I See Some Bad News Rising

Since May is Mental Health Awareness month, this seems like the perfect time to talk about something that definitely affects how many milligrams of Lexapro I need: negative news. 

Here’s a perfect example; today I woke up to this headline:

Pollution can be 5 to 10 times worse in your home than outside. Here’s what to do about it

Now, call me Pollyanna but has anyone else noticed that AS SOON AS something relatively good happens in the world, we’re immediately BASHED with something bad? Like, I’m just starting to feel somewhat safe walking through the grocery store parking lot without a mask (Vaccine 1 – check; vaccine 2 – check; two-week waiting period – check) and BLAM, now I might be able to go outside somewhat cautiously but I can’t go back inside because my house is going to kill me.

Is it just me?

In case you think I’m overestimating the proliferation of bad news, just take a look at some of the statistics in this March 2021 Letter.ly post, “16 Eye-Opening Negative News Statistics You Need to Know.” (FYI these statistics are based on results from studies and reports that have analyzed the issue and provide an “unbiased look at why the media reports negative news.”)

  1. Approximately 90% of all media news is negative. (Quora)
  2. Sensational stories form 95% of media headlines. (The Guardian)
  3. Nielsen ratings are at fault for 50% of negative news statistics. (The Balance Careers)
  4. 38% of Americans believe the media exaggerated the COVID-19 coverage. (Pew Research Center)
  5. Approximately 1 in 10 American adults checks the news every hour. (Time)
  6. A website lost 66% of its readers when it published positive stories for a day. (Quartz)
  7. Studies show that headlines with bad news catch 30% more attention. (Kinder)
  8. Reports show 65% of news organizations ignore mistakes. (The New York Times)
  9. Around 26.7% of people that are exposed to negative news go on to develop anxiety. (NCBI)
  10. An average of 79% of media companies print biased stories for advertisers. (ScienceDirect)
  11. Headline manipulation has been proven to double readership. (IndustryWeek)
  12. People are 49% more likely to read something negative than positive. (NCBI)
  13. 63% of kids aged 12–18 say that watching the news makes them feel bad. (Common Sense)
  14. Most people blame the public for the popularity of negative news headlines. (Quora)
  15. 79% of Americans believe media articles are not balanced in their arguments. (Pew Research Center)
  16. 87% of the COVID-19 coverage in 2020 was negative. (The New York Times)

So, about that 87% …

Even though any bad news is … bad news, I’m generally able to maintain some perspective before I start writing my obituary. I might be freaked when I read, “C.D.C. Issues E. Coli Warning on Romaine Lettuce Ahead of Thanksgiving,” but at least I can find out (sure, it takes me EIGHT PARAGRAPHS TO GET THERE!) who the manufacturer is, what the sell-by date is, and that “The products identified are already significantly past their use-by dates, so this voluntary recall most likely does not affect any product currently on store shelves.”

Good to know … maybe next time tell me that in the first paragraph?

But, when we’re talking about a GLOBAL PANDEMIC and a new strain of virus that has not ever been identified in humans, it’s pretty hard to maintain perspective. So if 87% of the coverage of that virus is negative, it’s no wonder that “more than 42% of people surveyed by the US Census Bureau in December reported symptoms of anxiety or depression in December, an increase from 11% the previous year.”

David Leonhardt’s New York Times weekday newsletter, “The Morning” first brought that 87% statistic to my attention. In his March 24, 2021 (updated April 22, 2021) article “Bad News Bias,” Mr. Leonhardt refers to a working paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, “Why Is All COVID-19 News Bad?” by Bruce Sacerdote, Ph.D., an economics professor at Dartmouth College, and undergraduate fellow researchers Ranjan Sehgal (Dartmouth College), and Molly Cook (Brown University). 

In this study, Dr. Sacerdote and his colleagues analyzed the tone of COVID-19 related English-language news articles written since January 1, 2020 (written articles and transcripts were analyzed from television sources). They focused on the subtopics of COVID-19 vaccines, increases and decreases in case counts, and reopenings (businesses, schools, parks, restaurants, government facilities, etc.).

