Fear Factor: The Depressing Nature of the News Cycle

The mainstream news media has motivated viewership through fear for a long time now. Those who took any communications courses in college like I did could tell you that the fear driven news cycle is mass media 101 methodology. However, lately I have observed that it is getting worse, the constant litany of news stories consisting of nothing but tragedy, war, violence, murder, and disasters of all types is becoming increasingly common.


The once tried and true strategy of using fear as the motivator for the viewership ratings of news broadcasts and on-line “click counts” may be backfiring. In my own experience I have overheard others discussing the “depressing” nature of the news cycle. I have also been told directly by friends, colleagues, family members, and other associates that the news is “too sad or too upsetting” to watch with regularity.


The fast paced nature of our social media driven society and the plethora of entertainment options as well as the numerous methods we can obtain news related information has a direct correlation to this change in perception of the traditional news media.


The mainstream news outlets such as CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC have continued to function in the format habit of drilling the same few stories into the minds of the viewer. Several people have commented to me that they are actually depressed or anxious because of the way those outlets have covered stories such as ISIS, Ebola, and the state of the global economy.


In a world that is seemingly coming apart at the seams, the average person is seeking some comfort and hope. In a world where they get news alerts buzzing into their cell phone or flashing on the screens of their laptop or tablet, they do not need to be reminded that there are some evil people, horrible diseases, or discouraging economic data gripping the international community. They are aware of it, and most average people are seeking an escape from it in larger numbers.


Mass Migration


It is this functional imperative to escape the incessant drone of the negative news cycle that has given rise to the phenomenon of viewership ratings spikes for some other trends in television and media such as reality television, competition shows, and sports related programming.


I know people in my own circles that would not fit the mold of the traditional sports viewer, people who at one point in time watched news programs such as 60 Minutes, 20/20, or Dateline but because of the negative and depressing aspects of the news coverage they no longer watch those programs. Instead, they watch only sports on television particularly live sporting events such as the NFL or the NBA games.


It is no wonder why the ratings for live sporting events are off the charts, some of this viewership activity is a direct result from the news media driving the viewer to find other more uplifting programming choices. Most people are seeking a distraction from the problems and drudgery of everyday life, and the news cycle is only serving to be a constant reminder of the harshness and cruelty of our society.


In some of my own journalism work I have received positive feedback for telling stories that raise awareness of an issue, yet provide hope that our society is capable of better behavior. This is lacking in the coverage of the news in the current cycle format utilized by the major outlets. It is no surprise that the cable networks set up for 24 hour news have seen their overall ratings decline. The lone exception to this rule, Fox News, has seen ratings growth, but it should be noted that it is in demographics where people still watch the news. The younger demographics tend to use the internet or social media to find the news that is of interest to them.


Some of those networks, such as CNN, are embracing a trend in television by announcing the introduction of more original series programming than traditional news broadcasts or talk show format programs. The new concept called “The Wonder List” with veteran newscaster Bill Weir is the latest project approved by CNN in a reorganization of the formatting of the network.


Even the major networks (NBC, ABC, and CBS) have seen changes in the ratings for their news broadcasts and news related programming in primetime. It is all about adaptation and what these networks are learning is that in a time where everything is about customization, the mainstream news broadcast lacks the impact it once had over the viewer.


The advent of Twitter, Facebook, and other social media sites as outlets for gathering customized news feeds that are relevant to the individual user have phased out the traditional news broadcast. The networks have to figure out a way to relate to the average viewer, particularly the younger viewer, without losing their “bread and butter” demographic: the viewer over the age of 55.


Custom Fit


The customization of “news feeds” tailored to the unique interests of the individual user have become the new standard for the way we gather information via the internet and social media platforms. This custom fit approach allows for the user also to gain insight into non-mainstream issues or news pieces that feature something that is rare in the mass market news: hope.


