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Tired of ‘negative’ news? Then, why do we prefer it?

September 22, 2018

A reader critical of an op-ed piece I wrote last month suggested I write about something good in the world.

It got me thinking. In today’s world, is there more bad news than good news? Or is the news media reporting more bad news? Every day, we’re bombarded by stories of crime, terrorism, disasters, corruption, inequalities and oppression.

I found consensus among those in the know that:

Generally, there isn’t more bad news than good news.

Nevertheless, the media report considerably more bad news than good news, with some claiming that as much as 90 percent of what’s reported is negative. (No, not a contradiction; read on).

Despite the public’s contention that it prefers good news to bad news, the opposite is true — most of us are attracted to “bad” news.

Knowing this, the media give the public what it wants.

Consider:

A news site, City Reporter, in an experiment, ran only good news for an entire day. It even sugarcoated its negative stories, such as “No disruption on the roads despite snow.” According to one source, the news site’s pages were full of “sunshine, lollipops and rainbows.” But evidently nobody wanted to read the positive stories, for the site lost two-thirds of its readers that day.

I’d like to think it’s not a case of schadenfreude — deriving pleasure from another person’s misfortune. Psychologists and other professionals provide other explanations for this phenomenon.

In 2007, the Pew Research Center released data showing that in the past 25 years, Americans were principally interested in the following kinds of news stories: U.S.-related war and terrorism, bad weather, and human-made and natural disasters. Crime, social violence, and health and safety also ranked high.

In 2014, researchers Marc Trussler and Stuart Soroka issued a report on an experiment they ran at McGill University in Canada.

Participants were asked to read stories of their choice from an online news service. Results showed that the most read were negative stories — of corruption, setbacks and other topics with negative tones. Yet, when asked, participants claimed to prefer reading good news and that the media were too focused on negative news.

Their experiment, Soroka and Trussler claimed, was strong evidence of a “negativity bias,” psychologists’ term for the public’s craving to hear and remember bad news.

The researchers also concluded that we pay attention to bad news because we believe the world is better than it actually is. They contend that most of us think we rate higher than average and that we expect things to be all right in the end.

From this, experts conclude that the reason behind the media’s focus on negativity isn’t found in the ratio of bad news to good news but instead in the human psychological tendency to focus on the negative.

Why is it that most of us tend to seek out bad news over good news?

Researchers offer several explanations, all of which seem to latch on to the idea that people instinctively protect their well-being by remaining vigilant of potential danger.

Peter H. Diamandis, a well-known author and researcher, states that because nothing is more important to our survival as a species than survival itself, all our visual and auditory data channel to a mass of nerve cells in our temporal lobe, which he calls our danger detector.

He explains that these cells comb through the sensory input “looking for any kind of a danger … on high alert, and it evolved during an era of human evolution that was of the immediate type, the tiger in the bush. … Today, (the detector) calls our attention to all the negative stories and if you see a thousand stories you’re going to focus on the negative ones.”

Diamandis also relies on the theories of Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman, who addresses cognitive biases, such as the negativity bias, our tendency to give far more information to negative details than positive ones, and the confirmation bias, our tendency to look at information that confirms our pre-existing notions.

And so, Diamandis claims, with daily reporting by the media of threats, economic and political crises, and other “probabilistic dangers” on the horizon, our detector is always on high alert, screening out the positive news and allowing in the negative news.

According to research reported in the journal Information Economics and Policy, it’s because bad news is more beneficial than good news that the public demands it. Under the law of diminishing marginal utility, the researchers claim “that people generally have more to lose from neglecting to learn about a negative trend or event than to gain from awareness of a positive one.”

Lead author Jill McClusky, a professor of economics, put it this way: “People will always want bad news because they don’t want those bad situations to happen to them.”

“Evolutionarily speaking, there are advantages to being an animal that prioritizes negative information,” Soroka says. “We are living, and always have lived, in a very information-rich environment. We can’t pay attention to everything. We need some heuristic that helps us select the information … that requires us to change our behavior versus the information that doesn’t.”

He claims this hard-wired outlook is what makes bad news so appealing.

But some believe that such an appeal does not come without consequences. A growing number of academicians and publishers feel that a steady diet of bad news may result in feelings of helplessness and irrational fear. News watchers might worry more about crime, for example, even if the rates are declining.

According to Steven Pinker, a Canadian psychologist, “they become fatalistic, saying things like ‘Why should I vote? It’s not gonna help,’ or ‘I could donate money, but there’s just gonna be another kid who’s starving next week.’”

Paul Hiebert, author of “Why Bad News is Good News,” published in Pacific Standard, writes that some publishers, in offering their readers “optimistic alternatives,” believe “that constructive, upbeat accounts of the world might encourage readers to engage with their community rather than sink deeper into their couch, lamenting the future apocalypse.”

Soroka, who’s not convinced that the news needs to be positive, offers an opposing view: “As the public’s ever-vigilant watchdog, the independent press is supposed to be negative. Supplying more positive news may, on its own, not be a problem, so long as it doesn’t come at the cost of supplying less negative news.”

For us to better understand the reporting of bad news, I’ll close with Pinker’s characterization:

“News is about things that happen, not things that don’t happen. We never see a journalist saying to the camera, ‘I’m reporting live from a country where a war has not broken out’ or ‘a city that has not been bombed,’ or ‘a school that has not been shot up.’”

To me, that says it all.

Rudy Apodaca, a former chief judge of the New Mexico Court of Appeals, is an Austin attorney and writer. He may be reached at www.rudyapodaca.com.

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