Mainstream Media: Peddling Fear

Get Results: fear and drama equals pound
Get Results: fear and drama equals pound

The old saying, “NEWS SELLS” isn’t exactly accurate, rather fear and drama sell.

This is important to understand when thinking about the mainstream media (companies such as BBC, ITV, Sky), because they all need to justify their very existence by achieving high viewing stats, without which, they would lose funding such as sponsorships, advertising spend, TV licence and subscriber fees etc.

You could also include the tabloid press, who additionally, are also heavily biased towards their owners political agendas, are biased in their reporting and don’t try to pretend to be impartial or true to the full facts. However when writing this post I was mainly thinking about TV based mainstream media, however newspapers have the same commercial needs and employ many of the same tactics for keeping readers interested.

Keeping attention

So, how do they ensure they get these all important viewing figures? Well, simply presenting the news, the facts, just isn’t going to cut it. Facts are boring, they can be communicated in a matter of minutes. That won’t do, that won’t keep people viewing. The news, containing just the facts is a commodity after all, it is the same wherever it is communicated.

Sure there is some merit in uncovering a buried story and shining a light on it. But that’s hard, requires talented journalism, it takes work, time and detection skills, and such stories are hard to come by, at least sufficiently enough to fill the necessary air time.

On the other hand, drama and fear is easy, a emotive narrative can extend a news piece indefinitely. You have the facts, but you present them in such a way as to keep viewers attention. If you can tell the story more dramatically than anyone else, you’re onto a winner, you’ve differentiated yourself from the competition, the news is no longer a commodity.

How do you keep attention? You take a event, and you create a narrative around it, making it into a dramatic story. For this to work and for it to be dramatic enough you have add fear and uncertainty, that’s what make stories interesting.

Let’s use something current to illustrate the point, the recent general election;

The facts

  • Conservative party with leader Theresa May won the election,
  • Conservative party won with a greater share of votes than since Margaret Thatcher won power,
  • Conservative Party got almost as many seats as all the other parties combined,
  • But not quite as much as all the other parties combined, which means the Conservatives are a minority government (8 seats short of an overall majority), which could make it difficult getting policies passed in the house of commons,
  • If they could get agreement from another party (who hold more than 8 seats), this would allow them to have a combined majority, and make it much easier to get policies through the house of commons,
  • Labour party came second with less votes and less seats than the Conservatives. They could in theory hold office, if the Conservatives decided they could not, and relinquished power, but Labours situation would be even worse than that of the Conservatives , so would be very unlikely.

Conservative Party

  • Votes –  13,667,213
  • Seats – 318 (326 needed for overall majority)
  • Vote Share – 42.4%

Labour Party

  • Votes – 12,874,985
  • Seats – 262
  • Vote Share – 40.0%

The narrative

Now you create a narrative. Okay the Tory party won, but they were hoping for a majority and they didn’t get it,  expectations weren’t met, so this can be characterised as a defeat, no, a disaster of epic proportions.

You then get the other parties to give their view of the result, and because they lost, they will naturally want to deflect any attention and criticism away from their shortcomings, and will inevitably play along with the Tory’s election disaster narrative.

How can we develop the narrative to maximise fear, uncertainty and drama? We can speculate about the inevitable P.M.s resignation. Wow this could go on for weeks, and so it goes on.

Let’s just look at a couple of different possible narratives..

Theresa May and the Conservatives were hoping for a greater majority than they originally had, but it didn’t work out. She’s now going to find it more difficult getting policies through parliament and will need to recruit help from other parties. This is going to be much more difficult particularly if the other parties don’t agree with those policies.

This keeps true to the Facts, it doesn’t add emotive language, it doesn’t particular fire up emotion.

Mays plan to steamroller the opposition has failed disastrously. Her intention to force through a hard Brexit and get mandate to run the country have been firmly rejected. She has lost all credibility and can’t possibly survive the growing division within her own party. And with the Labour party ready to step in and form a government should a new election be necessary, it is only a matter of time before she is forced out.

This narrative is designed to evoke emotion and moves away from the facts and adds speculation into the mix (increases uncertainty and fear). If anything, this is rather underplaying the media narrative, but you can see the difference between these two possible narratives.

Protect yourself

Well it’s creative, it’s clever but it’s also manipulative, it’s fear mongering. It upsets, divides and causes pain and suffering in viewers who believe the BS. More scary than that, it also influences the actual events themselves. Political parties often react to what the media is saying, and position themselves to restrict the publicity damage.

Mainstream TV channels such as the BBC aren’t as obviously biased as the tabloid press, although I’m sure they are at times, when it serves them. They will more generally take any position that provides the greatest dramatic effect. They have done it to the Labour party and Corbyn in particular. They don’t discriminate in that way, their main agenda is simply to keep eyeballs on their channel, fear and drama works.

Don’t let the media fool you. To protect against this callous media manipulation….

  1. Understand the underlying facts. Make your own informed judgments based on these only,
  2. Screen out the media noise based on assumptions, speculation and prediction,
  3. Be aware of the emotive language used (designed to maximise viewer fear),
  4. Understand the motivations of all the characters employed, such as the interviewees (opponents, and allies) and of course that of the actual media channel you are watching and their representatives. After all they are the ones with the most to benefit from your fear.

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