What are some bad things in society
More attentive and excited : People react more to bad news than good
Whether newspaper, Twitter timeline or daily news: Bad news often dominates. One reason for this is that many people tend to react more strongly to negative reports than positive ones. Researchers have now for the first time examined this effect across cultures in more than a thousand people from 17 countries - and largely confirmed it. This is what a team around the communication scientist Stuart Soroka from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor reports in the journal "PNAS".
The trend towards negative news has grown stronger
The phenomenon of weighting negative information more heavily than positive information is called “negativity bias”. Whether the cause for this lies in evolution (for example, higher probability of survival if you knew that your prehistoric colleague was eaten by a predator on the hunt) or is more culturally justified, is not exactly known.
Today, however, it has a huge impact on what news newspaper and television newsrooms choose. Studies have shown that the trend to portray the world as a bad place has become even clearer in recent years. The researchers cite a lack of political knowledge, withdrawal and apathy as possible consequences of such predominantly negative reporting among consumers.
Although the negativity bias problem and the media have been known for a long time, the majority of studies on the subject have come from either the UK or the US. In addition, stimuli were mostly used in such studies that were far from reality.
Watching TV with sensors
Soroka and his colleagues - Patrick Fournier from the University of Montreal and communication scientist Lilach Nir from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem - wanted to change that. Using real news reports, they checked how 1156 test subjects from six different continents reacted to positive and negative reports. To do this, the test subjects had to watch seven videos on the TV broadcaster BBC World News in random order. Two of them related to their own country. For example, positive contributions were about how gorillas were released from the zoo into the wilderness, while a negative contribution was about how a city in Peru burned down.
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The result is by no means surprising. True to the motto: "Bad news are good news - good news are bad news", our arousal society is constantly fed. Only panda twins still have the best chances.
While the test participants were watching the films, the scientists measured the conductivity of their skin and the variability of their heart rate using sensors on the subjects' fingers. These values are also used in other studies as a measure of the physiological response to external stimuli. The aim is to map activating and calming influences of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system, i.e. unconscious body reactions to perceived stimuli.
The result: On average, the subjects' heart rates varied more strongly while they were watching negative news. The changes in the conductivity of the skin were also greater in bad news than in good news. Based on previous findings, the researchers interpret the results in such a way that the test subjects, on average, followed negative information more carefully and more emotionally. You write, "This study directly shows that people around the world are more activated by negative news stories."
However, the researchers found no explanation for differences between individual countries in their data. According to their analysis, at least country-specific factors such as media freedom or the political system in a particular country had no effect on how the participants reacted.
Especially since the reactions of the test subjects also differed significantly within countries. The scientists interpret this to mean that not all media consumers are particularly drawn to negative reports. Rather, there could be a large and previously underestimated audience for positive news, they write.
Test subjects choose negative reports under time pressure
Oliver Quiring was "not at all surprising" by the results. It has long been known that negative news attracts significantly more attention than positive news, said the communications scientist from the University of Mainz in the Tagesspiegel. But it is "impressive that Soroka's team succeeded in corroborating the phenomenon in an international study across cultures". That makes the study very valuable from a scientific point of view - even if the number of participants in individual countries was quite small and therefore possibly not representative.
Overall, however, the results are plausible. For Germany, too, studies have repeatedly shown that test subjects tend to select negative, surprising or sensational news under time pressure. "For journalism this means: negative things are more likely to be perceived and therefore sell better," says Quiring.
One possible solution: constructive journalism
The new study from the USA now suggests, however, that there is a clear difference in how strongly someone reacts to "bad news". Quiring finds this understandable: "There is a limit beyond which one no longer feels like consuming the next terrifying news - only to find out the next day that the world has not ended again after all."
He therefore advocates constructive journalism that researches cleanly, argues well, offers proposed solutions - and can also be positive in the process. That doesn't mean that the news should be filled with irrelevant reports.
Perhaps, however, as the authors of the study write, the results may encourage one to rethink the questionable journalistic motto "If it bleeds, it leads" (for example: "If there is blood, it draws").
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