Turn on the news tonight and you’ll be bombarded with gloomy stories. You’ll hear about disasters and human suffering, political scandals and environmental destruction. Maybe there will be some good news sandwiched in there — a piece on an exciting new scientific discovery, perhaps, or a profile of a talented young musician. But overall, news coverage is predominantly negative.
Why is that the case? Ultimately, of course, journalists decide what stories and issues receive coverage. But they are also catering to the demands of their audience — and it seems that we respond most to negative stories.
But not all of us. A recent international study in PNAS looking at people’s physiological responses to news reports has found that overall we do seem to have greater reactions to negative stories. However, there is so much variation in how different people respond, say the researchers, that there may be a bigger market for positive stories than journalists often realise.
Previous studies into people’s “negativity bias” when consuming media have largely focussed on Anglo-American participants. So Stuart Soroka from the University of Michigan and colleagues set about investigating whether this bias was a universal phenomenon, or specific to certain cultures.
The team recruited 1,156 participants from 17 countries around the world — from Ghana to Sweden to Chile — to watch a series of BBC News stories. Each participant saw five international clips consisting of a mixture of positive news (e.g. a report on a zoo releasing gorillas back into the wild) and negative news (e.g. a clip on a UN war crimes investigation). Participants also saw one positive and one negative news story local to their country (my personal favourite was a good news story seen by New Zealand participants about a local group that teaches dogs to drive).
The researchers also measured participants’ heart rate variability and skin conductance while they watched the clips. These physiological measures are related to arousal and attentiveness, and can provide a record of people’s reactions in real time, without them needing to make any conscious response.
Overall, heart rate variability and skin conductance were greater when participants were watching the negative clips than when they were watching the positive ones. This suggests that the negativity bias is a global phenomenon, say the authors. “This study directly demonstrates that humans around the world are more activated by negative news coverage,” they write. “We are, perhaps, one step closer to accounting for the high frequency of negative news content around the world.”
But that wasn’t the whole story. From this data, the researchers then modelled how each individual’s heart rate variability and skin conductance would change as a clip became more negative in tone. While these physiological measures increased for the majority of people, there was a huge amount of variation — many participants actually showed no change or a decreased response. The differences between participants didn’t seem to strongly relate to the country they lived in, suggesting that they couldn’t simply be explained by cultural factors.
These results suggest that if the media want to attract audiences, they don’t necessarily need to only show negative content, say the authors. “Even as the average tendency may be for viewers to be more attentive to and aroused by negative content, there would appear to be a good number of individuals with rather different or perhaps more mutable preferences,” they write.
Of course, physiological recordings are just one way of measuring how engaged someone is, and it would be interesting to see if the results line up with more explicit measures of engagement with the news, such as surveys or interviews about people’s preferences. Still, it seems as good a time as any to inject a bit more positivity into our news coverage.