Here’s a few things they discovered: 

  • The most popular stories in The New York Times, CNN, and the BBC have high levels of negativity for all types of articles but particularly for COVID-19-related articles.
  • 87% of stories in the major U.S. news sources are negative versus 50% for non-U.S. major sources and 64% for scientific journals and that “the negativity does not respond to changes in new cases.”
    • Potentially positive developments receive less attention in U.S. than do negative stories. 
  • Negativity appears to be unrelated to the political leanings of the newspapers or network’s audience.
    • COVID-19 stories from all major U.S. outlets have high levels of negativity and the variation that does exist is not correlated with readers’ political leanings. 
  • Among U.S. major media, 15,000 stories mention increases in caseloads while only 2,500 mention decreases (a 6 to 1 ratio) During the period when caseloads were falling nationally (April 24 to June 27) the ratio remains relatively high (5.3 to 1)
  • U.S. major media are 38% more likely to be negative in vaccine articles relative to non-U.S. general media, and the gap in vaccine article negativity between U.S. major media and all other sources remained even after vaccines were approved for use (November 2020). 
    • The U.S. major media outlets ran 1,371 stories that mention COVID-19 vaccines and any names of the top ten institutions or companies working on a COVID-19 vaccine, while during the same period they ran 8,756 stories involving Trump and mask wearing, and 1,636 stories about Trump and hydroxychloroquine.
  • In the examination of school reopenings and U.S. major media consumption, the authors found that the strong negative correlation (across counties) between school reopenings and consumption of U.S. major media appears to be driven by selection rather than causality. 
    • Scientists collecting data on school reopenings have found that infection rates among students remain low and schools have not become super-spreaders; however, these positive findings are not reflected in the “overwhelmingly negative” U.S. major media. 86% of school reopening articles from U.S. major media are negative versus 54% for English-language major media in other countries.
  • The U.S. media outperform the non-U.S. media in promoting prosocial behavior (five percent of COVID-19 articles in major U.S. outlets mention the benefits of mask wearing compared to .6 percent for non-U.S. outlets and 2% for general U.S. sources), “though perhaps because such messages are more needed in the U.S.”
  • Demand for negative news is strong in U.S. and other countries. Considering more than 5000 Facebook shares during 2019 and 2020, heavily shared CNN, Yahoo!, MSN, and BBC articles are all very negative in tone, with the U.S. sourced articles being just as negative in 2019 (pre-COVID) as in 2020.

Wait, but why?

In their study, Dr. Sacerdote and colleagues ask, “why are the U.S. major media so much more negative than international media and other outlets?” While their study shows demand for negative stories is quite strong in the U.S. and the U.K. among readers of The New York Times, CNN, and BBC, they find that “U.S. news outlets are more likely to cater to the demand for negativity than are international outlets.”

The authors suggest three possible explanations:

  1. Most of the non-U.S. markets in their sample include a dominant publicly owned news source that is the #1 news source in their countries: BBC (England); CBC (Canada); ABC (Australia). The publicly owned sources may follow a different objective function than private news providers.
  2. U.S. media markets are less concentrated than media markets in other OECD countries which may cause U.S. major media companies to use negativity to attract audiences.
  3. The U.S. Federal Communication Commission eliminated its fairness doctrine regulation in 1987 which required broadcasters to provide adequate coverage of public issues and fairly represent opposing views (the U.K. and Canada maintain such regulations). While this may be a reason why we see more partisan bias in U.S. media, it may also explain why U.S. news providers feel justified in responding to their consumers’ high demand for negative news.

Which brings us back to Mr. Leonhardt who won the Pulitzer Prize for Commentary, has worked at The New York Times since 1999, and offers some reasons for the cynical perspective many journalists take.

Sometimes … our healthy skepticism can turn into reflexive cynicism, and we end up telling less than the complete story.

David Leonhardt, The New York Times

“In the modern era of journalism — dating roughly to the Vietnam War and Watergate — we tend to equate impact with asking tough questions and exposing problems. There are some good reasons for that. We are inundated by politicians, business executives, movie stars and others trying to portray themselves in the best light. Our job is to cut through the self-promotion and find the truth. If we don’t tell you the bad news, you may never hear it.

“Sometimes, though, our healthy skepticism can turn into reflexive cynicism, and we end up telling something less than the complete story.”

Looking for bad news

With this information, it’s pretty easy to see how this negative news about COVID-19 has affected our mental health. What seems contradictory to me is our “demand” for bad news when we know it will affect our levels of anxiety and depression (and by “our” I mean whoever it is who’s “liking” and “sharing” the most depressing news ever!).

In the next post I’ll share some explanation for why we seek it out negative news, and what we can do to break that habit (and by “we,” please see definition above). 

And in the meantime, here’s some really great news … “Prancer the ‘Demonic Chihuahua’ Who Went Viral Finds Dream Forever Home.”

Image credit: Ariel Davis

2 thoughts on “I See Some Bad News Rising

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