As a media professional, I spent about a decade seeking out the answer to this question: How do I get people’s attention and motivate them to do what they don’t want to do? Now, I’m a pastor. And, I’m passionate about remaining manipulation-free. In a world where the loudest, brashest, most apocalyptic voices are the ones that get attention, my efforts to steer clear of hype put me at a distinct disadvantage. Sometimes I feel like I’m the guy in khakis and a sensible button down at a Star Trek convention. Who wants to talk to Rev. Banana Republic when they could be taking selfies with a Klingon?
The price I pay for a clear conscience.
Feel the Frenzy? Take a Breath.
Anyway, with the concerning barrage of news and options about the COVID-19 outbreak swirling on our screens and phones right now, I feel like I need to offer a look behind the curtain and into the minds of newsmakers and marketers in order to help us all to catch our collective breath.
COVID-19 is a real thing. It is a legitimate concern. It is wise to stay informed and be prepared. However, it is easy upshift from precaution and preparation to wide-open panic. You need to be aware that what you watch and read today can push in your emotional clutch and send your fears into high gear.
I want you to understand how that dynamic works and what you can do keep your mind and heart navigating the curves of our uncertain road at a safe speed.
Odds are, you have spent your life passively consuming news and little time considering the fact that what you see on your favorite news channel and your social media feeds are not pure, simple facts. The content delivered to the screens around you is a carefully curated collection of stories that are crafted and delivered to you with specific goals in mind. If you don’t know these goals and make yourself aware of them as you scroll through twitter and Facebook and flip through the channels on TV, then you are susceptible to being swept along in the current of the 24-hour news cycle.
(As a side note to all my media and marketing friends, I’m not throwing shade on the profession. I think it’s honest work. Like running a carnival game. Everyone knows the milk bottles are weighted so that you can’t knock them all down, but people pay money to try anyway. Media and marketing is a fair game as long as the masses understand that it’s rigged. If they want to play all night and empty their pockets for a giant stuffed panda bear, that’s their business.)
Why Does Tragic News Go Viral?
My decade-long pursuit of crafting stories for the purpose of manipulating people into parting with their time and money for things they don’t care about or need has left me with some perspective. And boy do we need some perspective right now.
I’m going to offer three reasons why tragedy goes viral and why you need to resist the urge to immerse yourself in it.
But first, let me set up these ideas a bit getting down to the basics. The bottom line is that you are being influenced by the words and images you look at everyday on your feeds, timelines, and TV in ways you don’t even realize.
Now, I’m not talking about some global conspiracy or a sinister plot by the illuminati to take over the world through the media. Global domination is not the goal. Yes, there are movers and shakers in powerful places who plan and scheme what we see and hear. But, these are not clandestine fraternal orders. These are business people. They want something much more personal and lucrative than a new world order — they want your eyeballs. They’ll do just about anything to get them. And, as cynical as it sounds to say it, there’s nothing like a good, gory tragedy to deliver your eyeballs to them on a silver platter.
One Story to Rule Them All
When it comes to the news, it’s all about stories. Who did what? Where? When did it happen? Why? How? These questions are the scaffold on which stores hang. But, more important than any single news story is the one story that interprets all the other stories — your story. Your personal narrative. As twitter, Facebook, and broadcast media feed you stories about events going on in the world, they are also subtly and powerfully shaping your story like a slow drip in a cave builds a stalactite.
See, we each have a story we tell ourselves about the world — our personal narrative. Our personal narrative is a construct of our culture, experiences, beliefs, and emotions. This story exists mostly beneath the surface of our everyday thoughts, but it is immensely powerful because our narrative tells us the genre of story we believe we are in. It’s part of why some of us believe we can do anything we put our minds to while others of us feel like life sweeps us along and we have no control over where the current takes us. It’s why some of us are confident and others are fearful. It’s why some of us are suspicious of new ideas and others are exhilarated by them.
