No news is good news

Media’s proclivity with the negative, and how psychology explains it

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By David Matende

On May 17, both national and international TVs aired images of police bludgeoning Opposition protesters in Nairobi and other towns. Newspapers splashed pictures of tear-gassed and bloodied demonstrators on front pages in the days that followed.

The same day, a story about progress made on a fertiliser factory in Eldoret come at the tail end of news broadcasts on one or two local channels while most newspapers generally ignored the story or tucked it deep inside the news columns.

I had not seen nor read the item on the fertiliser factory until someone called me to express surprise that instead of highlighting this important economic story, journalists had decided to inundate viewers and readers with the “bad news” on the violent demos.
“Journalists don’t seem to like good things. The fertiliser factory will provide farmers with cheap fertiliser and save the country Sh6 billion. So why are we concentrating on the Cord demonstrations?” he remonstrated.

He is not alone. A lot of people wonder why media prefer negative news to positive news. In fact, there are those that do not consumer news media at all because of its proclivity for negative stories.

Why do the media concentrate on the bad things in life, rather than the good? And what might this depressing slant say about people who watch news on TV and those who read newspapers?

It isn’t that bad thing are the only things that happen. Could it be that journalists are drawn to reporting bad news because sudden disaster is more compelling than slow improvements?

Or could it be that news gatherers believe that dramatic reports of police brutality, cynical reports of corrupt politicians or unfortunate events make for simpler stories. Or have readers and viewers trained journalists to focus on these things? Many people often say that they would prefer good news, but is that actually true?

Good news lifts our spirits. Inspirational stories warm and bring joy to our hearts .We beam in approval and cheer when we see people doing worthy things. So why don’t we have a lot of such good and inspiring news in the bulletins?

Nature of media business

The answer can be found in the nature of the business called news business. Media managers and editors know one thing: bad news sells papers, increases viewership and captures people’s attention more rapidly, more often and with greater impact.

The decision by people who run media to give prominence to the bad news is buttressed by scientific studies. Scientists have found out that unpleasant news generates more attention than its pleasant and neutral counterparts. They call it “negativity bias”, a psychological phenomenon by which humans give more weight to negative rather than positive experiences and information.

Some of 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 dangerous animals, our brains have not caught up.
Thus, it is argued that we’ve evolved to react quickly to potential threats. Bad news could be a signal that we need to change what we’re doing to avoid danger.

Scientists have gathered evidence which show that people respond quicker to negative words. In lab experiments, it has been found that flashing the word “cancer”, “bomb” or “war” up at someone makes them  hit a button in response quicker than if that word is “baby”, “smile” or “fun” .

People are also able to recognise negative words faster than positive words, and even tell that a word is going to be unpleasant before we can tell exactly what the word is going to be. We tend to pay more attention to negative words in headlines.

Media therefore cater to that physiological reaction by providing more of what will guarantee attention, resulting in a preponderance of negativity.

Another group of scientists believes that people pay attention to bad news because generally, humans think the world is rosier than it actually is. Most believe they are better than the average and expect things to be all right in the end.

This pleasant view of the world makes bad news all the more surprising and salient. It is only against a light background that the dark spots are highlighted. So our attraction to bad news may be more complex than just journalistic cynicism or a hunger springing from the darkness within.

Some media scholars say this preference for bad news qualifies as media bias, which is generally defined as the selection of which and how stories and events are reported. It implies the perceived, covert inclination to avoid neutral and balanced accounts, contrary to journalistic standards.

This bias is more pronounced in the way international media covers Africa. African leaders and intellectuals, including journalists have for long protested against the international media’s tendency to highlight only the negative from the continent.

As one would expect, the Nairobi demos provided yet another opportunity for the international TV channels and newspapers to report bad news from Kenya. Images showing police brutally dispersing demonstrators were beamed across the world in such dramatic and slanted style that a person watching from Washington would think the whole of Kenya was engulfed in chaos.

Feed perceptions

Patriotism aside, and as proven by the way Kenyan media chooses what to and what not to highlight, all media, international, national or local, prefer the bad to the good. The American and European press if full of negative stories from countries in those continents as well.

However, international media’s reportage of Africa is not only negative, but also stereotypical, which means that Western media’s negative portrayal of Africa is not only about structural bias but also about uniformed perceptions.

Their approach is informed by the ignorance on the part of the audiences in the West, where a huge number of people think that Africa is one unfortunate country where war, diseases and hunger reign supreme.

To feed their audiences’ biases, western media works hard to portray Africa as continent where only bad things happen. The Nairobi political demonstrations fitted perfectly in this script.

Historians have blamed slavery and colonialism for this negative perception of Africa. The psychological result of slavery is the mindset that Africans, no matter where they are located, have a fixed status below that of their Caucasian and other descendants.

The perception of black people as being less human has accordingly made many Americans and Europeans to view Africa and everything about Africa with cynicism and pessimism.

Reverse psychology

While negative news tend to attract attention and while people  need to be kept abreast of current affairs no matter how dire, some studies show that people  actually need  more of inspirational and uplifting news.

There is evidence that information that grabs attention is not necessarily what people like and what they prefer to pass along. Some five years ago, a University of Pennsylvania study found out that although negative news receives more attention, people actually like good news. Good news is socially transmitted more frequently. The study showed that good news is more viral than bad news.

A recent event in Kenya illustrates this. The most uplifting news of last month was the story about a baby that was rescued from the rubble of the building that collapsed in Huruma, Nairobi. Everybody talked about this good story that emerged from within a bad story of disaster; it became the trending topic on social media.

Positive psychologists therefore argue that people can change habits, attitudes and behaviours as regards their consumption of news. They can develop a positive perspective that can spread to other people like a virus.  They can encourage news deliverers to present balanced and multi-dimensional points of view of life.

Hopefully, a day will come when a story about a fertiliser factory will run a head of a story on violent demonstrations.

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