99.99% of what happens is not on the news.
I didn’t know Joan Rivers died. I didn’tknow the Oscar Pistorius trial came and went. I shamefully didn’t know there were a number of terror attacks on foreigners in Syria either. But should I be ashamed for not knowing any of this?
As some of you are aware, I don’t read the news often, if at all. I wrote about it a while back here. I don’t hate the news – it’s definitely captivating – but also overwhelmingly negative.
To create this New Year’s post, while wondering how skewed the news could be, I scanned through an article issued by the Canadian Press which summarized last year’s top news stories chronologically. The headline reads: Terror attacks, Mountie killings, Ghomeshi scandal among top news events in 2014.
Next, I read through all the headlines and categorized everything into POSITIVE, NEUTRAL, and NEGATIVE stories, as well as in sub-categories such as Politics, Entertainment, Sports, etc. Keep in mind, that it’s Canadian news, so violent stories are relatively low while I noticed a surprising number of stories on political misspending. The results for the country you live in may vary.
In summary, I found there were 33 positive news stories, 68 neutral news stories, and an overwhelming 124 negative news stories, though that doesn’t tell the whole story which I’ll explain further.
Positive stories included scientific or archaelogical discoveries, improved relations between countries, and Olympic victories.
Neutral stories, which could be debated, included articles of the “why is this being reported?” nature (e.g. celebrity babies), and stories that could be interpreted as positive or negative. I also included celebrity/public figure deaths here, mostly to simplify things. Although I don’t see natural death as being negative, many people see it as such, and the ensuing reaction and reporting is mixed. For example, Robin Williams’ suicide death was a particular outlier that attracted plenty of sensationalism.
As for negative stories, no real explanation needed, this made the bulk of news being reported. What I also didn’t break down was the weight of interest in these stories, which I’ll do now. So, while there are 124 negative to 33 positive news stories, the truth is that each negative story has far more reporting than the positive stories. I verified this by checking Google’s broad monthly searches for some of the top stories. By broad searches, I mean it includes similar search terms suggested by Google.
Monthly searches for some popular terms:
Jian Ghomeshi – 382,070 searches
Robin Williams Dead/Death – 621,480 searches
Oscar Pistorius Trial – 301,530 searches
Joan Rivers – 293,170 searches
Malaysia Airlines Crash – 115,340 searches
Ebola Outbreak – 62,850 searches (Note: “ebola symptoms” results in 1,050,950 searches)
Sochi Olympics – 36,140 searches
Nobel Peace Winner – 28,450 searches
Mars mission – 7,180 searches
HMS Erebus Discovery – 1,220 searches
As you can see, the top negative stories garnered much more interest than the top positive stories, and consequently, have much more subsequent coverage. You can easily cross-verify this via Google News to see how many “other similar stories” are cited along with a headline. I even went an extra bit farther and looked up the searches for most of the other positive stories, but they all resulted in much less than 1,000 monthly searches.
I’m going to get a bit geeky with the numbers now.
From the search data, it could be roughly estimated that the top 10 negative stories outnumber the top 10 positive stories by 100 to 1 searches, and that the average negative news story has a very conservative “news weight” 5 times that of the average positive story, even considering that the age of some stories might affect the number of searches. I actually think it’s at least tenfold, though some might say it’s much more.
Given that negative news has 5 times the coverage or weight, and simplifying calculations by giving neutral stories the same weight/coverage as positive stories, I calculated that the top headlines of 2014 (by my rough categorization) were 86% negative, 9% neutral, and 5% positive.
If we use my less conservative “news-weight” of 10, then the headlines become 92.5% negative, 5% neutral, and 2.4% positive.
Regardless of the breakdown, I’m probably not revealing what most of us don’t already know: that negative news sells. What many of us don’t know is how much time we might be spending reading negative news. If you install a productivity tool such as RescueTime, you might be suprised to discover yourself spending 2 hours or more a day on news sites. That’s a LOT of time burnt reading about things that probably don’t affect you, or rather perhaps, affect you negatively.