Mind & Heart On a Movie Date
Let me explain it this way. Deep down in our subconscious, our mind and heart are on a date at the movies. They are munching on popcorn and watching everything you see, hear, do, and feel unfold on the big screen. They are trying to figure out what kind movie this is. A romance? An action movie? A horror film? Every moment they watch, they’re making a guess on the genre of your story based on what they’ve already seen, what they’re seeing at the moment, and what they anticipate will happen next.
It’s as if they’re in the theatre yelling at each other. Heart says, “See? See that scary guy? I’m telling you, this movie is about to get crazy!” While Mind says, “Yeah, but we’ve gotten out of tough scrapes before, it’s an adventure story and the hero in adventure stories never die. We’ve got this!” Then Heart might reply, “You’re right. We’re ok.” It’s an on-going fluid review of your story.
What kind of story your mind and heart think you’re in deeply influences you. It’s a phenomenon called Narrative Confirmation Bias: In simple terms it means that we each notice and hold on to events that support what we think our personal story is about and ignore and reject events that contradict our story.
A Movie That Writes Itself
The interesting thing about this movie is that what your heart and mind are currently guessing about the plot actually has an influence on how the story will unfold by influencing your future actions and emotions. The phenomenon of Narrative Confirmation Bias doesn’t change reality, but it changes our perception of reality. When it comes to our minds and hearts, what we believe is happening is a powerful force. Not only does what we believe about ourselves and the world shape how we act, it also shapes our personal narrative. Soon, we develop a cycle of thinking — a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy where what we think will happen to us kind of comes true. Again, not because our thoughts shape reality, but because our perception of reality shapes how we respond to it.
There are some real positives to this subconscious cinema-for-two. For example, we can pick up confidence to tackle new problems because we remember having success with a similar problem in the past. And, if our story includes examples of God’s grace and provision in difficult times, then when hard times happen again, our heart and mind will expect God to be a strong recurring character in the plot.
But, there are some real downsides, too. When our story features repeated emotions triggered by exposure to tragedy, our heart and mind expect us to experience more tragedy in the future. Soon, we see and feel fear, sadness, and anger in a self-perpetuating cycle. The inner dialog we have can go something like this:
“I have my suspicions that this world is a scary, dangerous place. See? The news is on and there is another tragic event happening in the world. I’m right. Better head to twitter and #prayforXYZ. Wow. So many people on twitter are panicking. Look at all the retweets this tragedy is getting. This many people can’t be wrong. The world is a scary place. I need to turn on my news notifications so I can get up-to-the-minute info to confirm my fears. CNN says that terrorist attacks can happen anywhere at any time. I’m in a place and time, so I must be in danger.
“Yup. Look, my friends are all talking about the death of another 1980s celebrity. I knew it! Everyone is dying! This world is so unstable. Uh oh… the presidential candidate I hate is having a rally. Look at all the people who agree with them. They will ruin the world even more. I’m so afraid of what will happen if they get elected. The world is already so dark and dangerous. Since the world is a scary place, I need to take steps to attack the people who are my enemies and protect myself. Just look at this video on Facebook — people are using Pokemon Go to murder people. Anything can be used to murder people these days. I bet there are people on my street who want to murder me. I better lock the doors and not talk to anyone. It’s ok, I have the TV and internet to keep me company and help me stay informed.
“Oh look…another terrorist attack…”
Narrative Confirmation Bias
Narrative Confirmation Bias. It’s how we’re wired. Media and marketers knows this and they use it to their advantage. Once you are convinced that the world is a fast-paced, conflict-driven, dangerous place and you feel the compulsion to stay informed they have you hooked. You keep watching. You keep scrolling and clicking. You keep coming back for more. A small part of you hopes that if you check again, your feed will give you something heartwarming or funny (thus, the cat video was born). But, for the most part, we’re checking back to make sure that our version of the story — our personal narrative — is still correct.
