Sunday, September 21, 2014

Confessions of a TV News Director: The Outrage Industry

How the news business is manipulating your emotions for fun and profit.

In the 1976 film Network, the great American writer Paddy Chayefsky created one of his most memorable characters:  Howard Beale, a network news anchor who went a little bit balmy one day, lapsed into an angry, out-of-control rant, and urged his audience to open their windows and shout with him, “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore!”

This was back when network news operations were very staid and formal, if not stodgy.  It’s said that the movie really torqued off a lot of the real-life news executives of the day.  Some critics now label Chayefsky’s vision as “prescient.”  And maybe it was.  But if so, he wasn’t predicting the next decade, he was predicting the next week.  Not even Chayefsky foresaw the outrage industry as it exists today.

Here’s a garden-variety example of what I mean.  A few weeks ago a woman in North Carolina opened up her McDonald’s hamburger to spread some mayo inside, and she saw that some buttheaded employee had dribbled a swastika in butter onto the underside of the top bun.   Outraged, she marched into the restaurant to complain.  The mortified manager apologized profusely, offered her a full refund, and fired the offending employee. 

And that should have been that.  But it wasn’t.  The offended mom went to the media to tell her story and to demand that McDonald’s do more—she suggested better training.  (Can you just imagine?  “All right, trainees, now we’re gonna cover the need not to draw Nazi symbols on hamburger buns.”)   The next thing you know, TV newscasts and websites not just from coast to coast, but from around the planet, were trumpeting the story.  Why?  Hint:  it’s not because there’s such a huge worldwide plague of fast-food workers dribbling swastikas onto hamburger buns.  

Here’s another.  A resident of Vancouver who happens to be an executive for a big sports catering company entered an elevator at his apartment complex, leading a 1-year old Doberman on a leash.  Once the doors shut, he administered a couple of swift kicks to the dog, and then jerked it around on its leash.  What he didn’t know is that an elevator security camera was watching and recording his every move.   Someone emailed the video to a news website, and the next thing you know the puppy-kicking exec was a world pariah.  Reporters contacted his employer demanding to know what they planned to do about him.  Because the company offers catering for a lot of big sports franchises around the country, journalists in local markets began contacting those teams demanding to know what they planned to do about the pooch-pounding personage.

When I found the story, it was the fourth piece down on—higher than Ebola, higher than Gaza, higher than Ferguson, higher than the 9 year old girl who had just machine-gunned her shooting instructor to death, and much higher than ISIS.   This was the fourth most important story on the national news coverage agenda that day?  Really?

Of course not.  But it might have been the fourth most outrageous.   It was there for the simple reason that news executives believe you’ll click on stories of this nature, or watch them on TV.  This faith is in no way misplaced.  In this case, a group of outraged (there’s that word again) sports fans on social media reacted with calls for a boycott of the executive’s employer—because, you know, there’s such a tremendous problem with hirelings of that firm (there are 30,000 of them) kicking helpless little puppies in elevators.   Outraged animal rights activists reacted the same way.  Under pressure, the flustered board duly announced it was placing the demon du jour on “indefinite probation”—which means that, by God, if he ever kicks a puppy in an elevator again, he’ll be toast.  Sports teams such as Notre Dame, in response to questions from a media apparatus that had worked itself up to full huff mode, had to issue statements saying that they were monitoring the situation in case the guy kicked again, and so on.  (And then later, when the "probation" failed to quell the outrage, the company board canned him.)

These stories get placed so highly because they do exactly what news consultants say they’re going to do:  they get you worked up, and you dutifully generate ratings and page views.  News execs are so confident of your response that stories of this nature get blown all out of proportion almost automatically, particularly if salacious or sensationalistic video is involved, as it was in this case.  A search for that executive’s name as I type this turns up 223,000 hits from all parts of the globe.   Note that, according to media reports, no charges were filed, and the man did not injure the dog.  Can you imagine the hysterical, sputtering paroxysms of outrage that would have erupted around the globe if he had?  The guy would have to bunk with Salmon Rushdie. 

And by the way, as far as I’ve been able to see absolutely no one has raised any issues about how you became aware of this story:  specifically, through one of the countless millions of Big Brother security cams that have sprouted on seemingly every street corner and in every hallway in America, behind every one of which is a low-paid security employee just itching to catch you doing something worthy of an Internet posting.  And we’re mad at the NSA?  But that’s another story for another day.