Certainly, in the off-chance that a piece of news is relevant to me, I believe it will reach me somehow, some way – which so far this past year, has been zero. It’s not to say I’m cluelesss. I found out about Malaysia airlines crashes and Jian Ghomeshi through friends’ Facebook posts, and without being flippant, neither story affected me. Strangely, I’m pretty sure most of us have never even heard of Jian Ghomeshi up until his scandal. I found about Ebola scare only being questioned about it by an immigration officer when I returned to Canada from a trip in November. This didn’t affect me either.
Am I ignorant? Some might think so. That’s fine. Am I uninformed? Could be. After all, “news keeps me informed” seems to be the general validation for keeping up-to-date on the latest. On the other hand, we all currently live in the relatively young Age of Information, where we’re bombarded with more accessible media at our fingertips than we could possibly handle.
Am I indifferent? I don’t think so. The world’s needs haven’t changed much. I don’t see the benefit of reading about murder, scandals, and disaster when I’ve witnessed poverty, conflict, and repression during my travels. I’m fully aware and sympathetic to the world’s plights. At the same time, the rest of the world is happier than we think, hence my peppering of images from a market in Sanliurfa – a Turkish city close to Syria that’s now home to several fleeing refugees.
I used to be a voracious, and quite frankly, snobbish news reader. Nowadays, I’m strangely out of the loop. Sometimes, I’ll click-through and read a posted news link, but I generally avoid news since it can be an addictive time-waster. I’m not encouraging indifference to the world’s needs, but I feel that in order to make positive changes or to simply be more productive, then we have to see the world in a – dare I say it – fair and balanced light; that it’s not as evil as the news reports it to be, and that a whole lot of good, uninteresting activities actually happen day to day.
The media tends to report rumors, speculations, and projections as facts… How does the media do this? By quoting some “expert”… you can always find some expert who will say something hopelessly hopeless about anything.
– Peter McWilliams
APPENDIX – Top Stories of 2014 Breakdown
Note: I jotted down the headlines fairly quickly, so there may be some errors or indiscernible points. It’s also only attached for reference, so feel free to skip reading it!
POSITIVE (33 Total)
International(10) – Colorado Marijuana laws, Stephen Harper visits Middle East, toughened election law, Christy Clark apologizes for 100 racist laws, India new Prime Minister invites Pakistan to assembly, Egypt’s first freely elected president, Kathleen Wynn first gay premier, Natives granted land, US And China pledge to limit greenhouse gases, US – Cuba diplomacy
Canada(6) – Romeo Dallaire resigns to work on humanitarian projects, HMS Erebus found, Human Rights Museum opened in Winnipeg, Inuit artist wins music award, Journalist wins big award for novel, revised prostitution law to protect sex workers
Entertainment(4) – Jay Leno farewell, Ben Hepner retires, Barbara, Bob Dylan “Like A Rolling Stone” sale, Shawn Mendes debut
Sports(7) – Sochi opening, Canada wins several medals on Feb. 8, 11, 15, 20, 23, Canadians selected No. 1 NBA Draft
Science(3) – Maven spacecraft enters Mars’ orbit, European Space Agency space probe lands, Orion spacecraft successful test
Nobel(3) – Japanese scientists win Nobel prize in Physics, Nobel Prize literature, Nobel Peace prizes
NEUTRAL (68 Total)
Political(8) – Justin Trudeau expels senators, Canada/Korea free trade deal, Canadian troops leave Afghanistan, Supreme court turns down Stephen Harper appointment of judge, Liberals win in Quebec election, Kathleen Wynne calls election, Rob Ford returns to work, sting operations
International(7) – Canada offers CF-18 jets to police Ukraine, Ebola vaccine shipped out, Pop Francis begs for forgiveness in sex abuse, settlement for Nova Scotia orphan home abuse, Nigerian ceasefire, Scottish referendum, 2 saints beatified