Problem is, down deep in the part of us that we can’t rationally control, we WANT our personal narrative to be correct. Being right about the world brings us subconscious comfort. When we start thinking the world is a tragic, dangerous place, in a twisted way, we actually want what happens to confirm what we believe about the world around us. So, we start to look for evidence that supports our view. When we find evidence that supports our view, we share it. Add to that media and marketing’s goal to keep your eyeballs on their content by filling your life with more stuff you want to see and before you know it, your world is a dark, tragic, dangerous, murderous place. They feed us the negative news, we crave it, we share it. Before we know it, everywhere we go online is filled with tragic stories about a world going haywire. And, we feel strangely good about that. Not because we want people to suffer, but because we want to be right.
There’s a term for this condition. It’s called Mean World Syndrome. It’s a scientifically demonstrated fact that the more media a person consumes, the more likely they are to overestimate the amount of violence there is in the world.
See, the facts are that that the world is actually less violent and dangerous than it was 50 years ago. Don’t get me wrong. We’ve got problems. Big problems. But, despite what we’re hearing from world news, we are actually less likely to experience violence against us or people that we know than any time in my lifetime. Despite what you’re seeing on your social media timelines, the odds of you or someone you love dying from a viral outbreak are low. Surprised? That’s because cable TV news and Facebook won’t make money if your anger and fear aren’t driving you to tune in or click on their content. You’ll almost never see a headline on buzzfeed that says: “10 reasons the world is nicer, calmer, and safer that we all think.” No one clicks stuff like that. It doesn’t generate add revenue.
Don’t misread this as an attempt to shame you for being afraid, to minimize the value of caution, or dismiss your emotions. How you feel is real. Just keep in mind that cascading fear stacked on top of fear can be fueled by what you read and watch. And what you read and watch is crafted for the purpose of enticing you to keep reading and keep watching.
Do you find yourself in the emotional state where you are always waiting for the other shoe to fall? When you see news of a distant tragedy is your first thought, “here we go again, I knew it?” Then it’s time for you to detox from the news a bit. These are sure signs that you are being influenced in unhealthy ways by the words and images you look at everyday on your feeds, timelines, and TV and you don’t even realize it.
3 Reasons Why We’re Seeing More Bad News Than Ever
So, the question is why? Since the real world is not nearly as dangerous and deadly as it appears to be on broadcast news and social media, why is everywhere we look filled tragic news stories? Here are three reasons:
1. Tragic and shocking stories drive ratings and snag viewers
Media providers thrive on presenting conflict. They need advertising dollars to stay in businesses. They get advertising dollars by getting our eyeballs on their content. They get our eyeballs on their content by telling stories about conflict. Nation vs. Nation. Idea vs. Idea. Your naive sense of general well-being vs. the latest threat to what you hold dear.
Next time you see or read the news, look for the language they use to ramp up the conflict and hook you in. Conflict is how they create a sense of urgency (see below) to get you to read, watch, and click. The most skillful news tellers are able to connect a distant tragedy with your deepest, personal fears. That’s “compelling journalism.” In other words, the best news makers are able to convey to you notion that what is happening now conflicts with and threatens the health, happiness, and safety of what you hold dear. Why? Because when you’re afraid, you care. When you care, you watch. When you watch, they win. After all, it’s called the “news.” The “olds” — all the the time-tested, stable, usual, ordinary people and events that make up most of our lives — doesn’t catch your eyeballs.
2. Tragedy inspires a sense of urgency and motivates action
Tragic news is so emotionally powerful that demands attention. Urgency also drives us to take action. Urgency and legitimizes the efforts of those who promise to speak out and work against the perceived threats. So, leaders of organizations and governments of all shapes and sizes peddle tragedy as a magic motivator. If they can tap into our “fight or flight” instincts then they can then suggest their agenda as the necessary steps for survival.
