Opinion

The pathological pursuit of bad news

6 min read

17 February 2012

Another day, another gloomy statistic about the UK high street. Bad news – and the pathological pursuit of it – is the curse of our generation.

News from the high-street to warm the hearts of Britain’s naysayers. For, all over our screens today is a statistic aimed to keep us awake in these long winter nights. 

Wait for it. For, yes, in this, the worst recession since the depression of the 1930s, one in seven shops are currently vacant

Let’s put that another way. Six in every seven shops are open. Or put it another way still, 86 per cent of the stock of British high streets is open for business. A lesser-reported story, also out today, is that retailers have reported one of the best January sales on record.

Not exactly a horror story worthy of a Wes Craven movie but you wouldn’t have known it from the reporting script on the BBC this morning. Closed shops, angry tenants, a dazzling array of impatient “experts” queuing to pick up the determined narrative of doom.

I am not saying that Britain’s retailers aren’t on the front line of many of the difficulties presented by the downturn. What I am asking though is what this sort of reporting actually achieves.

It’s also frankly, in my view, bland and lazy. Hubble, bubble, toil and trouble. Job done, next story. 

What about the fact that many British retailers are recreating the high street online? What about the revolution that is eBay? 

Perhaps it has damaged a great many businesses but it has also transformed the future of retailers, small and large, taking them from fixed site shops to online empires. 

Well, what about them? Forget it. Doesn’t fit the negative narrative, does it?

Bad news – and the pathological pursuit of it – is the curse of our generation. It’s an irony because we live in an era that has delivered some of the most amazing advances in our ability to communicate information remotely, digitally, pretty much any which way you want to.

And what do we do with this stunning technological gift? We fill it with a depressing diatribe aimed, I guess (and I don’t produce it so I don’t know), at depressing the viewer into a sense of surrender.

“But we are only reporting the news and the facts,” some members of the fourth estate will no doubt say. Is that right? Does the level of subjectivity required for any news bulletin really allow an objective analysis of what is really important to the world? Think how much really good information never even makes it into the public domain and becomes the victim of the editor’s cutting room floor.

I don’t want to get needlessly heavy but it brings me to a weighty question. What is news? What is its purpose and why do we consume it?

I am not sure that I can do much more than skirt around the answer to these questions, but I would make some observations about where I think the problem is.

To my mind, society may well have reached the point where the information available to it has simply overloaded it. We are bombarded by information from the second we wake up to the moment we go to sleep.

According to San Diego State University, the average US consumer is subjected to 3,000 advertising messages a day. In turn, the big weekend international papers now contain up to 500,000 words per edition. If you were to read that cover to cover, at say 300 words per minute, it would take you around 28 hours to read it. 

Thomas Davenport and John Beck in The Attention Economy claim that: “In this new economy, capital, labour, information and knowledge are all in plentiful supply. What’s in short supply is human attention. We just don’t have enough attention to go around.”

The attention economy is what life today is all about and our media is at the heart of it. Getting you to take notice is the name of the game. Once it was easy, now we are becoming ever more desensitised to information, and our attention span decreases as a result.

Giving someone a fright about their job, their health, their environment is the news equivalent of a cattle prod, and it is delivered to get your attention as much as it is to inform you about the world in which you live.

Take a small example. Last week, the Today programme reported that we were experiencing the most punishing February since some obscure Victorian date or other. A couple of days later we were warned about the potential of the worst drought since 1976.

Meanwhile, as I type this note, the weather is clement, if a little dull. The seasons go on and so do we. It might not have the drama required by the newsroom but it is a sensation nonetheless.

Michael Hayman is co-founder of the public relations consultancy Seven Hills. You can also follow Michael on Twitter.