Bad news, bad behaviour

Brian Jones
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It turns out it’s really the media’s fault after all.

Apparently, the media aren’t merely impartial messengers bringing news to the masses who generally don’t have time to personally attend city council meetings, court sessions and fights on George Street.

Public opinion polls have consistently ranked journalists far down the professional popularity scale, slightly above lawyers and marginally below dead lawyers.

Now we know why. According to researchers at the University of British Columbia, it is difficult for people to be on their best behaviour when they are inundated with bad news.

Reporting on the breakthrough UBC research, The Canadian Press stated, “people are inspired to do good by reading media stories about selfless acts by Good Samaritans, instead of negative stories.”

The researchers “found a direct link between a person’s exposure to media accounts of extraordinary virtue and their yearning to change the world.”

Good news simply isn’t enough. Heroic deeds, and the reporting of same, inspire people to peer into their media-darkened souls and proclaim, “I want to be better.”


Campaign conundrum

This is good news for the multitudes of media bashers out there. Somewhere in the halls of academia, far away from prying cameras, David Suzuki and Noam Chomsky are high-fiving each other.

But it is bad news for the Canadian electorate. A federal election campaign is an unlikely place to find heroes, Good Samaritans or admirable deeds. Political news is usually about scandal, hypocrisy, lies, propaganda, fraud, misrepresentation, coverups and misappropriation — and that’s on a good day.

Contempt will beget contempt. “Contempt for Parliament,” and thus contempt for the public, propelled this election. With all this bad news, it will be a challenge for Canadian voters to do good and behave well.

If anyone sees a hero on the horizon, please write a letter to the editor and let the rest of us know.

The list above omitted cynicism and manipulation, two stalwarts of the political process.

For months, politicians on all sides have tried to depict themselves as doing everything possible to avoid an election and their opponents as being to blame for forcing an election.

“Canadians don’t want an election,” has been a common quote coming out of Ottawa.

Who says Canadians don’t want an election?

Politicians and habitually complaining curmudgeons, perhaps, but most people probably don’t mind the time and attention it takes to observe and participate in the democratic process.

Contrary to what too many politicians spout about the effort and expense of an election, politics could be vastly improved if votes were held more often. Fixed-date elections every two years, for instance, would give citizens a lot more influence than they now have.



Speaking of manipulation, it was only a few short years ago that then-premier Danny Williams exhorted his caucus to adhere to his ABC campaign. Anything But Conservative was a dandy success — in the 2008 federal election the federal Tories won exactly zero of the seven seats in Newfoundland (and Labrador).

And yet, this week when former provincial cabinet minister Loyola Sullivan declared his candidacy for the Conservatives in St. John’s South-Mount Pearl, a number of PC MHAs were there to give support.

Biologists have been summoned. Some invertebrates are only occasionally spineless.

The UBC researchers, Suzuki and Chomsky — among others — overlook a main tenet of journalism when they talk about the “power” of the media: people have freewill and independent minds, and always retain the ability to make their own decisions and form their own opinions.

Applied to elections, American journalist H.L. Mencken put it this way: “Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.”


Brian Jones is a desk editor at The Telegram. He can be reached by email at

Organizations: University of British Columbia, Canadian Press, Conservatives The Telegram

Geographic location: Newfoundland

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Recent comments

  • aubrey smith
    April 01, 2011 - 22:22

    Mencken outranks Chomsky any day.Just look at this astute observation by H.L. . The Presidency tends, year by year, to go to such men ( i.e. is those are merely mediocre but who move up because they have forceful personaliites) . As democracy is perfected, the office represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. We move toward a lofty ideal. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart's desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron. What forsight to see that George W. Bush would take America's highest office and what a warning to Canadians to avoid a symmetrical happening with Stephen Harper on May 2.

  • Herb Morrison
    April 01, 2011 - 13:55

    News commentators and politicians themselves sometimes compare their election campaigns to a horse race. At the beginning of the campaign, you are certain to hear somebody remark: that the politicians are “out of the gate.” When I reflect on the behaviour of some politicians in both the Federal and Provincial political arenas, whether they are in the House of Commons, the House of Assembly, or on the campaign trail, at times their behaviour does indeed put me in mind of at least a part of a horse’s anatomy. If said politicians want to behave like horse’s asses, that’s their prerogative. However, the recent decision by a raft of politicians to return to the political arena and run in the federal election, leads me to believe that they must think that we Newfoundlanders and Labradoreans are a bunch of dumb horse’s asses, incapable of recognizing what appears to be examples of political opportunism at its’ worst. Personally speaking, I’m offended.

  • james
    April 01, 2011 - 12:44

    we live in a fictional democracy

  • Politically Incorrect
    April 01, 2011 - 10:58

    And what you overlooked is that as most medial outlets are owned, and funded by corporate advertisers, making it foolish for journalists to hold their masters up to the light. We have seen how independent, investigative journalism has been replaced by reporters who allow themselves to be “embedded” with and regurgitate the “information” allowed to them. Take for instance those reporters on Harper’s campaign who are only allowed five questions. What about those journalists who were fired when Conrad Black bought out their news agencies and purged those who didn’t agree with his dictates? Even the CBC has dumbed-down for fear of enraging their Conservative masters. When the WikiLeaks documents were released it was telling that the major news outlets in the West were more interested in Assange’s personal life than the shocking facts that were only reported in the independent and “foreign” press such as AL Jazeera. People go with the facts to which they have access, and as many of these “facts” are necessarily vetted through the corporate filter, so is our thinking. Why do you think the “fair and balanced” FOX News has had such an impact on American culture as opposed to even Canada’s. Your puerile characterisation of Chomsky and (Suzuki??!- oh right, he’s on your watch-list – you might have thrown in Muslims too, Brian) as celebrating the demise of the western media model, belies a complete misunderstanding of Chomsky’s works. He has been a staunch defender of the independent and investigative journalism that is key to a functioning democracy.