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Why Bad News Is Good News

Consuming bad news is evolutionarily adaptive, but the nature of the social Web might limit its supply.
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(Photo: debaird/Flickr)

(Photo: debaird/Flickr)

If you read the news often enough, you’ll know the world is populated by corrupt politicians, rapacious bankers, perverted priests, racist college students, and several hordes of armed zealots. Our planet is not a kind place—at least, if you keep up with the latest media reports. In 2007, for example, the Pew Research Center released data showing that for the past two decades Americans have been mainly interested in the following types of news stories: United States-related war and terrorism, bad weather, and human-made and natural disasters. Crime and social violence, plus health and safety, also ranked higher than most other categories. So, pretty bleak stuff. And just think of what has dominated the headlines since: missing planes, marathon bombings, teen bullying, oil spills, disease outbreak, the mortgage crisis, and the trial of a Florida mother charged with murdering her two-year-old daughter. All horrible.

Yet, at the same time, this isn’t the whole picture, or even half of it. Despite the daily parade of suffering on cable news, many people believe the world’s getting better, not worse. Writing in The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker argues that we’re currently experiencing the most peaceful time in human history. In America, FBI statistics indicate a dramatic drop in violent crime—murder, rape, robbery, and aggravated assault—between the years 1993 and 2012 (rates went from 747 violent incidents per 100,000 people in 1993 to 387 incidents per 100,000 people in 2012). Then there’s the advances in equality for women, minorities, and the LGBT community. For every newspaper article about a child who didn’t arrive home safely after a day at the park with friends, millions of successful walks home go unreported.

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.

Why is there such a discord between what actually happens in the world and the media’s accounting of it?

According to recent research published in the journal Information Economics and Policy, the public demands bad news because it is more beneficial than good news. Employing mathematical models and the somewhat depressing Law of Diminishing Marginal Utility—which states that as a person acquires more money or increases her consumption of pizza at a party, she derives less and less satisfaction from each additional dollar or slice—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.

“People will always want bad news because they don’t want those bad situations to happen to them,” says lead author Jill McCluskey, a professor of economics at Washington State University. “Think of those shark-attack stories in the summer.”

While the idea that people instinctively protect their well being by remaining vigilant of potential danger on the horizon isn’t an entirely new explanation for today’s abundance of bad news, it does seem to be thoroughly supported.

“Evolutionarily speaking, there are advantages to being an animal that prioritizes negative information,” says Stuart Soroka, a professor of communication studies and political science at the University of Michigan. “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’s important and the information that’s not—or at least the information that requires us to change our behavior versus the information that doesn’t.”

Soroka believes this hardwired outlook is what makes bad news so appealing. In a 2012 study, for example, Soroka and a colleague found that when 63 participants between the ages of 18 and 38 were presented with negative news (e.g. child abuse, vaccine shortages), their physiological responses—heart rate, sweat output—became far more active than when presented with positive news (e.g. a boy who survived leukemia, the creation of tuition-free schools).

In another study published just last year, Soroka devised an experiment that tracked the eyesight of participants as they read from a selection of news stories. As expected, more time was spent on negative content than on content more neutral or positive in nature. Less expected, however, was that this behavior held true even for participants who stated a preference for good news—implying either the existence of a subconscious safety radar or downright hypocrisy.

Meanwhile, there seems to be a growing chorus of citizens, academics, and publishers who believe there’s not much good in all this bad news. A steady media diet of death and deception, they argue, can result in irrational fear and feelings of helplessness. “When I’ve done studies and people watch coverage of, say, 9/11, they don’t then meet criteria for depression in the DSM,” Mary McNaughton-Cassill, a professor at the University of Texas-San Antonio and expert on the relationship between media and stress, told New York magazine last summer. “But if you ask them how they feel about the world, what they end up with is this malaise: ‘Everything’s kinda bad’ and ‘Why should I vote? It’s not gonna help’ and ‘I could donate money, but there’s just gonna be another kid who’s starving next week.’”

Amid the present climate of bad news, a handful of publications have sprung up to provide weary readers with openly optimistic alternatives. This includes sites such as the Good News Network, Positive News, and the viral video distributor known as Upworthy. Major players are also getting involved: ABC has its own “Good News” section; the New York Times has a weekly column called "Fixes," which “explores solutions to major social problems"; and in late 2014, the Washington Post announced plans to offer a newsletter titled “The Optimist,” a collection of feel-good stories and tales of people beating the odds. One underlying belief here is 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.

“Facebook is more like a dinner conversation: You don’t sit there and only say negative things—otherwise people stop going to dinner with you.”

Soroka, however, isn’t as convinced that the news needs to be positive. Indeed, as the public’s ever-vigilant watchdog, the independent press is supposed to be negative. This means exposing corporate fraud and government abuse, along with all instances of injustice found at every level of society. It means holding people in power accountable. In a sense, Soroka argues, the mass media should value bad news over other information out there in the same way the brain constantly scans its environment for possible threats.

“The role of media in a democracy is to monitor error,” Soroka says. “It’s weird then that we talk about the need to build media up as the fourth estate while simultaneously criticizing it for being negative.”

In a column earlier this year announcing a new positive-only section of the Huffington Post, Arianna Huffington wrote that the site’s readers shared more positive content from the site on Facebook than any other kind of story. It’s a finding that matches up with the research of Jonah Berger, a professor of marketing at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School and the author of Contagious: Why Things Catch On. After tracking a list of the New York Times’ most-emailed articles between August 2008 and February 2009, he discovered that people were far more likely to forward positive-themed pieces on health, education, and science that offered advice, elicited warm feelings, and inspired awe.

“What drives us to read something is often different than what drives us to share,” Berger says over email. “Just like the car we drive and the clothes we wear, the things we say and the things we share affect how others see us. It’s a signal of identity.”

Soroka agrees: “Facebook is more like a dinner conversation: You don’t sit there and only say negative things—otherwise people stop going to dinner with you.”

As our offline lives become more and more entwined with our online ones, the news industry might one day be forced, for survival’s sake, to shift its emphasis from negative stories to the positive ones that people tend to spread across their social networks. However improbable that may sound, Facebook is currently in talks with major news organizations about hosting their content within the Facebook ecosystem rather than requiring the world’s 1.4 billion Facebook users to click on links that send them to external sites.

“Media outlets are certainly changing what they write in an effort to chase eyeballs,” Berger says. “So we might see a shift to more positive content as people try to chase shares, but more important is paying attention to metrics that actually drive the outcomes you care about.”

The danger with all this is that we forget bad news is actually good news because it shows society still cares when bad people do bad things. Sure, life may be getting better for many, but it’s still far from perfect for most, and a model public would want to be reminded of that. And if it’s true that a barrage of bad news day after day can bring about cynicism, isn’t it also true then that a deluge of good news can generate complacency? The ideal situation requires a healthy balance.

According to Soroka, however, if there is some magical amount of negativity that keeps the public perfectly informed without turning anyone away from the political process, researchers have yet to find it.

“All I’m saying is that we have a human tendency to gravitate toward negative information, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing,” he says. “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.”