only ads that air are the spots that reflect the safest, most widespread norm. That is, advertising only shows what it believes to be a commonly-accepted worldview. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be a sure bet for the companies running the ads. The influencing-business is not the place to take a risk of losing sales. You need to push a message that you believe will resonate with what your audience already believes.

Hmm. That was interesting to me. I know pre-testing is on the decline, as companies like Old Spice and Coca-Cola try to launch ads with more of an improvised flavour rather than a pre-tested one. However, if this is true for most companies…what can that teach us about journalism?

Journalism is a business too; they need to keep making money. They wouldn’t run a story unless they believed the news was pertinent to its audience. That means “bad news stories” are good for business because…
…They are a safe bet, because…
…It is widespread belief that terrible news is terrible.

Bad-news stories only get published because the publishers believe we, the viewers and readers, will respond with shock/disgust/disapproval/pain/disappointment. Which is a good response to have to tragedy.
It is a GOOD thing to be upset when a terrible things happens.

And if it is profitable for journalists to keep mining our reactions to tragedy, it means this:

  1. We are all still sensitive enough to have those reactions
  2. There is enough of us having those reactions that we still form the majority of the audience that drives the business.

It suggests a wider and wider share of the world actually holds a positive worldview.

The more shocking and widespread a “bad news story” is, the more it suggests that the attitude of the viewers is the opposite of that story.

Bad news stories are published because most of us still want the world to be amazing.

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Kevan Gilbert

Kevan Gilbert is a writer, speaker and content strategy on the West Coast of BC, Canada.

One Comment

  1. I agree but I think some of these stories also get published because we like to be validated in our own circumstances/decisions/problems and also be distracted from the “bad news” stories in our own lives. Easier to focus on the issues of others than our own.

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