How Media Makes Us Feel

Susan Hagan

How is the media persuasive? Can we trust the media? How do celebrities influence reality?

Our ancestors told stories around the campfire to share discoveries and warn of threats. Information the stories contained made life more survivable. Stories about discoveries and threats were not about the normal and the average, but the extreme and the exceptional. Notice the town crier of ancient times wasn’t called the stable, balanced information person. The stakes were high: If the teller’s stories were boring, they were fired (sometimes literally) (1).

The media—our stories around the campfire—continue to reflect the extreme.
Stories ignite emotions while advertising manipulates them.

Humans have emotions to protect against a threat (fear), ward off a threat (anger), receive compassion after being threatened (sadness) and celebrate a lack of threat (happiness) (2). Our emotions react to stimuli that influence our unconscious decisions.

We have more town criers than ever and fewer stable, balanced news people because of a complicated symbiotic relationship between media, advertising and celebrity.
Media provides content, often free, and makes money selling advertising. Advertising hires celebrities to sell the product: This product has magical powers that will transform you into becoming like them if you buy it (3).

Technology has changed how we share stories. People haven’t changed much. Except that more of us can read and participate. Plus social media would not exist without us. That’s powerful. Is it possible to find a less distorted picture amidst the chaos? Perhaps if we thump it like an old fuzzy T.V.

And now for a Math Interlude:

Think your intuition is flawless and can’t be tricked?
Answer this:
A bat and ball cost $1.10 in total. The bat costs $1.00 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost? (4)

A Cognitive Reflection Test measures gut response and reflection. Please jot down your answer. We’ll come back to this.

“They are kind of sharing things without thinking about it hardly at all,” said Gordon Pennycook, assistant professor of behavioural science at the University of Regina. “Mostly if they are thinking about it, they’re thinking is this something people are going to like? Does this draw the attention that I want?” (5)

Some fake news is created on purpose to manipulate our emotions: Hundreds of fake US political news web sites started operating in Macedonia in 2015 to incite fear, sway public opinion and make money (6). There are those who want to watch the world burn (7). If we don’t pay attention when we share stories, we contribute to that very end. The stories we share may get attention, be untrue, cause damage. More than half of all Canadians shared COVID-19 information they found online without knowing if it was accurate (8). Distracted drivers cause accidents.

Most didn’t do it on purpose. But false news spreads faster than real news on social media because it evokes strong emotions like shock, fear, anger—and hope—that lead people to click, like and share. It’s entertaining, draws us in. People have died because they believed in lies (9).

If most of us can agree that fake news is harmful, how would we get rid of it and focus on what’s true? Facebook and Twitter have started removing false content that causes harm, but there aren’t enough fact-checkers to keep up. Meaning, it’s up to all of us. If people stopped sharing fake news, it would disappear. Is it possible? What would that landscape look like? (10)

Pennycook’s team has found that simply reminding participants about accuracy decreased the spread of false news by 51 per cent. An “accuracy nudge” worked best on people who had general knowledge of media, politics and science: You know… the stuff they teach in school. Political leanings didn’t play a role in how participants performed, so that removes the need for finger pointing. Nice to find some common ground, isn’t it? (11)

How do we encourage others to stop sharing misinformation and be logical without offending or ending up in a messy fight that creates a larger divide? Timothy Caulfield, Canadian research chair in health law and policy at the University of Alberta, writes that people have power to change what they share and influence others. But shouting doesn’t help. He writes that in order to correct online misinformation, it’s best to be factual and straightforward, use trustworthy and independent sources; emphasize scientific consensus; be nice and be authentic; use a narrative; emphasize gaps in logic; lead with correct information, not misinformation. And don’t try to convince the hard-core believer. Instead, go for a general audience (12).

Let’s imagine that we can all become kind; that we can destroy fake news. What remains? Accurate, fair and balanced reporting? Almost half of Canadians believe journalists are purposely trying to mislead the public and more than half believe news has an agenda (13).

Why? Are we simply reacting emotionally and blaming the messenger? Or is something really broken? Journalism is supposed to inform us, debate issues and strengthen democracy by watching over business and government and warn us of danger.

The Canadian Association of Journalists is a not-for-profit organization that has “Principles for Ethical Journalism” to help guide ethics of reporting the news. Ideally, journalists who follow these principles check facts and quote accurately; are fair, which means they serve democracy and are independent from politics and business; are transparent, meaning they admit their mistakes; and are accountable, keeping news and opinion separate and clearly marked (14).

The best journalists strive for these ideals, but humans are fallible, seek attention and promotion (15). On top of that, the business model for journalism has been crumbling for decades. Newspapers blame lost advertising revenue on social media that carries and shares their stories for free. The situation is still evolving in governments and courts. The closure of so many newspapers around the world means that a lot of journalists aren’t being paid to investigate and write stories. This creates news deserts ripe for rumours, disinformation and opinions over facts (16).

