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Do Americans Prefer Bad News?

Pandemic news has been overly negative in the US. It needn’t be this way.

Key points

  • There's been a lot of negative news this past year. The pandemic is only part of the picture.
  • We are naturally biased towards negative news, but not exclusively so. We are open to varying news preferences.
  • Media should provide news to meet the appetite for more than just negative news.

It’s been a bizarre year; more so in the USA than most other countries. Not only did America have the pandemic to tackle but also a Presidential Election campaign being fought in very trying circumstances, against a polarised backdrop. With the constant culture war that was being waged combined with how the pandemic was affecting the US population in 2020 compared to other countries, is it any wonder that the US media was offering a negative view of Covid-19 compared to science journals and the international media? It’s likely that the effects of the coronavirus were impossible to disentangle from management (or non-management) of attempts to control the spread of the virus.

Ono Kosuki/Pexels
US news has been overly negative
Source: Ono Kosuki/Pexels

Why did this happen? David Leonhardt in The New York Times thinks it might be something about how journalists need to expose the truth, it’s a core part of their role in society. And perhaps in the impact and management of Covid-19 in the US, this truth was ugly and multi-faceted and took up too much space, which crowded out more positive stories.

It’s true that the media provide a critical flow of information between the establishment and citizens and are a critical fulcrum for democratic accountability. It’s also apparent that negative tone is a defining feature of news; good news, in contrast, is an absence of news. This asymmetry in coverage seems visible not just in the USA but globally too. Studies also suggest that news coverage has been pessimistic for many years and has also been increasing so in recent decades.

Andrea Piacquadio/Pexels
Do we prefer bad news?
Source: Andrea Piacquadio/Pexels

But is it also true that consumers prefer bad news? The supply side of the media, and the choices of journalists and editors is one thing, but is there also a demand that fuels this increase in negative news?

There’s plenty of research showing that we do indeed have negative bias when it comes to information processing. Bad news sticks, whereas good news slides away as if coated in teflon.

Evolutionary theory ventures that negativity may have been helpful for survival. Negative information alerts to potential dangers and we need to pay attention to it to avoid bad outcomes. In fact, it may drive even more attention towards negative information so we can try to figure out our best course of action, hence setting up this demand for negative news, and for the media to increase their supply to meet our needs.

Is this universal, or can culture account for differences in negativity preferences?

Different cultures deal with anxiety about future uncertainties in different ways, and the extent to which members of a culture feel threatened by ambiguous or unknown situations may well affect the tendency to focus on negative information. Hostility between groups in a society may also matter for negativity preferences for news, especially where you have polarisation of political party systems. This all sounds very 2020.

These two influences on our preferences for negative information do not operate alone: rather, they are likely to operate at the same time. Rather than a conscious preference for negative information, perhaps this is an unconscious, acquired preference for bad news, also driven through our drive to avoid bad outcomes that threaten our very survival. Gender and political ideologies also have some influence over our negativity biases.

A recent study by Stuart Soroka and colleagues looking at psychophysical reactions to video news content seemed to show that negativity biases in reactions to news content are not a uniquely American phenomenon. The 1,156 study participants watched 7 randomly ordered BBC World News stories on a laptop while wearing noise-cancelling headphones and sensors on their fingers to capture skin conductance and blood volume pulse. Their reactions to video news content reveal a common tendency for humans—in laboratory experiments conducted in 17 countries: Brazil, Canada, Chile, China, Denmark, France, Ghana, India, Israel, Italy, Japan, New Zealand, Russia, Senegal, Sweden, the United Kingdom, and the United States—to be more aroused by and attentive to negative news.

It’s fascinating that there was no country-specific effect in physiological responses to negative video news. But, what they found was a high level of individual variation in response even though they didn’t seem to coalesce in country-specific ways. Although the average tendency was to be more aroused by and attentive to negative content, there seemed to be a good number of people with different or more variable preferences in video news.

Maybe media news needs to pay attention to these individual differences. Relentless negativity is one way of seeking an audience, but the evidence shows that people have appetites for other tones too. News producers would do well to serve them.

References

Sacerdote, B., Sehgal, R., Cook, M. (2020). Why Is All COVID-19 News Bad News? National Bureau of Economic Research, Working Paper 28110, November, doi 10.3386/w28110

Soroka, S., Fournier, P., & Nir, L. (2019). Cross-national evidence of a negativity bias in psychophysiological reactions to news. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 116 (38), 18888–18892.

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