When you give the people you’re talking to a sense of urgency, it’s much easier to ask them to make a personal sacrifice to support your cause. To generate urgency, media and marketers will post and broadcast tragedy as confirmation for why they are important, and why you need to support their agenda with your attention and money. This is one reason why you need to collect your information from a wide variety of sources. Your favorite niche news outlet is likely selecting and slanting their coverage of events to support their cause or worldview.
We live in a noisy, cluttered, world where everyone’s attention is fractured by phones, kids, work, relationships, and a dozen different screens demanding our attention. Organizations leverage tragedy to cut through that clutter and motivate you to listen to their message and give them something you hold dear.
3. We crave tragic stories
Sounds crazy, right? No one wants to hear bad news, right? Sadly, we do.
We know junk food isn’t good for us, but we eat it anyway. What does that say about us? Despite what we tell ourselves, we are not, at our core, rational creatures. We crave unhealthy stuff. It’s true for our physical diets. It’s true for our emotional diets, too.
We are beings that long to ride the waves of emotion. Emotion unlocks chemical responses in our brains that sharpen our senses, motivate our actions, and fuel our relationships. We’re addicted to those chemicals. We’ll do anything to get a fresh hit. Best case scenario, we’ll have pleasant experiences in our lives that we can rely on to give us the emotional bump we subconsciously long to enjoy.
But, life is hard and we are too lazy to invest in the kinds of decisions and relationships that result in our long-term happiness. The good things in life are complicated. They require attention and nuance to understand. So, starved for emotional calories, we prefer to not fiddle with preparing a healthy emotional salad of good news and hope from the garden that is sprinkled with bits of bad news like crumbles of bleu cheese. Instead, we’d rather hit the drive-thru and feed on quick and easy emotions like fear and anger. Why? Because it’s easy. Sure, fear and anger make you feel bad, but at least you feel something.
There are hundreds of stories everyday of people doing good, things going right, human triumphs, and victories for the good guys. There are a handful of stories about tragic events. The good news sinks and the tragedy goes viral. Why? Tragedy confirms our personal narrative that the world is bad. It also slakes our craving for emotion and brings us all together. We feel a morbid sense of unity with our friends as we all grouse about how bad the world is together. Like rounding up all your college buddies for a midnight run through an emotional Taco Bell.
Are You Hooked on Tragedy?
How do you know if the tragedy manipulation efforts of media and marketing have their hooks in your brain?
The symptoms are pretty clear: You feel intense emotions about a news event that you have no personal connection with, those emotions subside quickly and don’t result in any action on your part other than #prayforXYZ. Or, if a real potential danger is a slim possibility, you binge watch the news and buy out everything your local grocery store has to sell.
See, what our broken world needs is sustained, meaningful compassion to address real problems. Your despair and desperate tweets aren’t helping anyone.
I know the emotions you feel are real. But, if your only response is to stay glued to your preferred sources of news and commentary for more confirmation that the world is going to hell in a hand basket, then you are just hooked on the quick emotional hit of tragedy. And, media and marketers have your eyeballs. You feel something and they get ad dollars. The plan is at work.
Don’t like the direction things are headed in this world? Put your phone in your pocket and go talk to someone. Learn about their life and their story. Band together with others and solve the very real problems that are within your reach.
Why You Need to Stop Feeding On Tragic News
Don’t get me wrong. The heartbreaking events happening in our world are very real. Those effected need our prayers and empathy. Sometimes, tragic events hit close to home, too. When ugly things happen to the people we know and love, it is appropriate to respond with feelings of fear and anger. But, more often that not, these events are not happening to you and the people you love. So, if the emotions you feel in response to a tragic event in a distant part of the globe equals the same response you would feel for a deep personal loss, then you might be suffering from the subtle effects of tragedy overload. You may be hooked on the self-fulfilling prophecy that this world is a dangerous, tragic place.
If that’s the case, you need a little media detox. Do the thing media and marketers fear most — unplug and tune out. Gorging on tragedy is not good for you.
How do you stop the cycle?
Step one: Take a break from the screens. This countermeasure for our frantic, fearful, angry outlook is simple to say and very, very hard to do — step away.