Our society needs hope now more than ever before, but the mainstream media seems to have disconnected from that entirely and continues to follow the drumbeat of fear and panic in the stories they cover. The constant reminders of the tyrannical and barbaric behaviors of ISIS or the next potential Ebola case in a big metropolitan area such as New York City, are all too upsetting for most viewers at this point.


In fairness, the major networks do feature human interest stories and other pieces which cover more benign topics. They also lend coverage to stories of empowerment or hope in various segments, but these are the exception and not the rule. The ABC evening news broadcast will achieve this by their “Person of the Week” segment and they deliver in a mass appeal piece called “Made in America” a series about American products manufacturing. The CBS evening news broadcast has uplifting features such as “On the Road” where they highlight the contribution of regular Americans doing extraordinary actions.


In addition, I would be remiss if I did not include the success of NBC Nightly News which is the only evening newscast to grow their audience. It is the most watched news broadcast in the U.S. for the past 10 years, according to Nielsen, and NBC averages 9.3 million viewers which is approximately 1 million more than the second place ABC newscast with David Muir. They obviously have determined a way to connect with some key viewer demographics, but the younger generations still gravitate toward other outlets to find the news that matters to them on an individual basis.


The NBC podcast is a good example of taking a traditional format and placing it into a modern technological delivery system. It has helped NBC connect with segments of the public who are non-traditional TV news viewers. I believe those types of innovations will continue in order for the mainstream news media to keep pace with the fast pace of the internet new feeds, providing information available to the public across several platforms.


Next Page


Even the internet news sources are not immune to this backlash by the public over the fear inciting news coverage on their sites. I have overheard people while in waiting rooms at the doctor, while getting my haircut, or waiting in line at a grocery store checkout line express upset feelings over what appears on the internet news.


However, the internet news coverage is different than a traditional live TV newscast for the obvious reason that the user on the internet can just click onto another link and not read a full news story on the Middle East, Korean tensions, or ISIS violence. I call it the “next page” phenomenon, others have different names for it, but the concept is the same: freedom of choice.


I wrote at one point for a large internet based news platform until they disbanded their freelance news contribution area. This organization used to measure not only the “click count” for a respective news story, but also the amount of time the average reader spent on the page. The goal being to avoid the “next page” scenario with the reader. I was fascinated when I would get the monthly reports to find out which stories held the attention of the reader and which pieces did not.


In the end, the executives in charge of media companies have to understand that the American public is generally tired of the continuous stream of upsetting news flooding our televisions, computers, tablets, and smart phones. I understand that they have to report on what is happening in the world, and that at some points those stories are not easy to see or to read. They would provide themselves and the public some welcome relief if they started to intersperse some stories of hope and perseverance. Those stories are out there, and they are easier to find than it may seem.



(Statistics and ratings courtesy of Nielsen, demographic data courtesy of TVWire, and some background information courtesy of the Associated Press)









Hate Crimes Against The Homeless

The incidence of crimes against the homeless population in the United States is on the rise. This disturbing trend has resulted in a concerted push to enact changes in the laws involving the enforcement of violent crimes to classify this activity against the homeless as a hate crime.


These changes to the criminal justice system would come on both the federal and the state level. The evolution of the revisions to the statutory punishments to a hate crime classification would result in an escalation of the designation of the charge. An example would be a violation that is normally a 2nd degree charge would be escalated in a hate crime designation to a 1st degree charge. This escalation would affect the sentencing guidelines and in some cases the mandatory fines associated with a particular violation.


In data gathered from the National Coalition for the Homeless, the crimes committed against the homeless population have increased by 23% with 108 attacks resulting in 19 deaths in 2013. Some states took action in order to address this increase in criminal activity targeted upon one specific group, 7 states passed laws making an attack on a homeless person designated as a hate crime.


The argument by these state legislators as well as the advocacy groups representing the homeless population is that the hate crime sentencing escalator would serve as an effective deterrent to further attacks on that population. This has been proven in some of the states to be a viable solution to the criminal activity caused by individuals against the homeless population.


