“When a dog bites a person, that is not news because it happens so often. But if a man bites a dog, that’s news.” An interesting quote credited to both Alfred Harmsworth and John B. Bogart gives insight into journalism the world over. According to Psychology Today, for every one positive news report, there are seventeen conflict-related news reports. This is clearly indicative of how conflict dominates both news and human behaviour.
Conflict is when there is some form of disagreement, discord or friction within a group. It can be defined as a serious disagreement or argument; typically a protracted one. In literature, a conflict is a result of competing desires or the presence of obstacles that need to be overcome. It may also mean collision, contradiction and oppression. Conflict may either be destructive, as in ruining lives, causing pain and damage, causing chaos and large-scale damage; or constructive, as in bringing together divergent views and causing the generation of consensus. It is also an opportunity for learning and understanding our differences. Conflicts can also be categorised as: man vs man, man vs nature, man vs self, man vs machines, man vs society and man vs fate. Conflict is present everywhere in the world around us. We experience it on a daily basis, ranging from major to minor incidences of conflict.
The cardinal role of any journalist should be to serve all of the citizens of a democratic society. All media types have a shared responsibility of communication of information both adverse and pleasant. While media houses seek to grow their readership and interactions, bad news always garners more feedback. When something negative happens, people learn of it quickly because information regarding misfortune goes around faster, thus the idiom, “bad news travels fast”.
The continued consumption of conflict-related news is both voluntary and involuntary. In public spaces, televisions, radios and sensational headlines are relayed unsolicited information that may trigger one’s curiosity.
Choices about what’s newsworthy, or otherwise, are made with the law of supply and demand in mind. All forms of media are established with the desire to earn money, and sales and viewer statistics vividly go higher when there are accidents, epidemics and disasters because the likelihood that it can happen to us all generates interest/demand.
The typical consumer has an innate desire for dramatic and negative news. With commercial success as its driver, it is thus in the interests of all forms of media to harness that intrinsic bent amongst its readership to deploy many negative stories, and the more tragic or gruesome the greater is the public desire to read it. This is the reason the media is focused on corruption, natural calamities, scandals and pessimism. Owing to the cognitive bias, a diversity of tragic news always seems to catch the reader’s and listener’s attention sooner than good news, because shock weighs heavier than pleasure. We take interest in anything that threatens our survival, long life, security and happiness.
Human nature is such that our brains are hard-wired to focus on the bad. All day long, the power of bad governs people’s moods, drives marketing campaigns and dominates news and politics. Research shows that in the public domain bad is always stronger than good solely because of our brain’s negativity bias.
In exceptional cases/conflicts the media are funded and the funders desire to see the stories promoted and will pay to see it happen. Because every man has a price, editors fall prey to these agendas. Brexit in the UK is a continuing case in point on both sides.
The suppliers, well aware of our posture and craving, purpose to satiate us. Journalists and other writers desire personal advancement, career growth and advancement and one easy way is stories that generate sales and debate, and where possible being the first to break a big story: the scoop!
The notion that “if there is no conflict, there are no stories worth telling, or reading” appears, therefore, to a large extent to be true, alas! Conflict seems to be a sought-after genre, necessary to propel a narrative forward. The absence of conflict amounts to the absence of a story.
The average newspaper has numerous columns, such as advice, opinions, editorial, fashion, sports, and features amongst others. A random examination of any newspaper shows that conflict is prevalent in all facets of our existence and that even the good stories come from overcoming adversity. One such good story is the pascal mystery the resurrection of Christ came after the crucifixion.
Conflict stories in whatever sphere don’t always end badly. Often times, confrontations result in progress. A few classic examples include; the endless fight by feminists against patriarchal abuse that has yielded immeasurable good. The fight still goes on. Another illustration is of Malala, a Pakistani girl who was shot in the head for encouraging female child education. Alarming as that was, the exposure resulted in a lot of good for the whole of Pakistan.
Man has had countless challenges with diseases and natural calamity as highlighted by various media platforms. The negative stories have opened up avenues for research which avert future tragedies, and provide relief to sufferers. Bad stories have often times also led to the creation of employment opportunities, as organisations are formed to provide relief to the afflicted during wars, tsunamis and other tragedies. Inspirational and uplifting pieces impact individuals who have a self-conflict dilemma and help them to feel better about themselves. This may reduce incidences of suicide and improve self-esteem.
Furthermore, stories surrounding uncouth cultural practices – such as Female Genital Mutilation, foot binding and religious circumcision – generate the necessary debate that may result in the abandonment of those said cultures.
Conflict stories are all there in the media because man is inherently selfish and seeks to subdue all other creation, including fellow human beings. Stories of global warming, environmental degradation, war, protests, scientific research, beauty pageants and awards are all efforts by man to reign supreme over other people, creatures or creations.
Yes, if there is no conflict, there are no stories worth telling or reading because: we desire those stories, they are an avenue for career advancement for journalists, and stories of conflict propel research, create jobs, generate debate for advancement of society and inspire positive change. Conflict stories bring to light threats to human existence or prosperity and sell hope that advancement will occur beyond those challenges.
In exceptional cases though, we have great and inspiring stories: a case in point being the mixed-race wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex and the birth of Prince Archie. However, other negative issues of alleged hypocrisy and the Markle family dissention have since arisen to dull the shine of earlier positive media reports.
It is imperative to note that there is a great need for balanced writing. It ensures more sustainable growth, and research shows that the most successful media houses are those that balance both positive and negative reports. Some people have abandoned news channels after they developed depressive tendencies owing to endless bad news or instances of perceived bias. The same genre is known to mess up people’s days if consumed at the start of the day.
Conflict news reports negate any good efforts of an entity or nation. The resultant thought process and debate leave no room for good news to register. This may lead to a general feeling of helplessness.
It would be overambitious to assume a sudden change of tastes and preferences, but gradually the media can shift focus from conflict to pleasurable topics and slowly work out the much-needed delicate balance.