Ashok Dullu

Why is negativity so popular in MEDIA ?

Generic Issues:

Let us examine, what ideally are Media objectives ,in general:

  • To uncover wrongdoings
  • To hold the powerful to account
  • To look for and protect,pioneers,trailblazers,best practices,unsung heroes,ideas that work,ideas that might,innovations whose time might have come

From a general perspective,News,whichever source it comes from,doesn’t have to be negative always.

Is there a world of news which is positive generally ?

Yes,there is and can be!

Away from the horror and conflict ,the shouting and the skullduggery,away from the tragedy,disaster and zero- sum misanthropy ,there is a wide world of answers and improvements,of win-win and mutual support,of selflessness and curiosity ,of movements and innovations.”

Media studies show that bad news far outweighs good news by as much as seventeen negative news reports for every one good news report.

There is no shortage of psychological & other studies explaining why we love to read and watch bad news. Surveys also indicate that newsstand magazine sales increase by roughly 30 per cent when the cover is negative rather than positive. It is no surprise, then, that a “good news day” resulted in a 66 per cent decrease in readership in an online Russian newspaper.

The conclusions fall in broadly in the following categories:

  1. Our brains make us do it.Negative events are more memorable and emotionally impactful than good ones.
  2. The media only give the people what they want.

Let us examine these two factors:

  1. Our brains make us do it…..Negative events are more memorable and emotionally impactful than good ones.The reasons could be any or all of the following:
  • Evolutionary : Humans seek out news of dramatic, negative events. These experts say that our brains evolved in a hunter-gatherer environment where anything novel or dramatic had to be attended to immediately for survival. So while we no longer defend ourselves against saber-toothed tigers, our brains have not caught up.

Every second of every day our brain is bombarded by way too much data than we can possibly process and because nothing is more important to our survival to the species than survival all our visual data, auditory data is funneled to a sliver of the temporal lobe called the amygdala.
The amygdala is our danger detector.  It’s our early warning system.  It literally combs through all of the sensory input looking for any kind of a danger on putting in on high alert .It evolved during an era of human evolution that was of the immediate type-  the tiger in the bush.  You would hear a rustle in the leaves and you would think tiger, not wind .The point is that one percent of the time that it was a tiger, and  it saved your life.

So today the amygdala literally calls our attention to all the negative stories and if you see a thousand stories you’re going to focus on the negative ones and the media takes advantage of this –“ if it bleeds it leads”.  Well that’s why 90% of the news in the newspaper and on television is negative because that’s what we pay attention to and the sales of the items goes up.

A growing body of evidence illustrates the human tendency to prioritise negative over positive news content. But why is this? Stuart Soroka suggests that humans may neurologically or physiologically predisposed towards focusing on negative information because the potential costs of negative information far outweigh the potential benefits of positive information.

Even as we may tend to forward positive material via social media, our news-reading habits may still prioritize negative information. There is after all a growing body of evidence illustrating the human tendency to prioritise negative over positive news content.

  • Neuro-scientificMany studies have shown that we care more about the threat of bad things than we do about the prospect of good things. Our negative brain tripwires are far more sensitive than our positive triggers. We tend to get more fearful than happy. And each time we experience fear we turn on our stress hormones.
    And as it turns out we also have a number of what are called cognitive biases.The Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman addressed these first. We have a negativity bias, which is the tendency to give far more information to negative details than positive ones and the Confirmation bias , which is our tendency to selectively look at information or see information that confirms our preexisting notions. This would be fine, except that our pre-existing notions are typically negative and therefore, we’re reconfirming our negative expectations. 

    So ultimately we are kept in this negative state of mind and when the amygdala goes on high alert because much of the dangers around us today are probabilistic dangers, a pandemic might strike, an asteroid might hit, we end up in a situation that our amygdala is always on high alert and it’s screening out the positive news and allowing in the negative news. 
  • Probability perspectives,

In essence, negative and unusual things happen all the time in the world.

  • Unusual things don't happen to individual people very often. That's why very local news like a neighborhood newsletters tends to have less bad news.
  • But in a large city of 1 million, dramatic and negative incidents happen all the time.
  • But most people watch national or worldwide media where news reports come in from large cities at a large scale, so the prevalence of negative stories increase.
  •  Add the size of social networking communication, and we expand bad news, geometrically.

B.The media only give the people what they want.

Does the current news negativity bias reflect Media or Public Preferences ? Most news we see and hear is negative, and replete with disasters, terrorism, crime, scandals and corruption.Does the media create that negative news bias? Or Does it respond to our preference for bad news over good news?

An old study by the Pew Research Center in 1986  for People & the Press Study authored by Micheal J Robinson  indicates a few conclusions drawn from the study,which will perhaps apply universally:

  • “That the national news audience does not shift its news diet nearly so quickly as news organizations shift their news menu .
  • “Even the smallest shifts in ratings can cause news organizations to alter substantially their news focus often toward “a lower common denominator.”

