Sunday, 11 August 2013

Outrage is the Desired Outcome

Naive liberals in a futile search for enlightenment demand coverage of important stories by news networks such that they will be enlightened. These same liberals are always shocked at the stories they read and fail to understand why the stories they read, the coverage they are exposed too and the unbearable stasis of contemporary politics seems to continue indefinitely. Why is it that the mainstream media (Regardless of political orientation) always says so much (lots of coverage) while saying so little (no valuable information can be discerned from the coverage)?

Viewership to increase ad revenue is the primary goal for any news outlet. Without viewers (or funding) the news outlet will cease to exist as profit is derived from viewership. There exist alternative primary goals for new outlets (i.e. some aim to provide quality journalism but these are a minority not a majority) but these news outlets typically derive their revenue from donations or through membership fees. These alternative news outlet structures cannot compete with main stream news outlets [1, 2, 3] so they will be left out of this discussion.

Since the primary goal of a news outlet is ad revenue it is necessary for a news outlet to provide content that produces the most views. Since people are inherently emotional the most view-producing content will be: 
1) Coverage of local events that are rare but emotion inducing (rape of a young girl, child pornography, etc)
2) Coverage of global events that are shocking and rare (Earthquake, tsunami, etc) 
3) Coverage of global events that are ongoing and fertile for fear-mongering (Fukushima nuclear reactor aftermath, swine flu pandemic, etc)
4) Coverage of controversial events (Evolution debate, Trayvon Martin case, racism, sexism, etc) [5]

The above content is view producing independent of spin but further spin increases the number of views. If it is coverage of a rape case one should [6,7] include people defending the rapist, victim blaming and psycho-analysis of the rapist. If it is coverage of abortion one should include religious protests and death threats to the gynecologist who performed abortions. If it is coverage of nuclear power it should include diatribes about the anti-nuclear left, bafflement with numbers and remarks about the rationality of nuclear advocates. If it is about religion... well, burn the infidels! [View Disclaimer]

It is for the reasons outlined above that most mainstream news content is devoid of content. To frame it in evolutionary terms: selection of articles covering events will not be determined based on the urgency of what the article is covering but based on survival of event coverage in an evolutionary landscape where page views is the determinant selection force. In such a case events which generate more page views will survive while those that do not will cease surviving. Outrage is the desired outcome!


[1] New outlets that derive revenue from donations typically provide service for free and maintain service through donations. Revenue streams from donations pale in comparison to that of ad revenue and these news outlets will subsequently have less resources available to optimize their performance in the news competition landscape. The main appeal of donation based news outlets is the quality journalism but over time political influence, the viewer desire to watch news conforming to their beliefs and other minor selection forces in the landscape will make quality journalism less of a priority.

[2] If a news outlet provided a membership structure the news outlet would not be competing in the same news outlet landscape as other news outlets. Most viewers will not pay for news or prefer to have their news for free. This limits the sphere of influence of membership based news viewership sites. Also, as with donation based news sites, there is also the desire for readers to have their views confirmed by the news they are reading. For example, the QXZ news is a news paper primarily read by X target market and over time QXZ news will produce more and more news for that target market. Eventually quality of news will decline (This does not mean it will become as poor as main stream news but rather that news quality will not be the sole determinant for retaining viewership).

[3] There exist news outlets that are heavily funded by the government/taxpayer dollars/other income source but these outlets will still face similar problems. Income source becomes limited by the fact that the news outlet is dependent on the income source. This prevents coverage of certain issues. Also, many of these news outlets will cover controversial stories in a slightly more balanced fashion then main stream news outlets but they still cover the controversy. [4]

[4] Controversy is emotion based otherwise it would not be a controversy. The desire of a reader to read the most polarizing coverage of a controversy such that it fits the reader's own biases is strong.

[5] We can include coverage of all isms in this category.

[6] Should implies that it is desirable for one to feel this way.

[7] Desire is merely the labeling of behaviors that we like based on socially constructed notions that maintain existing power structures. We are a society that worships profit maximization and it is considered a desirable behavior by many. From this perspective we can label feeling outraged about pseudo-events as good because it maximizes profit! 

Disclaimer: The above controversies have nothing to do with any of my personal views. If asked I will probably respond that I am pretty much apolitical. If pressed hard enough I will tell you I aspire to be the son of Hitler. I will not clarify whether I am being sarcastic or not. (I do not aspire to be the son of Hitler)


  1. Covering stories of people taking the minority side in controversial topics is an extremely effective way to get people talking and news outlets want nothing more than for people to talk about what they heard in the news. Being able to share with others things they've heard about in the news is conveniently enough one of the main reasons people watch/listen/read the news which makes sparking outrage far from a challenge.

    I've heard of enough people noticing that news outlets are deliberately covering ridiculously jaw-dropping stories over ones that are important for people to hear that I am starting to wonder if seeing them get away with it is part of the appeal. I know most people don't notice but there are a lot that do and there's nothing anybody can do about it but keep watching/listening/listening. It is without a doubt a convenient scenario for the news outlets.

  2. It's an interesting point you made in the first paragraph. As you've said to me before how much of news watching/outrage at events/sports entertainment is merely participation in social games as opposed to concern about news/sports/other event. Perhaps we are so social that we largely do not care that the news is as I described.

    This fits into larger problems in society as a whole. Participation in social games (Doing what fits in) is, for most people, the dominant behavioural strategy. The intersection of participation in social games and our evolutionary history could be particularly interesting.

    We are largely not adapted for modern life. The news, cars, wide spread availability of addictive substances, night time light exposure and large population sizes are, from an evolutionary perspective, novel. Most people seek to participate in social games so they engage in social games that involve the above. What if the above just makes them unhappy? We have a need to participate in the above yet participating in the above, ultimately, is not fulfilling to us.

    Why does marketing work? Does it work because we are social not because it fulfils any particular need?

  3. Maintenance of social status is a major driving force in the mind of the average consumer making it therefore a major driving force in the increase in prices of many products. In reality, it's pretty unbelievable how much money is spent on social games.If you've ever met someone who does not allow themselves to be influenced by social expectations you'll know that they live life quite differently but those people are few and far between.

    Social media has changed the world in many incredible ways. Never before have people had as much exposure to things that would cause them to be concerned about their social status. Having the trendiest clothes, phone, car etc. is more important to people than ever. As a result, the functional performance of a product is taking the back seat to things like how many other people have that product and what kind of image that product will create for a person. I believe that a large component of marketing for many products is based on helping shape that image rather than convincing people that they will be provided some sort of practical gain.