Written by Robert Warden
It isn’t just people with their negativity bias who tend to focus on bad events, as discussed in previous posts; it is even ingrained into the news. It doesn’t take a statistical analysis of news to know that “if it bleeds, it leads,” and the worst events that news reporters can find are usually considered the most newsworthy. However, research backs up our intuitive understanding of the news.
For example, a study by researcher Kevin Wise, found that reading about more immediate threats to health resulted in slower heart rates, which is linked to allocating more cognitive resources to studying the threat (http://psychcentral.com/…/innately-drawn-to-negat…/8037.html). This is in addition to the well established negativity bias in which people pay more attention to, and are more influenced by, negative events than positive ones (https://www.psychologytoday.com/…/…/our-brains-negative-bias).
More recently, a politically relevant study on this topic was published. Researchers Marc Trussler and Stuart Soroka found that people tended to select negative political news stories to read in their study, although they were told that it didn’t matter which stories they chose. These negative political stories which the participants tended to choose instead of neutral or positive ones, dealt with corruption, setbacks, hypocrisy, and so forth. Furthermore, those who were most involved in politics, were the most likely to chose negative stories. Yet, when asked what kind of political stories they prefer, participants tended to say they favored positive stories, and said that the media is too focused on bad news (http://www.bbc.com/future/…/20140728-why-is-all-the-news-bad).
Again, the negativity bias could be a reason for the results found by Trussler and Soroka. However there are some additional possibilities. Certainly, sudden scandals or disasters make for more compelling news than gradual improvements, and a good case could be made that improvements tend to happen on a longer time scale and at a steadier rate, than major problems do (except for environmental degradation and climate change). Also, cynical stories about such things as corrupt politicians make make for easier to report, lowest-common-denominator news stories than more complex situations. Lastly, Trussler and Soroka point out that people bad news violates peoples’ tendency to believe that everything is destined to work out for the best.
I have similarly noticed a tendency toward negativity in my MSN news links online. The typical political story during this election season reads “fill in the blank” candidate may be in big trouble because of “fill in the blank.” Few articles take a positive tone about a candidate or politics in general. A tendency toward negativity is also evident even in reactions among liberals to this week’s debates. Bernie Sanders’ supporters feel cheated by the media’s insistence on declaring Hillary Clinton the winner of the debate in the face of considerable evidence that Bernie Sanders was the most popular debater on the stage. Hillary Clinton supporters, on the other hand, feel that Bernie Sanders’ supporters are whiny and divisive. Both sides tend to downplay the general observation that the democratic debaters represented a better class of serious contenders for the presidency than have the republican contenders, and that the “Blue Wall” of solidly democratic states makes a republican presidency in 2017 unlikely. Of course, the for profit media is self-serving and has its own biases and agenda as well, which complicates the dilemma of a public trying to act rationally and make wise choices while moving forward in a productive direction. This is why I feel social and alternative media are increasingly making mainstream media less relevant. However, as long as it is news organizations such as CNN which host political events such as primary and presidential debates, the public must deal with their biases.
The media abets the public in putting people’s focus on the negative, but according to research, it is pandering to inbuilt human tendencies. If we are to achieve a more enlightened future as a society, we need to overcome the tendency to overstate our problems and understate our blessings. However, we need to be vigilant to see to it that the mainsteam, as well as social media, does its part too in presenting an accurate portrayal of the world around us without a negativity bias. We are going to need optimism regarding what we can accomplish, as well as realism about what exists, in order to change the way the world works.
Robertand Zunliang Chu Warden lives in Lives in Moreno Valley, California