Most news we see and hear is negative, and replete with disasters, terrorism, crime, scandals and corruption. Does the media create that negative news bias or does it respond to our preference for bad news over good news?
A recent study by the Pew Research Center for People & the Press synthesizes 165 separate national surveys and finds that American news preferences have remained “surprisingly static” over the last twenty years. Study author Michael J. Robinson reports, not surprisingly, war and terrorism have consistently ranked at the top of the stack since 1986, where the study begins. So have bad weather, and natural or manmade disaster stories, although the latter stand out for having witnessed a precipitous drop in public interest, one of the rare instances of significant change. In contrast, money news is the only category that has grown notably more popular with time. Crime, health, and politics have consistently ranked as mid-level interest categories. Science and technology, foreign news that is not directly related to the U.S., and tabloid and entertainment news have consistently ranked lowest in the public eye.
Robinson found “Polarizing social issues involving family, sexuality, patriotism and God engender the highest levels of attention,” and celebrity scandal ranks lowest among all news preferences. Writing for The Nation, Eric Alterman argues that the lack of interest in this subject is the study’s “most shocking” conclusion. The finding is especially surprising given the “major changes in the news ‘menu,’” that Robison describes, where “substantial coverage” devoted to stories such as Paris Hilton’s incarceration and Anna Nicole Smith’s death.
Yet what is truly fascinating is the explanation for this contradiction between interest and coverage: “Even the smallest shifts in ratings can cause news organizations to alter substantially their news focus,” Robinson writes, and often toward “a lower common denominator.” But these alterations, marked by “saturation” coverage, are often temporary and aimed at capturing the niche rather than the national audience. This harkens back to the earlier, chicken-and-egg discussion of where interest lags behind coverage, and where it exceeds coverage. “That the national news audience does not shift its news diet nearly so quickly as news organizations shift their news menu” is one of the most important take-away messages for journalists in Robinson’s study.
Robinson implies that on a national scale changes in coverage tend to mold public interest rather than vice versa. If so, journalists must be especially cognizant of their influence on not only opinions about the news, but also on what is considered news.
Jim Lehrer's NewHour economics correspondent Paul Solmon did an interesting piece on the cascading effect that consumer pessimism has on our willingness to spend. He said that we are in a state of "learned helplessness". At the worst, continual bad news can even stimulate a state of depression, and people who concentrate on all the bad news work themselves up emotionally and become much more likely to make unwise decisions, like selling all their investments at a huge loss or halting their consumer spending entirely. Even people who don't watch television or read newspapers are getting hit with nuggets of negativity through social networking and informal conversations.
When everyone is talking about recession, we all feel like something has to change, even if nothing has changed, says Dan Ariely, author of "Predictably Irrational," People may be scared to spend money, scared about losing their jobs and in doing so will restrain their spending. Yet look closely. Consumer sales in entertainment, and drugs like Viagra have increased. Best practice companies with a long-term view are weathering the recession quite well. Social networking in many forms is expanding rapidly.
Is the media negative? Media studies show that bad news far outweighs good news by as much as seventeen negative news reports for every one good news report. Why? The answer may lie in the work of evolutionary psychologists and neuroscientists. Humans seek out news of dramatic, negative events. These experts say that our brains evolved in a hunter-gatherer environment where anything novel or dramatic had to be attended to immediately for survival. So while we no longer defend ourselves against saber-toothed tigers, our brains have not caught up.
Many studies have shown that we care more about the threat of bad things than we do about the prospect of good things. Our negative brain tripwires are far more sensitive than our positive triggers. We tend to get more fearful than happy. And each time we experience fear we turn on our stress hormones.
Another explanation comes from probability theory. In essence, negative and unusual things happen all the time in the world. In his book, Innumeracy, John Allen Paulos explains that if the news is about a small neighborhood of 500 or 5,000, then the possibility that something unusual has happened is low. Unusual things don't happen to individual people very often. That's why very local news like a neighborhood newsletters tends to have less bad news. But in a large city of 1 million, dramatic and negative incidents happen all the time. But most people watch national or worldwide media where news reports come in from large cities at a large scale, so the prevalence of negative stories increase. Add the size of social networking communication, and we expand geometrically bad news. So from evolutionary and neuro-scientific and probability perspectives, we are hard-wired to look for the dramatic and negative, and when we find it, we share it.
Loretta Garziano Breuning, author of Meet Your Happy Chemicals contends that “profound anxiety” results from following the daily news because of its predominant focus on negativity. She argues “news appeals to your minds’ quest for survival-relevant information, but it doesn’t’ necessarily meet that need. It squanders your attention on generalized threat signals that you can’t really act on.”
Marc Trussler and Stuart Soloka of McGill University, conducted research on how people relate to news, inviting participants to come to the university to view news stories, and the researchers conducted eye tracking experiments while this took place. Most participants chose stories with a negative spin such as corruption and hypocrisy, rather than positive stories. This was particularly true of people interested in current affairs. Trussler and Soloka concluded this was evidence of a “negativity” bias, a desire to hear and remember bad news. They also concluded that people pay attention to bad news, because they believe the world is rosier than it actually is, and when it comes to their own lives, most people believe we’re “better than average” and things will turn out okay in the end.
Does hearing good news or bad news first really matter? PT blogger Art Markham raises this question: “Overall, we like to get improving sequences of news (bad news first) because the last thing you hear affects your mood. However, it turns out that being a little unsettled can be motivating. So, if you are motivated to act on the bad feedback by making changes in your behavior, it is better to focus on what is wrong and to hear it last.” Markham cites the research of Angela Legg and Kate Sweeny, published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, in which they argue that preference for bad vs. good news depends on whether the person is focused on their mood or changing their behavior.
There’s a counterpoint argument to the negative news bias issue.
Smiles are contagious, especially on social media. Psychologists and neuroscientists have discovered that good news spreads the fastest by scanning people's brains and monitoring their emails and social media posts. "...when you share a story with your friends and peers, you care a lot more how they react. You don’t want them to think of you as a Debbie Downer.”, says Jonah Berger, an assistant professor of marketing and social psychologists at the University of Pennsylvania. Berger studied The New York Times' website to see which articles were shared the most. He discovered that scientific, exciting, and funny articles were shared much more than devastating or negative articles. In his new book "Contagious: Why Things Catch On", he describes how positive articles get shared the most!
What about our personal lives? Psychologist John Gottman at the University of Washington, found that there is kind of thermostat operating in healthy marriages that regulates the balance between positive and negative. He found that relationships run into serious problems when the negative to positive ratio becomes seriously imbalanced. He also found that the magic ratio is five positive to one negative.
Is there any good news in all this? According to positive psychologists we can change our habits, and we can focus on the glass being half-full. When we acquire new habits, our brains acquire "mirror neurons" and develop a positive perspective that can spread to other people like a virus. This is not about being a Pollyanna or "goody-two-shoes," it is about being able to reprogram our brains. To apply this positive psychology and brain research knowledge to our attitudes and behaviors with relation to our current economic conditions, we can encourage our news deliverers to present a balanced and multi-dimensional point of view.