Nightcrawler and the manipulative nature of news

Do you know what fear stands for? False Evidence Appearing Real.

Jake Gyllenhall says that about half an hour into 2014’s universally acclaimed Nightcrawler.

In a nutshell, Nightcrawler is the story of a freelance journalist who makes increasingly questionable decisions in order to up the appeal of his stories to news stations.

This is not, however, a film review. This is about the way news knows what we want to see and misrepresents world events to manipulate the public. The quotes are from the movie, though.

First off, fear sells more than comfort. Human minds gravitate towards the macabre, the graphic, the tragic. There’s a reason why ratings for liberal news sources soared when Trump announced his candidacy for president.

And it’s hard wired into us from prehistoric times. For our own safety, we give priority on dangerous and threatening situation. Anyone who can manipulate that instinct, however, that can own our attention.

The best and clearest way that I can phrase it for you, to capture the spirit of what we air, is think of our news cast as a screaming woman running down the street with her throat cut.

Fear sells.

But news isn’t just a source of fear, it is also a source of control. By keeping the television on, we have a direct update on where the threat is. After 9/11, everyone wanted to know where the next attack was, what the army was doing, and how much danger they were in. Where is the threat, what is the response, what actions do I need to take?

Before continuing, if you haven’t seen Vox’s piece on terror attack news, I highly suggest you check it out.

The news does not exist to inform us, it exists to captivate us. It’s purpose is to draw our attention and hold onto it for as long as it can. This goal in and of itself is not malicious. It becomes a problem because the best way to captivate us is to frighten us. If we feel threatened, we are going to do everything in our power to stay informed and prepared.

If it bleeds, it leads.

I’m sure you’ve all heard that we are living in the most peaceful period of human history. It’s quipped at parties as a fun fact, but it’s only fun because the media so often tells us the exact opposite.

Yeah, thanks for that, media.

…whoever you are.

But I guess most dangerous thing the news does is it tells us the narrative we want to hear. Everyone has biases, whether they’re racial or ethnic or socioeconomic, and we are more likely to believe stories that confirm those biases.

We find our viewers are more interested in urban crime creeping into the suburbs. What that means is a victim or victims, preferably well-off and/or white, injured at the hands of the poor, or a minority.

If a group of people is inherently seen as a threat, then we are already afraid of what they might do. Stories that feed off of this fear not only sell, they perpetuate these biases. They color the world we see and influence how we treat each other. It’s hard to imagine Donald Trump being elected President in a world where all news was objective.

When American news channels aired the destruction of the Twin Towers, the footage was meant to satisfy our fears and then perpetuate those fears indefinitely. Now, every 9/11 you tune into NBC and re-watch the same specials, re-introduce an exaggerated fear of Islamic terrorism into your mind, revitalize your support for everything America has done globally since that day.

You know, like every other culturally sensitive fall tradition we have?

The news is an integral institution of any modern society, but until its interests align with ours, we must be vigilant towards the stories it tells us.

If people in the media cannot decide whether they are in the business of reporting news or manufacturing propaganda, it is all the more important that the public understand that difference, and choose their news sources accordingly.
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