Why News Is Aimed At Your Emotions

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jack Fuller discusses the media today.

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It can be hard to resist sensational news, from the "if it bleeds, it leads" priorities of local newscasts to the harangues of cable TV pundits. Veteran newsman and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jack Fuller wants to know why. In his new book, What is Happening to News: The Information Explosion and the Crisis in Journalism, the former editor and publisher of the Chicago Tribune examines the allure of emotionally charged news and how that affects the kind of information Americans are getting today. He recently spoke to U.S. News about the media industry and how far it should go to attract an audience. Excerpts:

What is happening to the news?

Maybe the best way to describe it is in terms of what is happening to the news audience. Some of the most basic things that are happening in the news are happening because the audience is changing. The thing that is most novel is how the information process in our heads is interacting with a radically new and different information environment. I don't just mean a news environment; I mean the total information environment: media, entertainment, E-mail, cellphones, all of it. We're living in a message-immersed environment. But what's different is that lots of the messages, whether they're marketing messages or personal messages, are addressed to us directly by name. The advertising messages that we get today are at least as personal as the personal messages we get. And we get them all the time because we're always available. And that creates significant new challenges for the brain.

What do you mean by that? Our brains aren't wired to process stuff that way?

We're wired to do a lot of things, and the brain is quite plastic. But there are some aspects in which it's still structured the way the brains of our distant ancestors were structured. Some of the mechanisms that persist there, in some respects, still continue to be very helpful for us.

So you're saying there are some messages our brains are not equipped to deal with?

Unfortunately, it's not so simple. We have quite limited processing resources in our heads. And the way we allocate those processing resources is significantly through the emotions. The emotions are, in fact, evolved to seize the information-processing resources of our brain and devote them to something that seems very important. Imagine an ancient ancestor on a savannah in Africa. Suddenly, there's a lion. What is it that devotes the mind to that lion, to the exclusion of all other things? It's our emotions. The emotion of fear. And it's very important in that circumstance to be able to focus the mind on one thing, which is critical to survival. Those mechanisms still exist in us and still have a great deal to do with where our attention goes. So one of the things that you notice about the way the audience behaves now is that we are attracted to highly emotional presentations of information. Take the example of very intense news commentators on television. Or the danger-oriented presentations of news that are characterized by horrible crimes. People have always been attracted to that. What's interesting is that a large number of people who we might once have thought were attracted to a more balanced, more detached approach to news are being drawn to this kind of approach. And one of the reasons why people are drawn to that kind of emotional presentation of information is that their brains are being challenged more. Our brains are asked to do more and more. It's a complicated argument.

So is journalism dying, or is it evolving?

Well, it's changing dramatically. It's much, much harder for serious journalists, who have a deep feeling for the social or civic-education mission of journalism. It's harder for them to get attention and hold it.

Why? Because it's not emotional enough?

If you're going to write about the nuances of how we deal with financial-securities derivatives, you can put that in a screaming, terrifying way; but if you're trying to get people to understand the basics, it's not really easy to do that in today's environment. Not that it ever was. But now it's even harder, partly because there are many more things competing for attention.