However, in Florida, a state which was in the group of seven to create hate crime sentencing for crimes against the homeless; the violence against the homeless has continued and it is the state with the 2nd highest rate of this type of crime. Some of the reports of the intensity of the violence committed against those who are homeless is disturbing and sickening. It seems that these crimes may have some sort of connection with prime tourist destinations because California and Florida were the two states where nearly half of all the violent acts against the homeless were reported in 2013.


The stigma which is so prevalent in our society regarding the homeless population does not serve to diminish these types of crimes in any way. In fact, some experts on this issue believe that the societal perception of homelessness creates conditions where they are seen as “easy targets” for subjection to violence by others. Some of the reports of the attacks that have been detailed are so profoundly disturbing that I cannot even include them in this article.


These same reports have also given increased visibility to the need for stricter legal protections for those who are homeless. The Hate Crimes Against the Homeless Enforcement Act proposes an amendment to the Violent Crime Control & Law Enforcement Act of 1994 seeking the inclusion of the homeless as a protected class. This amendment would make any act of violence due to a person’s homeless status a designated hate crime within the American legal system.


Individuals Not Groups


The generalization is that these crimes are committed by groups: angry mobs of people or packs of teenagers looking to intimidate and harm someone who is different than they are in some way. However, that generalization is a misnomer, and the statistics gathered demonstrate that hate crimes are committed not by groups, but by individuals.


In the particular focus of violence against the homeless population, it is committed mostly by teenagers. The reported figures state that:

  • 85% of these attacks are perpetrated by people under 30 years of age
  • 93% of the perpetrators in 2013 were men
  • 17% of attacks resulted in death


Homeless men and women have been victimized with no credible data on the rates of specific crimes committed against each gender specifically. Homeless veterans have been targeted in these criminal acts as well as youth and older homeless people. The youngest victims of reported crimes against the homeless population were 4 years old, which is sad on a variety of levels: that children that young are living on the street, and that they would be targeted victims in the commission of a violent crime.


Some criminal justice experts and leaders of various interest groups for homeless rights agree that the amendment to the hate crimes law to include crimes committed against the homeless population will be a deterrent which will spur a decrease in the rates of this horrific activity.


However, in fair balance, the argument can be made that these changes may not deter the crimes against the homeless population from occurring in the future. Those who look at the sociological or psychological causes of this type of criminal activity would make a compelling argument to institute protocols which seek to identify the root of the issue and address it accordingly.


Moreover, there are still another group of detractors that look at what has transpired in Florida, where they have hate crimes legislation to escalate the punishments for violent acts committed to the homeless population, yet the rate of those crimes have not decreased. This group would maintain that the hate crimes inclusion is not the solution to the issue.

The Case for Action


The area where consensus can be found on this issue is that something must be done, some concrete action must be taken to reverse the growing trend of these terrible crimes against the homeless population in the United States. Some law enforcement experts have described the criminal activity against the homeless population as exhibiting a “pattern of excessive force” which is deeply concerning.


The perpetrators of these crimes come from all classes across the economic spectrum with no evidentiary data indicating an increased tendency of one class in the commission of these crimes in comparison to another. The trend data also does not contain detailed information on the rationale behind the targeting of the homeless in the rising rates of these crimes being committed.


Conversely, the data does indicate a disturbing pattern: the perpetrators of these crimes are younger in age. In New Mexico and other southwestern states the crimes committed by those considered minors (younger than 18 years old) is on the rise. Sociologists and childhood behavioral psychologists have indicated that the counseling services provided by the respective state in which the crime is committed must determine a protocol for better determining the cause for this increase in violent behavior among youth. In the event that they can isolate a particular common thread, it could potentially provide a pathway to effectively counsel these young people against recidivism.


