A Long Read: How the medias tangled affair with negativity contributed to the resurgence of populism

A Long Read: How the medias tangled affair with negativity contributed to the resurgence of populism

When former California governor and acclaimed American Jurist Earl Warren read the papers, he always turned to the sports section first. He justified his choice on the basis that “the sports section records people’s accomplishments; the front section nothing but man’s failures”. Glancing through a newspaper this summer, you would have certainly come across the heroic achievements of Team GB at the Olympics, but only after reading about the latest terrorist attack, another migrant vessel capsizing in the Mediterranean and the sheer uncertainty of the UK’s political and economic future in the front pages.

Almost everything that we read on newspapers and watch on the news is negative, gloomy and pessimistic. Given that the raison d’être of mass means of information should be to inform us from a platform of impartiality, the media should have a responsibility to place equal emphasis both on positive and negative events. However, it seems that newspapers and television bulletins are only focusing on the latter.

This negative demeanour of the media is detrimental to the smooth functioning of our democracy. When people are misinformed or kept uninformed about something, their voting behaviour is affected. Barack Obama has cut down the jobless rate in the United States more than any other President since Ronald Reagan. Yet millions of Americans are being inveigled by Donald Trump into believing that the Obama administration has caused mass unemployment. This indicates that many Americans are not provided with adequate facts on which to base their decisions at the ballot box, inducing people to cast votes inimical to their interests. Why has American media failed to report on Obama’s successes in tackling unemployment while continuously focusing on Trump’s blatant rhetoric? The answer is simple: negativity sells.

 

To keep readers buying newspapers and families tune in for the evening bulletin, journalists and broadcasters are always looking for fresh, new stories. The resurgence of populism was perfect: loud, rebellious, different. It signalled a tremendous breakaway from the monotonous governmental spectrum dominated by political elites. The turning point came with the 2014 European election. Not only did Nigel Farage and other UKIP members receive the greatest amount of coverage in terms of image-bites (the total time a person appears on screen), but they were also constantly shown in a more favourable light than “establishment” politicians.

Farage was continuously shown sipping a pint, cigar in hand, talking to constituents. This very appealing image was contrasted with the rigid figures of suited-up men talking behind a microphone, seemingly out-of-touch with reality. Nigel Farage was lionised. UKIP won the European election, causing “an earthquake” in British politics. A referendum was promised. We all know how this went.

However, why positive events don’t constitute equally interesting stories to report on? We would assume that when Ebola was finally defeated in January 2015 it would receive a very similar amount of press coverage as it did when the first cases broke out in Spain and in the United States, when the media fomented fears on how quickly the epidemic could spread. Yet very little attention was devoted to one of the greatest efforts of modern international medicine. The explanation for the preponderance of negative news coverage over positive one seems to lie within the human brain. A study conducted by Ohio State University shows that our brain, when shown negative images, experiences greater neural firing than when it is shown more positive, light-heartening pictures. This causes a natural, involuntary interest towards what is negative. Since what is interesting is what sells, negative events will always be more likely to make the headlines.

 

However, the consequences are daunting. Not only will this negativity place populist leaders in the spotlight, it will also enable them to thrive on outright lies. The more coverage populist leaders receive, the greater the room for them to air their views based on misleading facts. This should nonetheless be allowed under the rules of freedom of speech in order to stimulate debate that should allows us, through trial and error, to attain the truth. However, the achievement of such an objective is in jeopardy.

Firstly, the media is falling short in appropriately informing and educating the public. Seldom is press coverage dedicated to presenting and critically analysing an issue on which Parliament or the public is set to vote on. Consequently, a standard against which to assess the validity of arguments is rarely provided to voters. On what basis are we then meant to decide on what or who to vote for?

Secondly, a considerable proportion of the public are becoming encapsulated in an information bubble where possibilities for real debate are minuscule. While broadcast news can still pride themselves on their neutrality, newspapers have become partial to such an extent that it is easy to discern what party someone will vote for at the next General Election by simply looking at what newspaper they are reading. Social media, now the first news source for young people in the UK, presents a similar problem, as most users will tend to be have friends and follow personalities that share and reflect their views. This relative absence of contact with different opinions and the ensuing lack of debate will pave the way for followers of populist movements to consolidate their opinions on false foundations. Unfortunately, the irrational, emotional nature of populism means that these opinions are a long way from crumbling. The rise of populism is just getting started.

Marco Barbato