Ugly is Easy

Why are so many, if not most, of the news stories about things going wrong, about murders, serial killers, earthquakes, child molesters, kidnappings, and the ugly side of life?  Why does most television/satellite entertainment focus on crime and other forms of ugly sensationalism?  Why do reporters and so-called journalists attempt to get the dirt on anyone and everyone?  Why does almost every public figure have to worry about photographers with telephoto lenses catching them or their children in a private or embarrassing moment?

The simple answer is, of course, that these things sell better, and better ratings mean higher advertising dollars, and because the United States, in general, values more dollars above everything else, the entire media spectrum is looking for the most sensational stories and views. And almost invariably, ugly is more sensational than beautiful – with the one exception of beautiful people, usually women, and usually depicted in ways that are close to pornographic.

But there are a few other reasons, I think.  One is that “ugly” is easy.  Doing something well is difficult.  Creating something inspiring and beautiful is anything but easy. There are ugly stories everywhere, and capturing them doesn’t take that much effort.   Just look at the news  — ugly, violent, ugly, and, oh, yes, one feel-good story for dessert. As far as dramas and comedies go, writing shock-value, in-your-face episodes takes far less talent than does writing something sophisticated or nuanced.

Obviously, that’s not anywhere near the entire reason, because writers and producers wouldn’t produce such well-packaged and expensive productions based on the ugliness in life and human nature if they didn’t sell.  So… why do they sell?

Because people want to feel good about themselves, and in this dumbed-down mass media world in which we live, writing and producing anything that requires thought on the part of the audience limits that audience because people who truly think are in the minority, and when one requires the majority to think, they either get unhappy or bored because they can’t understand it, or angry because it’s not what they like.  Yes, there are some shows and movies that do exalt and display excellence, but all too many of those get poor ratings or are slotted for niche times and markets.

Then, too, there’s the problem of identification.  Characters in mass entertainment can’t show too much excellence – except in the area of sex and mayhem – because people can’t identify with excellence, except, again, in sex, athletics, and violence.  Most people know they aren’t excellent and don’t want to be reminded of that fact.

Now… these are facts and traits that have existed with people for tens of thousands of years, and certainly for the last few thousand. So why are things so bad now?

In some respects… they aren’t any different from what they always were.  Even in the western hemisphere, we’re not all that far removed from torture and executions as public spectacles, and certainly, we’re no strangers to the violence of war.  What has changed, however, is that the media have depersonalized the ugliness that occurs while simultaneously removing it from life.  As someone who has seen people die in front of me, and, in other cases, almost die, I can say that such personally experienced violence and death hits one with a far greater impact than anything that can be depicted on a screen, large or small, as witness the amount of PTSD cases created by war or sustained violence.  By depicting such violence and ugliness as entertainment, presenting it as a step removed from personal experience, if you will, even while calling it real, or a reality show, the media have diluted the impact.  So… in order to increase the impact, they compensate by increasing the ugliness or in-your-face components… until people get used to that, and then they do it again.  And this bleeds over, literally, into other areas.  Baseball was once America’s pastime and favorite sport. Now, the favorite sports are the ones that are far more dangerous and violent, and some sports that were largely about skill and technique, such as basketball, have become often violent contact sports.

In any case, for whatever the reasons, ugly is easy… and profitable, and that’s something I find disturbing and sad.


9 thoughts on “Ugly is Easy”

  1. AndrewV says:

    Mr. Modesitt, I agree with parts of your viewpoint but I have another suggestion for why ugliness is prevalent in media: it is statistically rare and outliers are newsworthy.

    Outliers are newsworthy because, as you point out, so many of us are average. The ugly parts of human nature are mostly kept in check by religious beliefs, societal mores, and legislation. Therefore when someone ugly acts and violates what society deems acceptable behavior, the media learns about and reports their thoughts or actions. The more emotional the target and/or the more ugly the behavior the greater the coverage, since these actions are more statistically rare.

    As an example: School shootings shock us because they are so rare and they target a subset of society people are biologically wired to want to protect. Millions of kids graduate without ever having known or been related to a victim of a school shooting. It might seem like these shootings are happening everywhere but they aren’t. They have the perfect storm for newsworthy coverage: an emotional target and behavior unacceptable to society. Therefore, school shootings receive massive news coverage when they do occur.

    We do cover the beautiful aspects of society as well, but the fact of the matter is that we expect people to behave well and do good deeds. It takes much more of an effort to be an outlier while doing good because society is generally a good place– despite what we see on the news.