The need for action is clear, but unfortunately the solution to this overall pattern of criminal activity involving this subsector of the population is not clear. In fact, any macro-level view of this issue also needs to take into account that a high rate of crimes are also committed by homeless people against other homeless people. The question of how our society can undertake curtailing a greater percentage of this violent crime was posed to experts in the issue of homelessness. Their response: provide housing to those living on the streets currently.


The rationale behind this response is that the capability of the provision of housing for the homeless will provide them with protection and remove the inherent vulnerabilities of this population which enables this criminal activity to be so easily targeted against them in the first place.


The Huffington Post published an article series on the costs of providing housing to the homeless in the U.S. versus the costs of having to provide all of the current services they receive through shelters and emergency room visits. The cost of providing those who are homeless with adequate housing was far more cost effective than how our society currently deals with this situation. It was an enlightening view of the potential solutions to this issue.




The persistent increase in the crimes committed against the homeless population is understood to have two separate but distinct categories. The crimes committed by a homeless person against another homeless person are very difficult to track with any real degree of accuracy because so much of this activity goes unreported.


The second category deals with crimes committed by someone who is not homeless against a homeless person and the ambiguity of unreported events has a definite role in this group as well. However, due to the fact that arrests are made and the perpetrators have mailing addresses and other information in the system, the tracking data is more cohesive to some degree when compared to the first category.


The National Coalition for the Homeless has been tracking this data from 1999 to 2013 and they released a report with their findings, and here are some key statistics on what they term non-homeless perpetrators against homeless victims:


  • 1,437 violent attacks in the United States
  • 357 deaths of homeless victims resulting from these attacks


These statistics underscore the need for the inclusion of these types of crimes into federal hate crimes legislation. There is currently a petition before Congress regarding this issue seeking the amendment of the federal laws involving hate crimes to include the homeless as a protected class. This sadly would only be part of the solution because that legislation would only apply to crimes committed on federal lands and national parks.


The most significant change to the hate crime legislation regarding these horrific crimes committed against such a vulnerable and powerless group of people would have to come through efforts on the individual state level. The legislative process would also most probably be carried out in a somewhat regional approach by the various interest groups involved because these types of crimes tend to be more prevalent in certain regions of the U.S. (Southwest and parts of the Southeast) as compared to the Northeast. New York State has a huge number of homeless people, yet they reported just 1 attack against a homeless person in 2013.


The perception of the general public of the homeless population is also a recognized barrier from the interest groups and non-profit organizations advocating for hate crimes law reform. The generalized perception of the homeless population is that they are drunks and drug addicts. This perception could not be farther from the reality.


The homeless population certainly has their share of those with substance abuse problems, but so many are homeless from other life circumstances and they come from all walks of life and backgrounds. Many of those who are homeless want an opportunity to contribute to society again, and to use their gifts and talents to make our communities better places to live and work.


This issue has no clear solution, no magical overnight procedure that could make it all go away. It is going to take time, especially the state level legal reform process which must take place to effectively enforce any new hate crimes legislation to protect the homeless population.


In my own view of this situation, two components of this issue jump out glaringly to me as areas of concern regarding this matter:

  1. The degradation of our society to the point where we have people who are targeting the poor and vulnerable homeless community and victimizing them with unspeakable criminal activity and subjecting homeless people of all ages to violent acts.
  2. The young age of those who are perpetrating these crimes in some cases especially in cities such as Albuquerque, Phoenix, and urban centers in California. What sort of violence or domestic abuse have these children witnessed or been victims of themselves in order to carry out those sorts of crimes on the homeless population?


It is very clear to me that our society must heal itself by addressing this issue at the core with stronger counseling programs and awareness programs in our schools and community centers. The homeless are people too and they deserve to be treated with dignity and protected from these hideous crimes.


Please contact the National Coalition for the Homeless to learn more about this issue, or write to your Congressional representative and to your local government representatives to urge them to take action on making these crimes a hate crime.

(Background information and statistics courtesy of National Coalition for the Homeless, The Huffington Post, Al-Jazeera America, Think Progress.org, and NBC News)