Sunday, February 12, 2012

Breaking News! Warning! Everything is OK!

I found this today, forgot I had taken this screenshot a few months ago. It's the home page of the New York Times. Notice the "Breaking News" banner? It's a rare banner they use when something really critical is happening. This one says, "Stocks Remain Volatile on Wall Street, Opening Up More Than 1%."

In my book, when I talk about sensationalism and a loss of perspective in the media, this is a small example of it, right here. And the NY Times is certainly not the worst perpetrator, in fact, they're usually pretty reasonable. But even they can succumb. Is it any wonder that reading the news (and more commonly, watching it) causes stress and anxiety to a lot of people? The whole tone and language and placement of that banner implies something bad is happening. It says, "Stocks remain volatile," which sounds terrible. But in reality, stocks rose, which is generally good news. It's an odd way to position it. And those subtle ways of picking and choosing what gets highlighted, and how it is conveyed, add up over the hundreds of thousands of days we see the news.

Here's another example, this time from the Huffington Post, which really specializes in sensationalist headlines. It was from around the same time, back when Hurricane Irene battered the East Coast. The headline on a story on the right of the page says, "Irene Passing Manhattan Could Lead to 'Nightmare Scenario.'" Now, Irene was a serious and definitely newsworthy event, and it's good to be prepared, but "nightmare scenario"? It makes it sound like the skies will be raining blood.

These also remind me of the Long Island Railroad, which I had to get used to recently after years of using New Jersey Transit. In NJ, you only hear announcements if there is a delay or something wrong. But not on Long Island. The announcements at the local stations come on a few minutes before the train is due to arrive, and announce in an agonizingly slow and roboticized voice, "ATTENTION ... Long Island passengers ... the 4:29 ... PM ... train ... to Penn Station ... is operating ... ON TIME." Great, thanks for the update. It's almost like it's designed to instill a constant low-level anxiety - for no good reason.

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