Canada(10) – Stasitics Canada gaffe, expert mediator sent to BC teachers strike, Quebec allows euthanasia ,CFL returns to Ottawa, 4 Canadian Navy ships retired, Suncorp sale, Hydro dam approval, John Tory wins election, aboriginal girl allowed traditional medicine, Canadian Archbishop selected to be a cardinal
Sports/Entertainment(3) – Celine Dion stops work, Prince William expecting, George Clooney gets married, LA Clippers sold
Celebrity/Political Figure/Famous Person Deaths (40) – Phil Everly, Ariel Sharon, Russell Johnson, Pete Seeger, Max Schell, Philip Seymoure Hoffman, Shirley Temple, Harold Ramis, Mickey Rooney, Jim Flaherty, Rubin Carter, Efrem Zimbalist Jr, Knowlton Nash, Maya Angelou, James McNair, Ruby Dee, Casey Kasem, Robin Williams, Joan Rivers, +21 More
NEGATIVE (124 Total)
Disaster(13) – Malaysia Airlines MH370 crash, Oso Washington landslide, South Korean ferry disaster, Everest Avalanche kills 16, Tornado kills 15, Turkish mine disaster kills 301, Malaysia airlines 2, Taiwanese airlane, China earthquake, Ebola, Mount Otake eruption , Nepal blizzard deaths, huge Buffalo snowstorm kills, Abuja explosion
Canadian(27) – Canadian train crash, truckers end strike, Canadian Costco accident, tailing pond breach, Bountiful arrest, NB officer dead, Nunavut Catholic sex abuse, Canadian troops sent to Iraq, Luka Magnotta trial begins, BC Surrey Six murder convictions, Slocan BC incident, Canadian forces murder, Ottawa murders, Winnipeg infants found in storage, Mountain, Private dies in accident, Halifax teen suicide, Ottawa professor part of 1980 terrorist act, man charged for 1975 murders, RCMP officer shot, Islamic attacks urged on Canadians, Calgary mass murder, Nanaimo mass murder, Mounties killing, BC Mass murder, Elliot Lake mall engineer charged, Child welfare inquiry,
Canadian Politics (22) – bad NDP spending, a Resignation, Conrad Black removal from Order of Canada, Senate expense scandal, Alberta premier steps down due to questionable expenses, suspended senator arrested, Nigel Wright scandal, Stephen Harper plans for scandal cleanup rejected by Supreme Court, Rob Ford takes a leave of absence admidst drug controversies, Shawn Atleo resigns under fire, Canada loses bid on seal trade, Petro Poroshenko wins Ukraine election, Senate fraud, Canadian terrorist conviction, Aliason Redford corruption, NDP misspending, Michael Sona robocalls charge, Rob Ford cancer, Senator DUI, MP overspending, Manitoba NDP loss of confidence, Liberal MP Misconduct, Quebec LG breach of trust
Sports/Entertainment (6) – Justin Bieber DUI, Justin Bieber car accident, Bono bike accident, Bill Cosby, Jian Ghomeshi, Jennifer Lawrence, NBA Commissioner banned, Steve Moore settlement, Ray Rice assault
Industry/White Collar Crime(8) – Toyota recall, CBC layoffs, Grand&Toy Closing, Montreal Main and Atlantic Railway criminal negligence, Microsoft layoffs, SNC Lavalin layoffs, Coulson hacking conspiracy + 1
International News(46) – Nigerian female kidnappings, Egyptian President embezzles, Thailand’s army seizes power, Archbishop charged for sex abuse, US attacks on Iraq, Egypt moves against Islam, Michael Brown, ISIS beheadings (5), US airstrike kills, BP finding, Islamic State group, Oscar Pistorius trial begins, Oscar Pistorius found guilty of manslaughter, Islam extremist group urges killing of foreigners, Ebola in Dallas, Oscar Pistorius sentencing, Sacramento shootings, Canadian CF-18 air strikes, Nigerian suicide bomber, South Korean ferry captain guilty, Irael-Palestinian incident, Ferguson riots, two hostages killed, US terror suspect brutality, Keystone XL Pipeline environmental assessment conclusion, UN report on Vatican code of silence, HN51 death, Pig virus, Amber alert and mass murder, Detroit self defence murder, Ukraine’s president flees Kyiv, new Ukraine Prime Minister, Russian takes over Crimean peninsula, Putin annexes Crimea, Spain abdication, Joe Fontana, Israel offensive, Italian premier sex-for-hire, terrorism charge, Dennis McGuire Executions put on hold, terrorist sentenced in London, NYC protests
Science(2) – NASA explosion, Virgin Galactic space tourism explosion