Bad News! Bad News Sells

By Teodor Teofilov

When you open your newspaper or your newsfeed on your phone, what do you see? Take a second before you continue reading this to examine the type of news that cover the pages. Scroll down and read the titles. I’ll wait.

Every day we are bombarded by stories about war, terrorism, crime, pollution, inequality, drug abuse, oppression and more. It’s not just the headlines. It’s the op-eds and long form stories, the comedy news shows like Last Week Tonight with John Oliver and your local news station. Be it online, in the paper, on the telly or radio, there is a vast predominance of negative news.

Is the world really getting worse? Well, it doesn’t matter, because the nature of news will interact with the nature of cognition to make us believe that it is.

News is about what happens. You don’t see a journalist sitting in front of the camera saying, “I’m reporting from a city that hasn’t been attacked by terrorists.” You don’t hear about all the schools that haven’t been shot up, all the cities that haven’t been blown up or all the countries that haven’t been at war for 40 years.

Unfortunately, as long as bad things happen, there will be negative news on your newsfeed. Especially now that there are billions of smartphones around the globe that constantly record the bad things that happen.

Good news and bad ones unfold on completely different timelines. Bad things can happen quickly, while good things unfold over a long period of time. This leaves the good news out of sync with the news cycle.

“When things are getting better we often don’t hear about them,” wrote Hans Rosling in his book Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World—and Why Things Are Better Than You Think. “This gives us systematically too-negative impression of the world around us, which is very stressful.”

There is an old journalistic adage “if it bleeds, it leads,” which obviously adds to the sense of doom and gloom about the world. In fact many journalists see news media as a vital instrument for safeguarding society against corruption, inefficiency, cruelty and other wrongdoings and evils. Pointing out these bad phenomena helps direct attention to them and increasing the chance they are fixed.

In this sense, news media performs an important social role. A way to look at it is that journalists focus on the dysfunctional rather than on the functional because the functional does not need to be mended.

However, that isn’t the only thing leading to the largely negative newsfeed that permeates our daily lives.

In fact, in 2014, a Russian news website City Reporter attempted a social experiment that had a discouraging conclusion. According to Quartz, the site “brought positive news stories to the front of its pages and found any and all silver linings in negative stories.” It turned out that this positive newsfeed was something that nobody wanted to read and the City Reporter lost two-thirds of its normal readership that day.

The same year, researchers Marc Trussler and Stuart Soroka conducted a study called “Consumer Demand for Cynical and Negative News Frames.” In it they sought to explore the possibility that we, the consumers of news, have trained journalists to focus on these things. Even though many people say they prefer good news, that doesn’t seem to be the case.

The researchers invited participants from McGill University in Canada to come for “a study of eye tracking.” The volunteers were first to select some stories about politics to read from a news website so that some baseline eye-tracking could be measured. The participants were told that it was important they actually read the articles, but that it didn’t matter what they read.

Following this they watched a short video — presented as the main purpose of the study as far as the volunteers new — which was a filler task and then they were to answer questions on the kind of political news they would like to read.

The results of the study and the stories read are somewhat depressing. The volunteers often chose stories that had a negative tone such as corruption and setbacks over the more neutral or positive ones. Those who were more interested in current affairs and politics were more likely to choose the bad news.

But when asked what they prefer these people chose good news and said that the media was too focused on negative stories.

The findings are evidence of a so called “negativity bias,” a term psychologists use for our collective hunger to hear, and remember bad news. Our brains are built with a greater sensitivity to unpleasant news.

The negativity bias states that we have evolved to react quickly to potential threats and bad news could be a signal that we have to change what we are doing to avoid danger.

“Polarizing social issues involving family, sexuality, patriotism and God engender the highest levels of attention,” wrote Michael Robinson, author of a 2007 study by the Pew Research Center for People & the Press, which synthesizes 165 separate national surveys and finds that American news preferences.

In a 2003 study, Ap Dijksterhuis and Henk Aarts showed that there is evidence that people have a quicker response to negative words. In their lab experiments people would hit a button quicker to words like “cancer” or “war” than they would if the word was “smile” or “fun”, even though the more positive words are more common. Humans also recognise negative words faster than positive words and can categorise them better even if they aren’t familiar with the meaning.

But this isn’t the only explanation for our fascination with negative news. Trussler and Soroka give another possible interpretation to their findings — that we pay attention to bad news, because we believe the world is better than it is.

When it comes to our own lives, most of us believe that we are better than average and we expect that everything will be alright in the end. This pleasant view of the world is called the Dunning-Kruger effect — being ignorant of our own ignorance.

Such a view can make bad news more surprising and increase our interest in them. Our fascination with negative news is more complicated than just journalistic cynicism or our hunger for it.

However, do we truly see the world as this rosy place?

A 2017 detailed survey by the opinion research organization Ipsos MORI of 26,489 people across 28 countries gives us a glimpse of how we view the world. The survey finds that most citizens believe that living conditions in the developing world are worsening when most data shows that there is a marked progress toward meeting development goals.

It also found that most people think that global poverty is rising, when in fact the opposite is true. People hold the belief that the number of people living in extreme poverty is rising, but the fact is that since the number of people living with less than $1.90 a day has decreased from 36 percent worldwide to just 10 percent, according to statistics from the World Bank.

“Every group of people I ask thinks the world is more frightening, more violent, and more hopeless—in short, more dramatic—than it really is,” Rosling writes in his book.

A study published on Sept. 17, 2019 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America by Soroka, Patrick Fournier, and Lilach Nir suggests that, all around the world, the average human is more physiologically activated by negative than positive news stories. The study was based on over 1,000 respondents from 17 countries.

“Our results suggest that negativity biases in reactions to news content are not a uniquely American phenomenon. Reactions to video news content reveal a mean tendency for humans to be more aroused by and attentive to negative news,” the authors write. “That said, there also is considerable individual-level variation around that mean, and, in some instances, country-level samples would not on their own suggest statistically significant negativity biases in responsiveness to video news content.”

The researchers note that their results are focussed entirely on reactions to news and don’t take into account other systematic cross-cultural differences in psychology and information processing.

Be it journalistic fault or audience negativity bias, it is a fact that we get mainly bad news. Good news take a long time to develop and measures, such as the anti-poverty ones can take decades to show results.

If you combine our cognitive biases with the nature of news, you can see why the world has been coming to an end for a very long time indeed.

The world isn’t as bad as our newsfeed would make it out to be, but it is far from perfect. It might not be fully clear why we have so much negative news or why we are so pulled in by them, but at the end of the day if the bad news is what pushes us to fix the issues our world has, it’s not bad to have them.

I would like to leave you with Steven Pinker’s Ted Talk about whether the world is better or worse.


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