Why Are We So Sure Things Are Going Downhill?
By Bradley R.E. Wright, PhD
January 30, 2012
"Years of Despair Add to Uncertainty in Florida Race"
"Campaign of Terror in Nigeria"
"U.S. Stock Futures Weaken"
These are just a sampling of headlines from today's news cycle.
Why is there such a tendency toward pessimism about the current state ofour nation and our world? There are various explanations to help us understandwhy we fear what we fear today and what we might fear tomorrow (and what wemay not need to fear after all).
The media sells negative worldviews. It’s not that reporters,writers and editors are pessimistic people; rather, they have a strongincentive to tell about the fearful, scary and dangerous happenings in ourworld. The media is a business, and it succeeds by attracting viewers andreaders. With hundreds of television channels and even more online newssources, how can they do this? One way is to offer something that is trulyfrightening. If watching a story can save you from some imminent danger, thenmaybe you’ll stop channel surfing long enough to watch it. If reading a reportcan protect you from a health scare, maybe you’ll pick the magazine off the rack.Sensationalism and fear sells—this is a fact of life that won’t change anytimesoon.
This “incentive for the negative” means bad news will beemphasized more than good news. Toillustrate, in 1994, at the peak of the AIDS epidemic, the Centers for DiseaseControl and Prevention (CDC) published a report that AIDS deaths had increasedthat year, and the New York Timesgave this report extensive coverage. The next year, however, the CDC announcedthat the number of AIDS diagnoses had fallen, and the Times effectively ignored this information.
It's not that the media should spurn all negative reporting infavor of good news, for our society does have its problems. As former SenatorDaniel Moynihan pointed out, “If you come into a country and all you see in thepaper is good news—then all the good people are in jail.”But there's probably no danger the media will overemphasize the positive anytimesoon, so expect a continued diet of the sinister and despairing.
Advocates are another source of bad news. Advocates support aparticular cause, and they use facts and arguments to illustrate and supporttheir position. This selective presentation of information usually means emphasizingwhat’s going wrong or getting worse in order to raise awareness, solicit moneyor change public policy. If the media gives bad news for ratings, thenadvocates give bad news for a good cause. More cynically, it has been termed“lying for justice.” There is nothing inherently immoral or unethical aboutadvocacy groups’ very selective use of facts; instead, it's just something to be aware of. Advancing a cause, and notaccuracy per se, is their goal.From an advocate’s perspective, good news—even if factuallycorrect—can be harmful.
Anecdotes and Bad Statistics
If bad news accompanies even accurate data, how much morewill it with inaccurate, substandard or otherwise misleading data? Takeanecdotes and examples (for example). When a news story covers a particularissue, reporters will often highlight the most extreme—and negative—example ofit. The resulting story is then used to define the larger pattern.Powerful examples easily overwhelm the actual facts, framing the worldbased on worst-case scenarios rather than a systematic study of actual trendsand patterns. As psychologist David Myersputs it: "With apologies to Mark Twain, there are three kinds of lies—lies,damn lies and vivid but misleading anecdotes. One can marshal dramatic storiesto support any contention, or its opposite."
Another type of misleading evidence has to do with the statisticsthemselves. Everything varies in quality. There are good restaurants and badrestaurants, good used cars and bad used cars, good U.S. presidents and badpresidents. Why shouldn’t it be the same with statistics? Sociologist JoelBest classifies the different types of bad statistics as follows: some numbersare bad to begin with; some numbers get bad as they are passed along; and somenumbers are chosen because they are bad.
Another problem in comparing the past and the present involvesnostalgia. People romanticize and long for the past for various reasons. A child's parents protected them from uncomfortable aspects of life, andmoral choices seemed more straightforward. A child's life feels simpler, moreappealing. The philosopher David Hume once said, “The humor of blamingthe present, and admiring the past, is strongly rooted in human nature, and hasan influence even on persons endued with the profoundest judgment and mostextensive learning.”
The problem is that nostalgia glosses over the past’s problems,and the temptation then is to compare what was good in the past with what is bad today. Nowonder people always think life is getting worse. As good as things get now, thepast gets better even faster. Forexample, some Americans view the 1950s as a great time for America—the greatestgeneration and all that. This nostalgia ignores, however, the harsher realitiesof that time, including a racially segregated South, the Korean War, an armsrace with the Soviet Union, bomb shelter drills and the polio epidemic.Comedian Jackie Gleason put it this way: “The past remembers better than itlived.”
If nostalgia inflates the past, unrealistic expectationsdeflate the present. Americans have high—perhaps impossiblyhigh—standards for society. As Tocqueville observed long ago, Americansbelieve in “the indefinite perfectibility of man.” Americans idealize what society should be: well-paying secure jobs, racial harmony,high-quality and inexpensive health care, enlightened corporations, a generous andeffective government, a clean environment and almost limitless personalfreedom and self-fulfillment.
The problem arises when people's individual experiences don’t match thisidealized society. Anyone will probably experience hardship, disability,discrimination or just plain bad luck, and even if things are going well for you, everyone knows someone who is having a tough time. There's no shortage of news on crime, poverty,unemployment, homelessness, the uninsured and corporate failures. Theseproblems are all the more unnerving because of the expectation for a country withoutthem, and this can lead people to evaluate society negatively.By not distinguishing between progress and perfection, it's easy to become skepticaland disillusioned about the world. Writer Greg Easterbrook comments that, shouldthe paradise of Eden ever be restored here on earth, people would probably complainabout the menu of milk and honey being too predictable and the friendly lionsroaring too loudly.
Christians and Bad News
Christians have additional reasons for hearing and embracingbad news. Christian pastors, writers, speakers and others who communicate the Gospel often portray it as a solution to a problem, both for individual peopleand society as a whole. As part of the presentation, they often motivate the needfor this solution by describing how bad things have become. Negative, fearfuland sensationalistic stories of the world can be used to underscore the needfor the Gospel. As a result, active Christiansare exposed to an extra dose of pessimism.
Regardless of how or why the bad news comes, the real issueis separating fact from fiction.
You don't have to believe all that you hear. Critically evaluating bad news not only spares you from unnecessary fear and loathing, it also clarifies which problems are really getting worse. You should neither accept all wolf-cries nor reject the possible existence of a wolf. Instead, think for yourself about whether danger is present and, if so, how to respond.
This article is adapted from Upside: Surprising Good News About the State of Our World, by Bradley R.E. Wright. Copyright © 2011; ISBN 9780764208362 Published by Bethany House Publishers. Used by permission. Unauthorized duplication prohibited.