Vol 1: The Power of Negativity and Fear-Mongering Media

There are many things that move us as a society: money, opinions, societal memes, even compassion. But nothing moves people in a more impactful way than fear and confusion. These two factors more than anything else affect our mind in ways beyond compare.

This is because our brains are naturally wired as “negative feedback machines”. For thousands of years, we relied on our brains to remind us how to survive and stay safe. Touch a hot stove as a child and you are likely to learn the simple survival skill that fire is hot; Poke at the neighbor’s cat and you will learn that it will scratch you; Pull someone’s hair in class and you will earn a trip to the principal’s office. While this is a great thing when you are a nomadic tribe or a small child, how does this learning process translate to modern society? How do we reconcile to the fact that our lives in modern society do not depend on survival in the hunter-gatherer sense of the word?  We understand the world through negative stimulus and yet these days it is much more nuanced than it used to be. While we as a human race are more advanced, our brains are still hard-wired for learning from experiences of danger and fear.

Many aspects of our society take advantage of this simple fact to further their means of control. Everything from insurance ads on TV to beauty magazines to the news we watch uses factors of fear to motivate us or distract us. The question now comes to bear: “how do we actively learn to recognize when fear is being used as a primary motivating factor for the news we read?”

Well, the answer is actually quite simple: articles and stories such as these can usually be spotted by inflammatory headlines. Here are a few examples from the recent news that poked at our fears.

Example Number 1:

On January 13, 2018 the New York Post published an article with the following title:

“Hawaii sends terrifying ‘false alarm’ about ballistic missile”. 

There was a scheduled drill going on for the scenario of a ballistic missile headed for Hawaii and the person manning the EMS system made a mistake when he sent the practice message live. The message caused panic for the citizens of Hawaii until a subsequent message was sent out declaring the false alarm. The issue is not the content of the article, but rather the way it was presented, making us feel like the Emergency Management System can’t be trusted, like we need to be wary even of the people who keep us safe.

Example number 2:

On the 23rd of January 2018 the Mercury News posted an article with the following headline:

“Tsunami alerts called, then canceled, for California coast after Alaska quake.”

This article, like the one before, blows everything out of proportion. While an earthquake with a magnitude of 7.9 did indeed strike off the coast of Kodiak, Alaska, the distant waves never made it to impact or damage any part of the California coast.

 The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration even went so far as to release a map showing the intended reach of the waves and gave the approximate delay between quake and expected impact on the coastline as shown. But it didn’t happen. So why worry the public?

Within two weeks of the first false tsunami message going out to the West Coast, on February 6, 2018 a story from NBC News was published with the headline: “False tsunami warning sent to the East Coast, Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean”. 

This time, there was nothing but another test that was sent out. Despite yet again the facts of the article, the news agency again chose to use a headline highlighting the failure of one of the most important systems in America, the early warning Emergency Management System which we depend on for news regarding our safety.

These isolated instances of possible issues of EMS alerts may not on their own be a threat to our safety, one must call into question again what is the intended purpose of the headline? To inform us or to bring into the social order an air of chaos and panic?

Example number 3:

A story from Monday February 5, 2018 published by CNN with the headline:

“Super Bowl anti-terrorism documents left on plane.” 

This story actually began shortly before Super Bowl LII when a CNN employee discovered a yet undisclosed document marked “for official use only” and “important for national security” in the seat back pocket of his commercial airline flight that detailed a pre-Super Bowl drill by Department of Homeland Security in Minneapolis. Of course Police, State Agencies and even the Federal Government take part in drills such as these on a regular basis to assure the fact that our first responders are prepared for any disaster eventuality. But it caused quite a stir. “The biggest consequence of this mistake,” former DHS official and CNN contributor Juliet Kayyem said, “may have less to do with terrorists knowing our vulnerabilities and more to do with confidence in the Department of Homeland Security. In the end, confidence in the federal government at a time of crisis is what the American public deserves.”

MS. Kayyem makes a great point. This is why I wrote this article.

How are we supposed to maintain confidence in a system where trusted individuals “accidentally” leave confidential and secure documents in the back seat pocket of a commercial airliner? How are we supposed to maintain faith in an Emergency Management System that is sending out multiple false alarms in less than time days?

Of course the real question to be asked is why publish these articles? Why run a story before all the facts have been resolved? To be the first to post the headline of course. In this age of modern media, we need to take everything with a tablespoon of salt. We need to do our research and collect all of the facts of the case before we make up our minds and publish our opinions…or perhaps I’m just jumping to conclusions.

~ Christopher Jordan is a former broadcast radio and television engineer/producer and host of the Dudes n Beer podcast ~

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