None of this is to excuse the man’s actions, which were reprehensible.  But come on.  Was this story really of global, national, or even municipal import?  In our country, about 40 people (note:  human beings) get murdered every day.  Stir in the adults and children who are beaten and abused, and the number of cases skyrockets.   We also happen to live in a world where terrorists are beheading, crucifying, raping, and kidnapping people by the hundreds every week.  But you’re supposed to get more frothed up about a guy who kicked a dog in an elevator?  In a word, yes.  And you did.  Congratulations.   You are a proud consumer of the outrage industry.

As a former TV news director, I used to be one of its practitioners.  Stories of this nature were never my passion, mind you, or the reason I got into journalism.  But it will surprise no one to hear that TV news is a ratings-driven industry, or that in certain media organizations, the desire to grow revenue by whatever means possible drives the news coverage strategy.  News consultants and station bosses often tell news directors that stories “must engage the viewer” and “must make an emotional connection” and “must showcase a central conflict,” and so on.  According to what some of my colleagues tell me, certain news directors tell their producers that if no local news stories rise to that level of excitement, to blow them off and instead stuff their “local” newscasts with bits of salaciousness culled from the Internet and network feed services.

Now, don’t get me wrong:  I am not against “making an emotional connection.”  Far from it.   This is, in fact, a basic requirement for good storytelling; we relate to the news through people, not through facts alone.   But if you set content filters through which no story can pass without a requisite level of conflict, tension and emotion, then I don’t know what business you’re in, but it’s not the business of journalism.  In fact I think it’s more similar to what Walter White did on an industrial scale in Breaking Bad.

TV news started this whole “make someone mad today” trend many years ago.  But the Internet perfected it.   I am convinced that the primary function of the Internet as it stands today is simply to conduct public shamings.   It’s what we do in the 21st century instead of clapping people into stocks. 

Stocks were more reasonable and less cruel.  But I don’t expect anything to change any time soon.  The media are what they are—and more than that, they’re what we demand.  But I do say this:  the next time you hear or read a breathless news report about some jerk committing a random act of jerkitude, ask yourself why you’re seeing that story.  The answer is that some news executive or producer somewhere has decided to manipulate your emotions for the benefit of ratings or page views.  The question for you is:  do you want to be manipulated in that fashion today?

If you do, that’s okay.  There’s the window.  Go stick your head out and yell something.  No doubt you’ll feel better.  And Howard Beale will love you for it.

But now that you know what this is all about, I for one would urge you, at least on occasion, to count to ten before you throw open that window, and use the pause to think for yourself.   You might decide to go take the Ice Bucket Challenge instead, which will cool you down with much greater efficiency while also doing some real good for humanity.


Forrest Carr is a 33 year veteran of TV news, about half of which he spent as a news director.  Currently he hosts a news/talk radio program in Tucson.  He also writes the occasional novel, which you can learn more about here.

©2014 by Forrest Carr.  All rights reserved.


  1. Excellent article! It makes me think. However, what if the story is about a special needs child being denied adequate academic support in school? What if it's the principal and staff of a school having their cars being ticketed, because they're working overtime, and "technically" there are no parking signs outside the school? What about the accusations IBM was complicit in the holocaust? Or the whole Enron scandal. I'm with you... drummed-up, not investigated outrage over trivial events is wrong. But I have to believe truly uncovering injustice is a part of journalism. Or all is lost.

  2. Faith, what you just articulated is the process where by the people putting the news together apply journalistic values to the stories and weight them on that basis. What I'm talking about is a process that doesn't do that, one that weights news stories on emotional value alone. This used to be called "sensationalism." Now people don't even notice it.

  3. Thank you. You're right. I guess what I'm saying is stories “must engage the viewer” and “must make an emotional connection”. Not in a cheeseball-consultant way. For real. And I think a lot - not all - but a lot - of local tv news stories don't even do *that* anymore. And - just my opinion here- that's worse. I can roll my eyes at the sensationalism...but if I don't make a connection - I'm changing the channel. I'd like to see your next article on that subject...... :) Keep up the good work!

  4. Good article Forrest. You're right on. I gave up years ago on network TV news mostly for just those points you mentioned. Now I don't even have network TV having recently given up my cable TV subscription. I do however download some selective talk radio programs from the internet, mostly KQED Forum and On Point, to listen to on my daily walks.

  5. Thanks for your comments, Bob. I haven't totally given up on TV, but only because I do know that there are still some good people working in it. But I hear about their struggles all the time. It's very sad to see the trends.

  6. Replies
    1. Thanks, Dude! Share with friends! :-)
      I hope you are well.