If you feel you could do with some good news to break the seemingly never-ending roll call of troubling affairs, imagine what it was like for Americans at the end of the 1960s. The country seethed amid assassinations of civil rights leaders and politicians, protests against the Vietnam War and race riots breaking out in cities across a country which appeared, in the words of Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David Halberstam, “on the verge of a national nervous breakdown.”
Furthermore, all this was set against the backdrop of the Cold War and threat of nuclear Armageddon, while enough people could remember World War II, which had killed an estimated 50 to 80 million people worldwide – including a half-million Americans – and illustrated at Hiroshima and Nagasaki what the nuclear bomb could do.
Something to play on your mind lying in bed in the early hours looking at the dark ceiling. To make matters worse, the Russians kept beating America in the space race. Between 1957 and 1963, Russia sent into space the the first man-made object, the Sputnik satellite, followed by the first man and the first woman. In 1966, the Russians even landed the first man-made object on the moon, the Luna 9 probe, which transmitted the first close-up photos of the lunar surface.
That’s why the successful Apollo 11 lunar landing on 20 July 1969 and Neil Armstrong’s iconic words beamed across space offered Americans an enormous psychological reprieve and boost to their beleaguered confidence.
“Americans had seen how there was a challenge out there to our personal leadership in the world,” John Craft, a professor at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University, says about American lagging behind the Russians in the space race. “So to put a man on the moon felt like we were back in business.”
The emotional effect was only heightened by how this uplifting, invigorating demonstration of American prowess could turn to tragedy in a nano-second – and the 94 per cent of TV-owning Americans who tuned in to watch knew it. So when the crew splashed down safely in the Pacific Ocean on July 24, this tale of Herculean endeavour was assured a happy ending. For once the news couldn’t get much better.
“People had been following the whole space program and all the previous rocket launches, so this was the climax of a story that had been building for a long time, with everyone invested in it together,” says Arthur Markman, a professor in the department of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin. “But nowadays with streaming services we can’t even watch a TV show at the same time.”
It’s hard to think of an equivalent event for revitalising society that has occurred or could yet occur. For Brits it might be the country finally winning the football World Cup and ending a seeming national jinx since 1966. For many Americans it may lie in the result of next year’s election.
Either way, for the time being it’s a common lament that the media seems to concentrate on the bad things in life, with the result that many of us end up fretting about the world’s trajectory – even though it’s claimed we needn’t be.
In his book “Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress,” cognitive scientist Steven Pinker analysed recent studies to show that despite majorities in fourteen countries – including the UK and US – believing that the world is getting worse rather than better, the reality is that life has been getting better in almost every way.
“If you don’t hear good news, it can lead to a degree of cynicism about public elements such as government and corporations, and if all we hear is a stream of bad news about them, it is easy to disengage,” Markman says. “Good news is valuable to remind us about why institutions exist. The moon landing reinforced this idea that we live in a world of technological marvels.”
In the media’s defence, studies have indicated that given the choice, we as news consumers exhibit a “negativity bias” and seek out bad news above the good options.
“Through evolution we have brains and bodies primed to react more to negative news,” says Stuart Soroka, a professor of communication studies and political science at the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research.
He notes, however, how psychology studies have indicated that “outlying-ness” may matter more than negativity. Because the majority of our days tend to go well, all considered, we tend to be drawn to that which is different: bad news, as the outlier. At the same time, once the news is so bogged down in negativity, then good can become the outlier.
“We still don’t fully understand how the entire system works,” he says. “In a complex information environment, we are all making decisions about the information we access and the time we devote to it, and this affects what we know and how we feel. If the New York Times gets you down, you can go on Twitter and balance it out by seeking other kinds of information, or you can go find that kitten picture on Facebook as an antidote to bad news.”
Which begs the question, given the apparent dejection in many quarters, of whether society needs a macro-level cute kitten picture, akin to the moon landing, with which to fill the media amphitheatre and spur us on to better things.
“Having a common project binds people together – we know in workspaces that if people are involved in something bigger than themselves then they are more engaged,” Markman says. “Society could benefit from working toward something big and that makes things better. That helps erase the lines that divide us.”
James Jeffrey is a freelance journalist who splits his time between the US, the UK and roving further afield, writing for various international media.Twitter: @jrfjeffrey.