Robinson implies that on a national scale changes in coverage tend to mould public interest rather than vice versa.
The optimist might argue that media outlets skew negative because the bad news is the important news, and spreading it can affect positive change. Reporting on natural disasters, for example, can prompt action on environmental issues.Writing about centuries of institutionalized racism, corrupt government officials, and ineffective social policy can—maybe, hopefully—bring about incremental positive change. It’s not about ratings or page views, those optimists would argue, it’s about making the world a better place.

On the other hand, not every news organization is basing its news decisions on altruism. No matter what the motivation of news organizations, one fact remains the same: People just aren’t that interested in good news,this at least will be the explanation by News room editors.

Media specific issues:

While the treasure of goodies is still unravelling , we have monstrosities too appearing .We are almost in a Frankinesteinian situation as far as Social Media & Internet is concerned.The problem here is that we see a development which has unlimited possibilities ,both negative and positive.

Creators , Users & Regulators of this form of Media can  be Heroes and Villians,all at the same time.

At this moment of time , we find a lot Negativity in the world around us, particularly on the internet .One of the compelling reasons given for this on the internet is  the anonymity offered to the user,which makes it easier to express your righteous indignation.

The last U.S. presidential elections  where the results bringing in Trump baffled all .It also set the  media and academic pundits scratching their heads over what went wrong with polls, studies and predictions.

A reader Robert Conroy in response to Stuart Soroka ‘s Blog ,comes out with simple explanation of this  huge misstep by media and academic pundits.Of course these can also be extrapolated to other issues in this domain of social media/internet.

  • Media and academia are totally divorced from and out of touch with the masses.
  • The hate, negativity, and lies posted and forwarded far outweighed the positive.The negativity was such that fake news sites proliferated and profited off of fake negative news stories.
  • The Trump supporters were especially rabid. Posts that saw receiving the most engagement, which is Facebooks profit generator, were long ugly fights that almost always involved bullying and name calling. It was a feeding frenzy that, gave people the opportunity to show the ugly face they would not otherwise show, say in a public setting.
  • There are, of course, touchy-feely posts that go viral and many people trying to figure the exact recipe for creating them for profit.
  • As someone who has had experience working in the field of human behavior (before Facebook), my observation has been that, in the U.S. anyway, riots and fights generate more excitement than  "Come by Here, My Lord" moments. Witness the death of the hippie and other passive lifestyles/movements and the growth of wanna-be “Bikers” and warriors who have never seen a battle.
  • “Nor do we know if there are ways to adjust our negativity biases.” I am sure you are aware of Facebook’s secret study, now not so secret, demonstrating that they could impact human emotion which by default can impact human behavior.
  • Also, group think, herd behavior and mob psychology.
  • Location and culture are key as positives and negatives are interchangeable. I consider racism a negative. In my area, many consider it a positive. To an extent that I believe would shock media, political and academic pundits. Which goes back to my contention that media and academia have become insulated from the streets contributing to the proliferation of bogus internet sites that will feed the masses what they want to hear, true or not.
  •  I believe this development will have severe global implications in a world where the two-minute attention span has devolved to a two-sentence and a meme attention span.
  • I stumbled across the article looking for info on negativity reinforcing negativity or negativity generating rewards/value, e.g. U.S. election results and it struck a chord with my contention that if the knowledge that one finds does not fit their world view, the knowledge to accommodate the world view will be created. I would end with do not dismiss sites such as Facebook. Their power is scary.

Sharing news content on social media is a fundamentally different thing from selecting and reading articles or choosing a particular TV programe.

There’s a counterpoint argument to the negative news bias issue.

A recent article by Arianna Huffington argues for the importance – and popularity – of positive news. Huffington draws in part on recent work suggesting that positive stories are more likely to be shared on social networks. This trend in sharing, she suggests, provides evidence that the “if it bleeds, it leads” approach to gaining audiences is misguided. News readers, she argues, want more positive news content.

Psychologists and Neuroscientists have also discovered that good news spreads the fastest by scanning people's brains and monitoring their emails and social media posts....when you share a story with your friends and peers, you care a lot more how they react. …”You don’t want them to think of you as a Debbie Downer.”, says Jonah Berger, an assistant professor of marketing and social psychologists at the University of Pennsylvania.Berger studied The New York Times' website to see which articles were shared the most.  He discovered that scientific, exciting, and funny articles were shared much more than devastating or negative articles

And when you write about it, people tend to respond positively. They do so because while audiences have always been riveted by bad news (it serves as both an early warning system and a reassurance about the comfort of their own lives), they are tired of the avalanche of awfulness. They are switching off.That is a bad thing. If people just shrug at news because they feel there is little they can do, nothing will change.

Journalists in the USEurope and the UK are waking up to this bypublishing what is variously described as constructive journalism, solutions journalism or, somewhat misleadingly, positive news..

An Article by Stuart Soroka &Stephen McAdams on” News, Politics, and Negativity” has elucidiated issues in this regard…..The behavior of newspapers and programs offers one obvious clue – news agencies seek audiences, after all, and experience (and sales) points towards the value of negative information.

The findings of a study suggest that:

  • negative network news content, in comparison with positive news content,
    • tends to increase both arousal and attentiveness.
  • In contrast, positive news content
    •  has an imperceptible impact on the physiological measures we focus on.
  • Indeed, physiologically speaking, a positive news story is not very different from the gray screen we show participants between news stories.

Our study is one of the first to demonstrate this tendency using real television news content. It thus makes very clear the implications, that a negativity bias in humans’ brains has for the nature of news content.

SOLUTIONS !! Are there any ?

We must focus on three agencies involved and affected by Media : Creaters,Users and Regulators.

Creators ,the Media Organizations should recognize that  serious journalism is a  public good that supports a  strong democracy. Collaboration in fact checking may help to raise the price of political lying – which is currently too cheap.Facts do matter and Fct checking  should be a critical  activity to be engaged in before the news release to the public.It cannot be side activity  marginalised in a corner of a website.

Media houses should  invest in media literacy to combat the tsunami of misinformation – much of it deliberately “weaponised” – which confuses and misleads public debate.

Media houses need to work harder at finding business models for diverse, serious journalism that work – or ways of funding public interest information – to strengthen the public spaces for debate.

At a time when the media is being heavily criticised by all parties involved in these campaigns it must reinforce rigour, independence and challenge. To do otherwise leads swiftly back to the yellow journalism of the past.

On the Social Media via Internet, the distinction between Creators and Users is quite blurred.

Users should  research and understand the online echo chambers and find ways to penetrate them. Exposure to other views supports reflection and builds tolerance and understanding. A typical advice from experts in this field is …”We typically need to change our behavior, or our assessment of politicians, when something goes wrong, not when something goes right. So unless we have an unlimited amount of time to pay attention to everything, we may be well-served by focusing on the information that requires a change on our part – provided that all that negativity does not also lead to overwhelming skepticism or disengagement, of course.”

The User has to to make a personal choice of using modes of communication and keep in view the consequences he will face in absence of a sensible regulation.Till then he can take guidance from the net itself as to how he can protect himself as well as contribute to a sensible dialogue on issues of concern.

Regulators such as the State has not been able to decide a path especially the Democratic ones. Autocratic state is clear and has gone ahead and established rules.Democratic ones are swinging between legitimate use and a large misuse of Freedom of speech .Self regulation in Print Media and Television has become a misnomer with complications of Ownership and its impact on Editorial freedom.Social media is now grappling with the issue of ugliness of this mode of communication.State is hesitant as yet to clamp restrictions, even reasonable ones.

Ashok Dullu



NOTE: This is  to acknowledge the following Authors from where the inputs were picked up for this blog:

Richard Sambrook  is a British journalist, academic and a former BBC executive. He is Professor of Journalism and Director of the Centre for Journalism at Cardiff School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies (Cardiff University). For 30 years, until February 2010, he was a BBC journalist and later, a news executive.

Johna Berger is a professor at the WhartonSchool of the University Of Pennsylvania.He is a world renowned expert on word of mouth,viral marketing,social influence,and how products ,ideas and behavior catch on.

Stuart Soroka is the Michael W. Traugott Collegiate Professor of Communication Studies and Political Science, and Faculty Associate in the Center for Political Studies at the Institute for Social Research, University of Michigan. His work focuses on political communication, the sources and/or structure of public preferences for policy, and the relationships between public policy, public opinion, and mass media. His most recent book is Negativity in Democratic Politics (2014, Cambridge University Press).

Daniel Kahneman  is an Israeli-American psychologist notable for his work on the psychology of judgment and decision-making, as well as behavioral economics, for which he was awarded the 2002 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences (shared with Vernon L. Smith). His empirical findings challenge the assumption of human rationality prevailing in modern economic theory.

Arianna Huffington  born July 15, 1950, is a Greek-American author, syndicated columnist, and businesswoman.Huffington was the co-founder and editor-in-chief of The Huffington Post, which is now owned by AOL. In 2009, Huffington was #12 in Forbes's first-ever list of the Most Influential Women In Media. She has also moved up to #42 in The Guardian's Top 100 in Media List. As of 2014, she is listed by Forbes as the 52nd Most Powerful Woman in the World

Ray Nickerson, Research Professor of Psychology, Tufts University (November,27,2016)