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March 18, 2019, 7:53 a.m. EDT

The media constantly riles us up, when what we need is a calm place to think

When even innocuous jazz can trigger us, truly outrageous evil becomes normalized

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By Rex Nutting, MarketWatch


Theo Wargo/Getty Images for Tribeca Film Festival)
Kenny G may not be your cup of tea, but why does he get so much abuse?

It’s a time when people everywhere need to be able to think clearly and rationally, but how can they when they are constantly being riled up?

We published a story the other day about some academic research that showed people generally think better when they are calm.

Now, you might say to yourself, “No shit, Sherlock.” Everybody already knows that most people don’t think rationally when they are upset or agitated.

The story described the impact that listening to music has on investment decisions. Turns out that the subjects made better decisions when they listened to calming music than they did if they listened to loud and aggressive music that would agitate them.

We had a problem, however. We knew everybody would just scroll past a headline that said: “Calm down.” When you are reading news on social media or online, the last thing you are looking for is calm. If you wanted that, you’d search for cat videos.

So we did what any media outlet would do: We put a clickbait headline on it that would trigger readers: “How listening to Kenny G could make you rich.”

The academic study didn’t mention Kenny G by name and gave no evidence that listening to Kenny G specifically will make you rich, but we knew that people have some very strong feelings about Kenny G’s easy-listening jazz — mostly they hate his expertly performed treacle — and we hoped they would click on it. (We were wrong; the story got almost no traffic.)

Investors would benefit from being calm but, to get them to read about the benefits of being calm, MarketWatch had to get them riled up. As if that isn’t the most 2019 thing.

Problem for all of us

It’s a problem for the media, for political leaders, for all of us.

Just as there are times when the public absolutely needs to get upset in order to be moved to act (such as when white-supremacist terrorists become a global threat), there are also times when the public needs to be calm in order to think clearly about what’s the best course to take. We need both agitation and calm.

Unfortunately, the business model of the media requires that readers and viewers be in a constant state of agitation, which drives ratings and traffic. The way we consume news has changed. We are drawn to stories that upset us.

It was not always so: There was a time in living memory when some newspapers and TV networks could thrive without driving our customers insane with anger, hate and worry. After we told them the truth (as close as we could get on deadline) about the sad state of the world, we gave them the funnies, the crossword and the sports pages to make them feel good about themselves. The media bundled a mixture of agitation and calm.

We were far from perfect, but at our best we trafficked in reporting the facts and writing rational analysis, not in trolling and cooking up spicy hot takes designed to raise the national blood pressure.

The media (including the social media) have become laughably easy to game: Just say or do something outrageous and let the public take it from there. Surely this is one reason, among many, why people today are so quick to judge others and assume the worst. We’re desensitized.

Trolling is the point

Our president knows this as well as anyone. Trolling us is his business model as well. He knows that if everything (even his terrible grammar ) is outrageous, then nothing is.

Outrage fatigue sets in.

Trolling is also the business model of terrorists. Their purpose is to keep us filled with blind rage, and they do that by triggering us with online “manifestos” and live-streaming their despicable crimes. The deaths of 49 humans is almost beside the point.

I’m not blaming the media for the sorry state of the world; I just don’t think it’s helping. We need both agitation and calm, but we only get one. I’m not asking for kumbaya 24/7; I’m asking for some balance.

I work in a newsroom, where the conversations about how to cover the news have shifted over the years from “What do our readers need?” to “What’s our angle?”

And if that doesn’t outrage you, I don’t know what will.

Rex Nutting is a columnist and MarketWatch's international commentary editor, based in Washington. Follow him on Twitter @RexNutting.

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