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The Negativity Bias is Real

How the News Made Disasters Its Business

Why do problems sell better than solutions? Or, if this is not the case, why do news media still chase the bad news and ignore the good? Author and researcher Jodie Jackson finds out.

If watching the news or scrolling through your newsfeed fills you with dread, you are not alone. According to a recent study by the Reuters Institute, almost 60% of people say they actively avoid the news because it has a negative effect on their mood, or because they feel powerless to change events. 

At the same time, many studies have confirmed what audiences experience on a daily basis: that the news, by and large, suffers from negativity bias. Although more recent studies are starting to question the ethical implications of the ‘if it bleeds, it leads’ mindset, it is important to take a step back and understand why and how news media started putting disaster, scandal and tragedy at the core of its business.

Watchdog Rewarded

Negative news reporting is often considered synonymous with good quality journalism, and many journalists are incentivised to chase the success it brings, both commercially and professionally.

One of the most exemplary moments in journalism was the Watergate scandal; The weight of the story exposed created an enormous amount of pressure that ultimately led to the resignation of President Nixon. The journalists who exposed this become idols and showed the power of the news; in this case, it had more power than the president himself. This set the standard of excellence.

This created a “catch the crooks” mentality, which paved the way for journalism’s major legacy, identified by Michael Robinson, a former Georgetown University professor, as ‘negative reporting and jaded citizens’. Robinson argued back in 1976 that ‘the television’s preference for crisis, conflict, drama, when combined with journalists’ “negativist, contentious or anti-institutional bias” would result in deeply skeptical reporting’.

To this day, stories that uncover wrongdoing tend to win prestigious journalism awards, reiterating the fact that these – and only these – stories are the holy grail for news reporters.

Morbid Curiosity

The drive towards ‘watchdog journalism’ has created a commercially driven mimic that seeks scandal at any level. This watered down, sped up style of reporting is fueled by headline baiting due to budget cuts. The news’ critical eye is now constantly on the lookout, ready to expose any ‘wrongdoing’ – whether that’s political corruption or the way in which a politician eats a sandwich.

More commonly stories are reported on because they are shocking; they satisfy and engage us through stimulating our ‘morbid curiosity’. Our fascination with the negative or disturbing content of the news is linked to the psychological characteristic of thrill seeking. The problem is that the kind of stories that stimulate the immediate arousal response we seek are not necessarily examples of good-quality journalism. A significant part of the news media has specialized in satisfying our instinctive appetites for shock and horror.

Attention Grabbers

In a 24-hour media cycle, competition for our attention is at an all-time high. News organisations’ fear of being boring has forced them to overcompensate with excessive promotion of conflict and violence in an effort to make the news more exciting and draw us in. They employ entertainment tactics: constructing enticing headlines, using graphic images and highlighting controversial segments of a piece. We are often given more in the way of immediacy and excitement than we are given context and the relative importance of the event.

The kind of reporting that takes advantage of instinctive drawn to alarming news is like a cheap counterfeit product, imitating the real thing and confusing the consumer. This imposter is eating away at the news industry, guzzling more of the budget and growing in size. In fact, many news organisations, regardless of political leaning, are using extensive data analysis to chase eyeballs, clicks and stories going ‘viral’.

Financial pressure only adds fuel to the fire: as viewer numbers and print circulation continue to drop, investment into the kind of investigative journalism that is ‘indispensable to the well-being of society’ further declines.

With America’s largest news organisations churning out up to 500 stories and videos per day online, consumers are now in a situation where they are both oversupplied and underinformed. The -broadcast news channels are also at the mercy of the 24-hour news cycle. They are under pressure to make their stations exciting enough to compete with entertainment programs on TV, not just on one day but every day.

What’s The Real Problem?

Stories of war, corruption, scandal, murder, famine, and natural disasters don’t just dominate the news, they influence our national psyche, as well as our politics. This gloomy and commercially driven image gives us a significantly skewed perception of the world we live in.

To test your own beliefs, answer the question: in the last twenty years, has global poverty doubled, remained the same, or fallen by half. The answer is that it has fallen by half. If you got this correct, you would be amongst only 7 per cent of the thousands of people who took this survey, who optimistically said the same. The remaining 93 per cent believed it had either remained the same or doubled.

Imbalanced reporting gives us an imbalanced understanding of the world, leading us to pessimistically perceive it to be worse than it actually is. This has consequences that extend into the political arena, where leaders may prey on our fear of decline and promise a restoration of the ‘good old days’.

So Where Do We Go From Here?

News media trap us in a limited existence that is defined more by learning from what has not worked than from what has. The problem with this is that it is a slow way to learn. Granted, it provides invaluable lessons and may fire us up to want to do things differently, but it is not the kind of information that unlocks our own sense of potential. Without stories of progress, we are lacking proof, and so we are not psychologically equipped to contribute to this progress ourselves. Rather than wait for the news media to change – a process that is starting to get underway – we can start by changing our own media diet.

Actively looking to include the ‘other side of the story helps us to look beyond the problem and find out what is being done to solve it. So next time you hear the beeps of the news bulletin or check your social media timeline, try swapping traditional news sources for ones dedicated to covering solutions. It is not about ignoring the bad, but about not ignoring the good.

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