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Imposed Anger

January 29, 2019

A recent infuriating news story described a single dad who had received an eviction notice because his toddler son made too much noise. The story showed a loving, caring father in robust play with a gleeful, exuberant boy, then described the father's fears about finding a place for him and his son to live.

According to the story, the eviction resulted from a complaint by another tenant. The viewer is left with the impression that a likeable young man and his playful son are about to be thrown out of a "family-friendly" apartment because of a whiny belligerent neighbour and an uncaring bureaucratic process. That's enough to make your blood boil.

But wait. The story did not interview the tenant who had complained so it could present that person's point of view, nor did it describe any attempts by the property manager to find a solution. Maybe it's true that the complainant is a heartless, self-centred wretch who delights in imposing on others. It could be that the property manager is a paper-pushing pinhead who doesn't care if normal people are made homeless. On the other hand, maybe the complainant is a single mom who works nights and has to sleep during the day and lives below the apartment where the boy is running wild. Maybe the apartment manager has suggested numerous solutions such as carpeting a hardwood floor to cut down on the noise, which the father rejected because he didn't like carpet. We just don't know.

But why don't we know? After all, information is what the news is supposed to give us. It's no secret that news, particularly on television, is primarily an entertainment medium. That's why we see so many irrelevant stories of lost (cute, of course) pets. But even so, that doesn't explain why so much of this story was missing.

Perhaps the answer to that curiosity can be found in a recent study of "virality," which is the extent news stories are shared on social media. (To read the story, enter "the news media needs to keep you angry" in your search engine.) Researchers found that highly viral stories, those that engage the audience, are ones that evoke a strong emotional response. Like awe or, more relevant here, like anger. And those are the stories that draw an audience back for the next broadcast.

Did the show decide to omit the details that would have defused the anger this story generates because doing so would have made it less engrossing? We can't know for sure, and certainly the broadcaster would never admit it, but the battle for viewers is unrelenting. The research suggests that leaving them angry is one way to get them back.

So the next time you see a news story that makes you want to smash something, sit back and ask if you have been given the whole story, including the other side. If not, retain your anger, but don't direct it at the target of the story, aim it at the media outlet that is trying to manipulate your emotions.