THE FACT OF THE MATTER
Back in the late Nineties a new paper began publishing in, I think, Sacramento in California. Its stated mission was to report “only good news”. Happy stories, stories that would bring a smile to your face. Make you laugh. The weekly paper never reached its mandated sales nor advertising quota and, so, after less than a year it folded. Its last edition could not tell its readers it was ceasing publication… as that would have been bad news.
These days, hearing or reading the news, it can seem like the only things reported are terrible, depressing events. Ukraine, Iran, climate chaos, Trump and the AltRight. Deaths in Donegal, the sad passing of Vicky Phelan, sexual abuse in a boys’ boarding school and a plane crash in Tanzania. And so it goes, seemingly endless ‘bad news’. Even our daily weather changes are given red, orange or yellow alerts, telling us all to stay indoors and “don’t go taking unnecessary journeys”, whereas, in my younger days, you just grabbed the umbrella and got on with it. Weathered the storm.
Now, though, with ‘breaking news’ constantly in the palm of our hand there seems little chance of getting a break from it all. And it can all prove quite tiring.
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? Or, indeed, about me, coming up to 50 years in this relentless and remorseless trade that is newspapers? My psychologist friend from Magherafelt says sudden disaster is “more compelling than slow improvement”. I retort that reports of corrupt politicians or unfortunate events make for ‘easier’ and, indeed, more responsible stories.
Those men in white coats who have studied such matters suggest that humankind has a ‘negativity bias’, the psychologists’ term for our collective hunger to hear, and remember, bad news.
However, it isn’t just schadenfreude — that wonderful German word for pleasure derived by someone from another person’s misfortune — but rather that we’ve evolved to react quickly to potential threats. That our alertness to bad news could be a signal that we need to change what we’re doing to avoid danger. It can be much riskier to ignore negative information (a storm is coming) than good news (a dog rescued a boy from a tree). Paying attention to negative news, the researchers say, is generally an effective survival strategy. Like not taking a walk along a coastal road during a red alert weather warning.
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).
So is our vigilance for potential threats — like checking the cabin exits when we board a plane — the only way to explain our predilection for bad news? Perhaps not.
There is another interpretation. On the whole, we think the world is rosier than it actually is. When it comes to our own lives, many of us believe we’re better than average, and that, like the cliché, we expect things to be all right in the end. This rose-tinted view of the world makes bad news all the more surprising and salient. And we think, thank God that’s not me famine-stricken in Somalia or bombed out in Ukraine or not allowed chose what to do with my own body because I live in a deep Red state in America. And, so, we feel good about ourselves and, perhaps too, hold out a little bit of hope for a better day for humanity.
I had an editor once whose motto was, if it bleeds it leads. A recent study involving more than 1,000 people across 17 countries spanning every continent but Antarctica concluded that, on average, people pay more attention to negative news than to positive news.
The findings, published in in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, suggest 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.
I think I might just start up a new paper…