The news media that’s left is influenced by the competition for audience and advertising. Not all news outlets are fair and balanced: some are hyperpartisan (leaning left or right). Some are overly sensational, trying to grab attention in order to cash in. The de-regulating of the fairness doctrine in the US in the 1980s made way for partisan cable news, which has led to more opinion than ever, which gets higher ratings, which leads to bigger advertising dollars (17).

An American study suggests that major television networks in the US give more airtime to politicians with extreme views on both left and right and do not reflect moderate voices. This creates division in society instead of reflecting the average, the typical and the true (18).

Millions love Trump. Millions don’t.

“Donald Trump is unique in his ability to keep the brain engaged,” found another study that monitored brain activity for participants’ emotional responses as they watched Trump in political and debate clips. “His showmanship and simple messages clearly resonate at a visceral level.” (19)

The town crier would have been ecstatic.

Are there ways to fix this broken information system? Sixty-two per cent of Canadian employees said that they felt empowered to drive change within their workplace. It stands to reason that empowerment can happen in newsrooms and on social media; that we could come closer to achieving the ideals of truth, fairness and balance (20). Media is our mirror. And it needs to better reflect us.

Facts and truth leave an evidence trail. Responsible journalism follows it. We all can. Journalists have the same rights as the rest of us, plus a few learned skills. Primary sources provide first-hand information on a topic such as scientific studies, interviews, town council meetings, court dockets, geographical surveys, historical documents. A secondary source includes textbooks, biographies, encyclopedias, and editorials or commentaries (21). False news lacks credible sources and facts, and often pushes an agenda. Fake news does not hold up to scrutiny and does not follow the factual logic. And yet, it blurs the reality and our response to it if we don’t recognize the damage it causes.

Pennycook’s team will expand to test cross culturally in 18 other countries to examine how long an accuracy nudge lasts. He wants to find out if there are simple and more effective ways to spread the message: Stop and think before you share.

“It’s not about making people more sceptical across the board,” Pennycook said. “You don’t want them to stop believing true stuff. It’s about recognizing that things may be false. But the important thing is that you need to think about whether things are true or false.”

Math Interlude Answer:

The ball does not cost 10 cents. The ball costs 5 cents.
If the bat costs one dollar more than the ball: $ 0.05 + $1.05 = $1.10
If the ball did cost 10 cents and the bat cost a dollar more: then $0.10 + $1.10 = $1.20

Going with our guts instead of brains can lead to wrong answers.
If you got it right, feel great because:
“People who deliberate more will simply be less likely to believe false content.” –Pennycook


  • 1 Mitchell Stephens, A History of News (New York, NY: Viking Penguin, 1988).
  • 3 Terry O'Reilly, This I Know: Marketing Lessons from Under the Influence (Toronto, ON: Vintage Canada, 2019).
  • 4 Gordon Pennycook and David Rand, “The Cognitive Science of Fake News” (Box 3, pg 10), PsyArXiv, The Society for the Improvement of Psychological Science, November 18, 2020,
  • 5 Disinformation Warriors Interview with Pennycook, Feb 19, 2021.
  • 12 Timothy Caulfield, Essay “Does Debunking Work? Correcting COVID-19 Misinformation on Social Media,” in Vulnerable: The Law, Policy and Ethics of COVID-19 (Ottawa, ON: University of Ottawa Press, 2020), pp. 184-200.
  • 14 “Canadian Association of Journalists - Ethics Guidelines,” Canadian Association of Journalists - Ethics guidelines (CAJ Advisory Committee), accessed February 28, 2021,
  • 17 Yochai Benkler, Rob Faris, and Hal Roberts, Network Propaganda: Manipulation, Disinformation, and Radicalization in American Politics (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2018).
  • 20 Edelman report.


  • Benkler, Yochai, Rob Faris, and Hal Roberts. Network Propaganda: Manipulation, Disinformation, and Radicalization in American Politics. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2018
  • O'Reilly, Terry. This I Know: Marketing Lessons from Under the Influence. Toronto, ON: Vintage Canada, 2019.
  • Pennycook, Gordon, and David Rand. “The Cognitive Science of Fake News.” PsyArXiv The Society for the Improvement of Psychological Science, November 18, 2020.
  • Philpott, Jane, Vanessa MacDonnell, Thériault Sophie, Sridhar Venkatapuram, Colleen M. Flood, and Timothy Caulfield. “Does Debunking Work? Correcting COVID-19 Misinformation on Social Media.” Essay. In Vulnerable: The Law, Policy and Ethics of COVID-
  • Stephens, Mitchell. A History of News. New York, NY: Viking Penguin, 1988