    If a female of deep religious belief dedicates 10 years of her life to helping the homeless, we appreciate her actions but expect that someone of her beliefs will do something like this. In fact, there are hundreds of thousands of people who dedicate their lives to helping the disadvantaged, so our theoretical example is not as much of an outlier as we might expect at first glance. This person many get regional news coverage, if that.

    However, if the religious worker who has dedicated years to helping the homeless decides to murder all the people she has cared for… well, that story becomes national news. Same if a gang of people she has decided to help conspire to sexually assault or rob her and leave her body in a dumpster. This is an extremely ugly scenario and would receive major coverage as people try to determine how and why this happened.

    One other aspect to speak of is bias. It’s very difficult to find any unbiased media coverage and this takes the ugliness factor to a new level. Not only is ugly behavior reported because it is so rare, but we have heaping piles of outrage from a left or right leaning reporter. I believe this magnifies the problem. Granted, biased reporting is as old as reporting itself (early American journalists were heavily biased, and ancient historians rarely wrote right down the middle about major events of their day) but it’s worth noting this isn’t anything new.

    Really, the only new aspect of it is the worldwide instantaneous coverage on any issue at any time. That gives us a lot more journalists who need to find a way to become outliers themselves.

  2. Ryan Jackson says:

    Touching on the above a little more. People are kind of hardwired to spread the negative more than the positive. At least in my experience.

    The other day I had a manager (Thankfully not mine, just one in my department) express her concern because she felt I was always negative. Mind you, my negativity amounts to my being openly critical of processes or procedures I feel are flawed or wrong, and that negativity is presented simultaniously with specifics as to what I think should be different and how it could be improved.

    This behavior is also happening hand in hand with my supporting other policies and procedures because I agree with them. For every time I have ever said “X is a horrible idea because of Y and we should do Z.” There’s two or three examples of “X is actually well thought out, we have to do X because of Y.”

    But this person only ever picks up on the first set, and more so only ever picks up on the first part of the first set. I don’t think she’s deliberately trying to make me look bad, there’s literally no worthwhile reason and no gain for her to do so, but none the less we have this arguement periodically.

    People zero in on something bad or negative. They gloss over and ignore the good unless it somehow directly impacts or involves them.

  3. Brian says:

    I stopped watching network TV and the nightly news about
    twenty years ago for many of the reasons above. The nightly parade of murders, attempted murders, auto fatalities, rapes, corrupt politicians etc. etc. didn’t make me feel better about myself. Quite the opposite. Watching this human misery play out each evening was depressing. I now stay informed by other means at times of my choosing and I choose the issues that interest me. I have observed that to report rare and abnormal behaviours or feature them on TV programs often enough, they then start to become normal in minds of most people.

    When I gave up on the news and network TV, specialty channels were starting to appear, including TLC, Discovery, History, A&E etc. I know their programs and series could be biased and didn’t go into the depth that a scholarly work would (which aren’t immune to bias either), but I usually learned something and most made me think. Sometimes they were a springboard for learning more from other sources.

    Now these choices are corrupted, too. “Hill Billy Hand Fishing”? “Swamp People”? “Ancient Aliens”? etc. Talk about dumb, dumber and dumbest. Lowest common denominator need tune into TV wasteland. I probably sound like an elitist. Demanding some quality of programming doesn’t make me that, but so be it if you believe so. Other than a couple uncorrupted series (Mayday, for one, on Discovery Canada), I rarely watch them now. I now have most of my favourites on DVD or Blu-ray anyway. Recently, I’ve returned to music for entertainment. I’m spending
    more time collecting and listening to CDs or watching video concerts of my favourite artists and bands. I read a lot, too. There are other entertainment besides network and cable TV.

    What I’m left with on TV is sports. Unscripted (except for some soccer games given the match fixing scandals recently) and real. Sometimes I watch and sometimes it is on in the background while I do other things. I’m not a sports fan because I gamble, either. The ones I watch now I played as a kid and I watch to see the games played by the best at the highest level of competition. Yes, some are violent, espeically football and hockey. Yes, it’s hard to tell who’s on PEDs and who isn’t. I’d like the players to be protected and play clean, but I am no longer morally outraged with either issue.

    Being negative is learned behaviour. Unlearning the negativity took about four years of discipline and ‘turning off’ sources of constant negativity. That unfortunately meant avoiding some people, too. We are responsible for what we choose to do and watch in many ways. I’d like to reverse the above trends. If enough of us turned off the mass media and entertainment industry as it stands, would they get it? Probably, but I won’t hold my breath that people would be so proactive or reject their addiction to such programming or reject them at the risk of being different.

