No Good News From Anywhere

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Is it the media or is it us? It’s been a long running question at The Daily Chrenk and previous to that at the Chrenkoff blog.

Bad news rules. Some blame the adversarial and crusading ethos of journalism. Arguably, on occasions there is also something more than just the general bias for the negative at play, as when political or ideological bias inclines towards a near uniformly negative coverage of certain people (conservative politicians) or events (the Iraq war and its aftermath). But new research suggests that the relationship between the negative media and the consumers might actually be quite symbiotic – that “if it bleeds it leads” because it in turn feeds:

Ever wonder why there’s so much bad news out there? Maybe it’s because people find bad news more interesting than good news.

A new study involving more than 1,000 people across 17 countries spanning every continent but Antarctica concludes that, on average, people pay more attention to negative news than to positive news.

The findings, published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, hint that this human bias toward negative news might be a large part of what drives negative news coverage. But the results also revealed that this negative bias was not shared by everyone, and some even had a positive bias — a sign that there may be a market for positive news.

The study shows that around three in five people have a slight bias towards bad news, while two in five have no preference or are slightly biased towards good news:

[O]ur results demonstrate a broadly cross-national negativity bias in responsiveness to video news content, while at the time demonstrating a very high degree of individual-level variation. This individual-level variation has important implications for how we understand news production. Most importantly, it suggests that audience-seeking news media need not necessarily be drawn to predominantly negative content. Even as the average tendency may be for viewers to be more attentive to and aroused by negative content, there would appear to be a good number of individuals with rather different or perhaps more mutable preferences.

As the authors of the study say, some evolutionary biology explanations suggest the reason: “Attention to negativity may have been advantageous for survival. Negative information alerts to potential dangers; it has special value in terms of “diagnosticity”, or the “vigilance” that is required to avoid negative outcomes. But whatever the explanations for the initial preference, the media keeps feeding us the equivalent of informative “junk food” that overwhelms our craving for the “sugary” negativity. Scientists like Steven Pinker argue that the strongly negative reporting distorts the reality (where things are actually much better than they seem to an average news consumer) and consequently has negative psychological impact. It certainly makes you wonder if the explosion in depression and anxiety in our societies over the past few decades have something to do with the steady diet of bad news, overselected, exaggerated and sensationalised as it is.

Maybe it is time we all started spending more time publicising “Good News From Everywhere” – not just to redress specific political biases in reporting, not just to redress the general imbalance in reporting between the negative and the positive, not just to dispel the popular myth thus generated that the world is going to hell in a hand basket, but ultimately for the sake of our own collective sanity.

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