Banking On Outrage: How Mainstream Media Uses Outrage to Make Profit

By Kenny Garner

Last week, a story from Politico about Vice President Kamala Harris owning wired headphones instead of AirPods gained widespread attention and became a popular topic of discussion among mainstream media outlets. Critics of the Vice President claim Harris’s refusal to buy the expensive headphones is rooted in greed, while supporters praise her for taking the security issues that come with Bluetooth headphones seriously.

Meanwhile, an article from The New York Times about the introduction of election bills by GOP politicians that include both voting restrictions and measures to subvert confidence in fair elections drew significantly less buzz. Many questions have arisen about how an article as important as voting legislation did so poorly compared to one questioning Harris’s preference of headphones. The answer: outrage. 

The success of a story lies in how much attention it receives. Using the examples above, a story titled “Voting Battles of 2022 Take Shape as GOP Crafts New Election Bills” will see less success than a story titled “Kamala Harris is Bluetooth-Phobic.” The latter headline is more disparaging and biased enough to cause controversy, a clickbait tactic known as “outrage news.” Outrage news focuses on the more emotional content such as fear and insults to expand an audience.

Outrage news usually causes more negative backlash than positive. For example, the term “fake news” is mainly a result of an overabundance of outrage news by the media. Not only that, but it has also contributed to the rise of misinformation, which, ironically, is successful because of the use of this same tactic. The objective behind this strategy is simple: outrage is profitable. The more someone is emotionally invested in an article, the more that article is likely to spread like wildfire within partisan social circles.

Online publications aren’t the only form of media that uses outrage to gain attention. Political campaigns are notorious for this strategy, using advertisements to highlight the negatives of a political opponent while overlooking the positives, as well as misleading viewers using false pretenses that are more likely to prey on the biases of an onlooking viewer. This results in a consumer that is more likely to donate to the politician’s political campaign.

Another big culprit is cable news networks such as Fox News and CNN.  These networks tend to combine news and entertainment in the form of political opinion shows hosted by controversial personalities. While cable isn’t as big as it was a decade ago, these personalities still find success within an older demographic of people, and their content often sees success on social media, mostly due to the outrage caused by their opinions. The more attention these talk shows receive, the more interest from advertisers these networks get.

Social media platforms such as YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook also play a huge part in the spread of outrage. Facebook, for example, has a major issue with misinformation. Frances Haugen, a whistleblower who worked at Facebook, dropped a bombshell this year about Facebook turning off safeguards used to thwart misinformation shortly after Trump’s defeat last year, which contributed to the Jan. 6 insurrection. The whistleblower declared that Facebook valued growth over safety, optimizing content that’s more likely to trigger an emotional response.

Despite all this, mainstream media platforms are still important aspects of society. Free press is important, after all, but it seems many major platforms are owned by corporations who put profit over the betterment of the human species. The only way to fix this is for people in government to hold platforms accountable for their greed. When they’ll start doing that remains a mystery.

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