Watching the 24-hour news channels and scrolling for hours through Facebook and twitter is like buying a ticket to a haunted house thrill ride. Everything is staged in such a way to create uncertainty and fear. The more you watch, click, scroll, and immerse yourself into the artificially dark and dangerous world of media and marketing the more you believe the haunted house is an accurate representation of the real world. Step away. Put the phone down. Go outside. Have coffee with friends. Volunteer. Talk to your neighbors and family. Read a good book.
When you turn on the lights, haunted house doesn’t look so scary.
Take a break from Facebook, twitter, instagram, and TV. Start with one day. Then, go for a week. You’ll be surprised at how pressing pause on your media consumption will start to alter your personal narrative — the story of how you see yourself and the world around you — in a very healthy way.
Step two: Ask a deep question: Who do you allow into your mind and heart to shape your story? What you believe about God, yourself, and your place in this world are the key to how you see your life and how you respond to it. Maybe you don’t need to spend hours every day scrolling through the echo chamber of curated bad news. Maybe you need to turn off the TV so you can hear the still, small voice.
This idea isn’t new to me. “The heart is the well-spring of life.” And, “As a person thinks in his heart, so is he.” What you believe about your story doesn’t change reality, but it shapes what you choose to see and how you choose to act. Your heart and mind are so valuable and impressionable. Your heart and mind experience everything you see, hear and feel with great force. They are being influenced by the words and images you look at everyday on your feeds, timelines, and TV and you don’t even realize it. Be careful what you see. Be careful what you share. Make sure what you see and share reflect the complex ups and downs of life. Make sure they reflect the nuance of the situation – including the fact that God is loving, compassionate, powerful, and in control. Serve up a healthy emotional meal to your own mind and heart as well as to the people who read your feed.
Who’s Writing Your Story?
Most importantly, let your personal narrative be influenced by the greatest Story. The Story that moves and shapes all others. The Story of God’s love.
“Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done. Then you will experience God’s peace, which exceeds anything we can understand. His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus. And now, dear brothers and sisters, one final thing. Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise.” (Philippians 4:6–8 NLT)
Your heart and mind are down there in the movie theatre of your subconscious, watching your life unfold and making decisions about how you will respond to what you see. Let God’s peace into the theatre and give him a front-row seat. Let him guard your heart and mind. If you have Jesus, then your story is not a dark, dangerous, horror film where you are at the mercy of crazed lunatics hell-bent on your demise. You know how your story ends. So, look up. Stop stressing. Start reaching out into a world where some people do live in a very dark story. If you believe you are in a story of adventure and redemption, you’ll begin to see that story confirmed in dozens of ways every day.
Then, you’ll be emotionally free to think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise. Your personal narrative will involve you in the middle of a story of God love, faithfulness, and redemption. And, you be more ready ready to respond when things go wrong in your part of the world with strength, truth, compassion, and grace.
Deeper Than Bullets, Bombs & Bugs
Why am I spending time on this topic with you? Because I want you to stop spinning your wheels on tragic events that are outliers and invest yourself in problems you can actually help address in the real world. We need you out here in the real world.
Our problems run deeper than bullets, bombs, and viral bugs. We have serious spiritual, social and economic challenges that are literally ripping our families and communities apart at the seams. It’s happening all around the world. But, as long as we think the most urgent threats are “out there somewhere” toting guns and wearing explosive vests we will waste our time and energy on things we can’t fix. Our own neighborhoods and cities will continue to deteriorate if we remain hooked on the emotional high of unfocused fear and anger. And, this fear and anger will continue to drive us to do the exact opposite of what we need to be doing.
When our personal narrative tells us that we are in a dangerous world, then we build walls to keep others out. When we step away from the tragedy hype, then we can have the peace we need to be part of The Story of grace and truth. Only then can we build bridges instead of walls. Only then can we be free to reach out to the hurting people around us with love and compassion.