Why bad news dominates the headlines

Why are newspapers and TV broadcasts filled with disaster, corruption and incompetence? It may be because we’re drawn to depressing stories without realising, says psychologist Tom Stafford.

When you read the news, sometimes it can feel like the only things reported are terrible, depressing events. Why does the media concentrate on the bad things in life, rather than the good? And what might this depressing slant say about us, the audience?

It isn’t that these are the only things that happen. Perhaps journalists are drawn to reporting bad news because sudden disaster is more compelling than slow improvements. Or it could be that newsgatherers believe that cynical reports of corrupt politicians or unfortunate events make for simpler stories. But another strong possibility is that we, the readers or viewers, have trained journalists to focus on these things. Many people often say that they would prefer good news: but is that actually true?

To explore this possibility, researchers Marc Trussler and Stuart Soroka, set up an experiment, run at McGill University in Canada. They were dissatisfied with previous research on how people relate to the news – either the studies were uncontrolled (letting people browse news at home, for example, where you can’t even tell who is using the computer), or they were unrealistic (inviting them to select stories in the lab, where every participant knew their choices would be closely watched by the experimenter). So, the team decided to try a new strategy: deception.

 

Trick question

Trussler and Soroka invited participants from their university to come to the lab for “a study of eye tracking”. The volunteers were first asked to select some stories about politics to read from a news website so that a camera could make some baseline eye-tracking measures. It was important, they were told, that they actually read the articles, so the right measurements could be prepared, but it didn’t matter what they read.

After this ‘preparation’ phase, they watched a short video (the main purpose of the experiment as far as the subjects were concerned, but it was in fact just a filler task), and then they answered questions on the kind of political news they would like to read.

The results of the experiment, as well as the stories that were read most, were somewhat depressing. Participants often chose stories with a negative tone – corruption, set-backs, hypocrisy and so on – rather than neutral or positive stories. People who were more interested in current affairs and politics were particularly likely to choose the bad news.

And yet when asked, these people said they preferred good news. On average, they said that the media was too focussed on negative stories.

 

Danger reaction

The researchers present their experiment as solid evidence of a so called “negativity bias“, psychologists’ term for our collective hunger to hear, and remember bad news.

It isn’t just schadenfreude, the theory goes, but that we’ve evolved to react quickly to potential threats. Bad news could be a signal that we need to change what we’re doing to avoid danger.

As you’d expect from this theory, there’s some evidence that people respond quicker to negative words. In lab experiments, flash the word “cancer”, “bomb” or “war” up at someone and they can hit a button in response quicker than if that word is “baby”, “smile” or “fun” (despite these pleasant words being slightly more common). We are also able to recognise negative words faster than positive words, and even tell that a word is going to be unpleasant before we can tell exactly what the word is going to be.

So is our vigilance for threats the only way to explain our predilection for bad news? Perhaps not.

There’s another interpretation that Trussler and Soroka put on their evidence: we pay attention to bad news, because on the whole, we think the world is rosier than it actually is. When it comes to our own lives, most of us believe we’re better than average, and that, like the clichés, we expect things to be all right in the end. This pleasant view of the world makes bad news all the more surprising and salient. It is only against a light background that the dark spots are highlighted.

So our attraction to bad news may be more complex than just journalistic cynicism or a hunger springing from the darkness within.

And that, on another bad news day, gives me a little bit of hope for humanity.

5 Comments

  1. skz
    Posted August 4, 2014 at 10:11 am | Permalink

    That’s why I’ve actually stop to see and read anything news related. To me it’s useless and put me in a bad mood whilst it doesn’t give me anything else at any level. I don’t care about catastrophes and massive killings and plane crashes, wars in the middle east and all this stuff going around. If anything really important would happen, let’s say, the aliens invades the earth, a big earthquake in my area, change of governments and so on, I would know that no matter what just being where I am in during that particular moment, because everyone would speak about it.
    Newspapers and related stuff are overrated.I really hope their going to blow up somehow, someday.

  2. Delia O' Riordan
    Posted August 4, 2014 at 1:07 pm | Permalink

    Journalism isn’t about making people feel good or bad; it’s about -or supposed to be about! – events that have significance in the world, events that may have an impact on decisions we have to make as informed citizens of our respective countries and as citizens of the world. The American third president, Thos. Jefferson, predicated his philosophy of democratic governance on “an informed electorate” because without information people are powerless. He was thoroughly villified by the “press” of his day and might privately have wished at times that he could muzzle the most vociferous but he never lost sight of the fact that a democratic republic had to give reportage and editorialising free reign if it was to avoid devolving into tyranny.

    What constitutes “news” has changed and not for the better in the past 50 years. Partisanship is more common than non-partisan reporting and editorialising but it has its place IF the partisan bias is acknowledged up-front. Propaganda has largely replaced political discourse and corporate ownership and control of news media is ever more concentrated in the hands of a few. I believe it was also Jefferson who said that the power of corporations was a greater threat to democracy than the possibility of militarism. Of course, that was long before Eisenhower’s lamented “military industrial complex”, the democratically lethal combination of private interests and military adventurism. Add in covert ops run by “intelligence agencies” (what an oxymoron!) and you have the crisis that democracies face right now.

    So, no, news is not about what makes us “feel good”; it’s about dangerous trends that threaten democratic institutions. The size of “celebrity” body parts is not news; it’s not even gossip. It’s irrelevant to anything that matters to the state of the species and the planet.

    There may be some validity to the theory that we are “drawn” to negativity but I think the significance of that tendency is far outweighed by a healthy preference for knowing what threats we face in a chaotic world.

  3. Posted August 4, 2014 at 2:15 pm | Permalink

    Years ago, here in the US, there was a news show called (iirc, it’s been a while) The Defenders. Their tagline, iirc, was something to the effect of “We only bring you the *good* news!” It was true, all of their stories had a very positive, uplifting (although non-religious, which is fine with me) tone.

    The show lasted less than two seasons.
    :-(

  4. Suzanne
    Posted August 10, 2014 at 7:34 am | Permalink

    This makes me think about the Facebook study on emotional contagions in the FB news feed. The study concluded “…that the observation of others’ positive experiences constitutes a positive experience for people.”

    Does this work the same way for negative or fearful emotions? If so, does the news have a role in perpetuating these negative emotions back on us in infinite vortex??!

    Interesting! Thanks!

  5. Rosalea
    Posted August 10, 2014 at 3:32 pm | Permalink

    For more than 100 years, the prime directive in newsrooms has been “If it bleeds, it leads.” Is there a possibility that we have all simply been trained by the prominence given to bad news stories to notice those first?


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