    Now, the opening draw of The Scottie’s Tournament of Hearts (Canadian Women’s Curling Championship) is starting and I’m going to watch. With the exception of crashing rocks, no violence here. Just good competition among some of the best curlers in the world.

    1. Nissa says:

      I quite agree. I haven’t had regular tv or cable for about 3 years (which was a budget constraint at the time) and pleasantly discovered I didn’t miss it that much. The things I did miss were the home remodel programs and the History channel programs.

      Also, you don’t notice how agressive and in-your-face the commercials are unless you miss them for a while. My dad had surgery recently and the both the waiting room and recovery room had tv’s. Dad and I both commented on how hungry we were after watching for a few hours, because 80% or more of the commercials were food oriented. So we consider no tv part of our body conciousness plan, ha ha.

  4. Tim says:

    I resonate with Ryan and Brian here. I was also criticised at work by peers as being negative whereas I was just not blindly following the recently-introduced management mantra of “think positive”. Several management schools teach this paradigm and my company embraced this. This meant that reasoned argument and challenge was considered negative.

    I also worked abroad in a country where there was no English channel, so I did not have TV for many years. On return to the UK I found that the news media were very focussed on murders (that – being honest – affect very few people), abuse and celebrity. That resulted in deciding to abandon the TV.

    It also meant I became incredibly sensitive to how the media presented information, so going to the gym (with its omnipresent TVs) used to have a real affect on me, but leave others completely untouched. The emotional aspect had cranked up.

    So I have no TV, occasionally buy DVDs, and watch certain news feeds. But I am considered to be a recluse by my friends who worry that I am ‘out of touch’ with – wait for it – ‘reality’.

    In the UK, today the most BBC web-site hits concern the death of a girlfriend of a para-olympian athlete. Why?

    It is a sad state of affairs.

    1. Kathryn says:

      I can try answer “why” with respect to your last point.

      The athlete in question was rather popular during the London Olympics, competing (though not ‘winning’) against able-bodied athletes. It was kind of an experiment, I think, that could have lead to questions about the lines between paralympics and the olympics, and so on. But due to his valiant but unsuccessful performance, there wasn’t much questioned. But the other athletes did show him a lot of respect, and he became a crowd favourite.

      So I think that’s partially why it’s been so big in the UK news.

  5. Kathryn says:

    I think partially it’s a way to push an agenda. The media (particularly the more xenophobic aspects of the right-wing media, though I’m pretty sure most news sources are NOT exempt from doing this) likes to jump on these stories and push their views. It’s not always clear that they’re doing this. It’s the wording, the way these events are reported. There was a case of a gang of child molesters (I think) in the UK which was reported last year/year before, and some news sources turned it into a racial issue by subtly pointing out the abusers were of a non-white background. So they didn’t just report on this tragedy, they used it to fuel dissent.

    I, personally, find the approach of the media towards tragic events more sickening. Countless times I’ve seen journalists turn to children or parents to get their views on a crime. If a child had been kidnapped or murdered, they might speak to her best friend (who might only just be ten years old!) or the mum of another child in the same school. They don’t just give you the (skewed) facts, they emotionally blackmail you by harassing others in that area. I find that to be disgusting in itself!

    I’m not entirely sure I’d agree they’re treating it like entertainment – but that might be a UK/US divide – but there’s certainly a heavy degree of exploitation going on.

  6. Brian says:

    Oscar Pistorius being charged with murder in the shooting death of Reeva Steenkamp is big news here in Canada, too. Understandable given his international notoriety of being the only double below-the-knee amputee to compete in the Olympics. However, I expect the issue will be exploited and used as a vehicle to push certain agendas. Most reporting from here on will probably be little more than rampant speculation by various ‘experts’ trotted out to provide their ‘keen insights’. The odd one might actually know what they are talking about, but I’ll be tuning out. I don’t have the time nor inclination to separate the wheat from the chaff. I won’t be able to get away from the issue completely, but I’m going to let the South African court do what it is supposed to do: provide the means whereby he gets a fair hearing.

  7. Wine Guy says:

    Plenty of people pay lip service to the notion of excellence, but the only people who actually value excellence are labelled as ‘discriminatory’ and ‘elitist.’

    I embrace those labels. Yes, I discriminate against incompetents. I prefer to do business with and associate with . I value those people who can get the job done economically and ethically.

    Do I cheer for my kid when she’s fiddling her heart out or playing hoops? Absolutely. Do I clap and shake my head in awe at the little phenom next to her who overshadows her performance? You betcha, because it’s celebrating excellence and it is showing my daughter that she can be better.

    As for Pistorius: off topic. discuss elsewhere, please.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *