If you’ve turned on the TV in the past couple of years or if you simply don’t live under a rock, you may have noticed that “bad news” is dominating the media.
Every day, it appears as if there is another tragedy or national disaster occurring, desensitizing us to violence and corruption. We come together as a community for moments to mourn destruction and then resume our daily lives after tweeting out a trending hashtag to show our support. We are so overexposed to negativity that I occasionally find myself moving to change the channel when the news comes on, simply tired of being bombarded with heartbreak after heartbreak.
This lends itself to the question: Is there really more bad news than good news?
Although it seems as if this trend only recently commandeered news outlets, a recent study by the Pew Research Center for People & Press that synthesizes stories from over 165 surveys shows that patterns in news coverage in the United States has remained fairly stagnant for the past 20 years. In fact, war and terrorism related stories have consistently remained the most interest-generating and therefore most extensively covered stories since 1986.
Under this umbrella of stagnancy, however, reveals the reason for the news’s acute focus on negative events over positive events. Despite the fact that this trend has been in place for the past two decades, patterns in viewership have altered significantly during this time. While in the 1980s, about 30 percent of Americans followed the news “very closely,” this number decreased by seven percent in the 1990s before rising to 30 percent again at the start of the 21st century.
Regardless of these fluctuations, the categories of interest for Americans has remained relatively static since the 1980s. War and terrorism consistently remains the most audience-generating type of news story, with bad weather and natural disasters closely following, politics, crime and health falling in a middle-ground, and entertainment and science yielding the fewest viewers.
This shows that while there may be changes in how invested Americans are with the events around them, the type of news that peaks interest does not significantly change with time. However, despite the fact that about 90 percent of news we hear is negative, there is not necessarily more bad news than good news in the world. Instead, audiences are simply more compelled toward negative news than positive news.
For instance, the news site City Reporter conducted a social experiment to test this theory and yielded unsurprising, but disheartening, results. After changing the angle of their stories to appear more positive and covering generally more uplifting stories for one day, their audience decreased by two thirds. Even small changes made to focus on the positives, such as saying that there is no disruption in traffic despite bad weather, worked to dissuade readers.
This leads to the conclusion that the reason behind the media’s focus on negativity is not found in the ratio of bad news to good news in the world, but instead in the psychological human tendency to focus on the negatives and remember negative memories more clearly than positive ones.
However, this tendency is not only a cause of the media’s bias toward negative stories but also an effect of this bias. While news outlets do have to ensure that their stories are audience-generating and therefore have to respond to the preferences of their viewers, the stories they choose to cover also play an important role in shaping their audience’s outlook on the world and opinion on current events.
Author of the Pew Research Center’s media study, Michael J. Robinson, comments on the relationship between public opinion and viewership, implying that the media’s choice in stories plays more of a role on the audience’s preferences than the other way around.
“That the national news audience does not shift its news diet nearly so quickly as news organizations shift their news menu.”
This relationship does not come without consequences. By focusing primarily on negative news, the media allows people to believe that there is primarily bad in the world and in turn have a despairing outlook on the world. This can fuel a rather pessimistic society and dissuade people from seeking the good in the world, potentially altering the actions our society takes to remedy the issues that plague our world.
Along with this, the realization that negative news generates greater audience numbers can cause news outlets to exaggerate minor issues in order to increase viewership. This is evidenced in the sensationalism that took place in America’s most recent election, pulling people into the spiral of events taking place by portraying it as a “trainwreck” that no one could take their eyes off of.
In order to prevent ourselves from becoming an overall pessimistic generation, we need to make a conscious effort to find the silver lining in bad situations and actively seek positive news. Though it is important to stay well informed on the issues that affect our society, it is equally important to not lose sight of the good still present in the world.
While this goal may seem unattainable, by taking the time to recognize the good around us, we can be empowered to make an effort in amending the negative around us as well.
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