The Power of “NO”
If you think there is nothing but bad news, you’re not wrong.
A recent study encompassing 1,000 people in 17 countries (from every continent) shows that, on average, people simply pay more attention to negative news than positive news.
The study was conducted by the National Academy of Science. Lead author Stuart Saroka, a University of Michigan (Ann Arbor) political scientist, said the purpose of the research was to determine why consumers of news seem more interested in the negative and the role these attitudes have in shaping the news.
One possible explanation among academicians, according to Saroka, is that “journalists were angry people and skeptics and they produced a bunch of negative content. Our suspicion was that the way news looked wasn’t purely a function of what journalists felt but more about what audiences responded to.”
For example, readers were far more likely to react to a report about an approaching storm over good news about a dog being rescued from a tree.
Another example of negativity was pointed out by David Leonhardt. Writing in a recent New York Times column, Leonhardt cited Dartmouth Economics Professor Bruce Sacerdote who evaluated television coverage of COVID-19 on CNN and PBS. Sacerdote observed that the coverage always seemed to have a negative perspective regardless of what he was seeing in data or hearing from scientists.
He noted that when the number of cases was falling, new coverage focused on places where the disease was still on the rise. To give scientific weight to these observations, Leonhardt explains how Sacerdote began working with two other top researchers to build a database of COVID-19 coverage from every major network. The database included CNN, Fox News, Politico, the New York Times and many other sources. The researchers analyzed the data through a social science technique that classifies language as positive, negative or neutral.
The results showed Sacerdote’s instincts were correct: the media seemed to go out of its was to portray the pandemic as a truly grim story.
“The coverage by U.S. publications with a national audience has been much more negative than coverage by any other source that the researchers analyzed, including scientific journals, major international publications and regional U.S. media,” Leonhardt observes. He added that negative bias permeated both the liberal networks, like MSNBC, as well as the conservative media, like Fox News.
The big question is WHY?
Leonhardt’s hypothesis is that the media is giving their audiences what the viewers and listeners want. “Human beings, particularly consumers of major media, like negativity in their stories,” says Sacerdote. “We think the major media outlets are responding to consumer demand.”
Leonhardt added to this hypothesis by pointing out that journalists in the Modern era (i.e., since the Vietnam war) are not so much interested in catering to audiences but in asking tough questions and exposing problems. “Our job is to cut through the self-promotion and find the truth. If we don’t tell you the bad news, you may never hear it,” wrote Leonhardt.
Maybe Richard Nixon’s vice president wasn’t too far off when he called the working press: “Nattering Nabobs of Negativism.”