The Press for Positivity

It should be obvious that our surroundings have an influence on us; it's a fact that has been known since ancient history.

Aesop was a Greek story teller who wrote many fables - succinct fictional story with a moral underpinning. His short stories have been curated into what's now known as Aesop's Fables. In the fable The Ass and his Purchaser, he famously coined the idiom "A man is known by the company he keeps", meaning you can judge one's character by the character of one's friends.

aesop-ass

Similarly, in the Bible, in 1 Corinthians 15:33, it says "Bad company corrupts good character".

And it's not a notion exclusive to Western culture, the Ancient Chinese also had a proverb - 近朱者赤,近墨者黑 - which means "One who mixes with vermilion will turn red, one who touches pitch shall be defiled therewith"

But while this is obvious, we are often oblivious to its effects when it happens to us. It is such an interesting topic that there's an entire field of study called psychogeography which looks at the effects of the geographical environment on the emotions and behavior of individuals.

Many scientific studies have also backed this up:

  • Pleasant weather improves mood and broadens cognition[1]
  • Red aids in detail-oriented tasks, blue aids in creative tasks[2]
  • Experiencing physical warmth promotes interpersonal warmth[3]

Our environment affects us at the subconcious level, where we are powerless to control them.

It might be hard to admit that we are not completely in control of our actions, that we are easily influenced, but that is the hard, cold truth - our surroundings profoundly affects us - our thoughts, our emotions, our principles, and our character.

In another essay, we argued that the role of the press should go beyond merely reporting facts (what's known as a straight news account), but should have a backbone - a moral compass and courage to point out when things are just plain wrong.

In this essay, I want to go further, and examine whether the media has a duty to provide more positive and wholesome news to us, so that it can affect us in a positive way, by inspiring us to be our best selves.

The Prominence of Bad Press

Are there actually more negative press than positive press? If so, why? Are there simply more negative stories than positive ones? Or are there other factors at play?

Whilst we could not find studies analyzing the positive vs negative ratio in the media in general, many studies have been done on a very specific topic - the US Presidential Election.

Negativity Reflected in US Elections

The 2016 US Presidential Election may seem to be the most polarizing election in US history; that's because it is.

"Clinton and Trump are both more strongly disliked than any nominee at this point in the past 10 presidential cycles."[4]

enten-generaldislike-1

You may attribute this to the increasing political polarization of the United States, but you'd be wrong. Partisan Polarization has been happening for decades[5]. If the candidate's strongly unfavourable ratings is due to polarization, then they should also have significant strongly-favourable ratings too; but they don't.[4:1]

enten-generaldislike-2

This means that, overall, the public's perception of both candidates have been more negative than in previous elections. When we study the amount of negative vs. positive coverage each presidential candidate receives, it is immediately obvious why this is the case.

CrimsonHexagon1

Whilst the 2016 election may be the most negative, previous elections have also been negative:

  • In the 2012 election, 89% of Obama's campaign ads was negative towards his opponent, compared to 94% for Romney.
  • In the 2000 election, "more than half of all stories contained twice as many negative assertions as positive."[6]

Propensity of Negativity

One can argue that this negativity is uncharacteristic of the media as a whole; for example, other subjects, such as sports, are generally positive. Whilst this might be true for areas such as sports, news that land on the front page are usually negative, and we will go on to explain why.

Our Innate Response

In a study[7] which looked at how people pick news stories, the experiementers found people tend to pick depressing stories, even though, when asked, they said they'd prefer positive news.

Many other studies have reaffirmed this phenomenon. One study[8] has shown that humans detect negative stimuli faster than positive stimuli, whilst another study[9] found that "negative news elicits stronger and more sustained reactions than does positive news". In all cases, it's clear that we are more perceptive, and give greater weight, to negativity than we are positivity.

This effect known as the negativity bias, and may find its roots in our evolution, as in the more primitive times, negative information is more valuable than positive ones - knowing that a herd of lions (predators) are hunting near you is more valuable information than the discovery of a new herd of gazelle (prey).

And since the ultimate goal of news and media agencies are to make money, they will do whatever it is that brings them the most revenue. This means they'll tend to print more negative news whenever possible. Indeed, a study has found that "newsstand magazine sales increase by roughly 30 per cent when the cover is negative rather than positive".

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Interestingly, when a Russian news site, City Reporter, dedicated a day for only positive news, it lost two-thirds of its readership that day.[10]

Good News Tend to be Significant, but Slow

In this article, 26 charts and maps that show the world is getting much, much better, we can see that extreme poverty, hunger, child labour, child mortality, teenage birth rates, smoking, war, homicide and violent crimes are all in decline, whilst life expectancy, literacy, access to the internet are on the rise. However, none of these statistics would make the front-page news, because... well... they are not really 'news'.

It takes a lot to be good, and very little to be bad. Whether that's time or effort, it's much harder to achieve something good enough to be newsworthy, than to do something bad enough to go on the front page of the newspaper.

Paris Climate Agreement

As an example - at the end of 2015, nearly every nation on Earth have signed on to the Paris climate agreement that will signal the end to the fossil fuel era.[11] That agreement took 20 years in the making.[11:1] In contrast, when Trump pulled out of the same agreement, it received more press coverage than when the agreement was originally signed.

One possible explanation is that because it's very hard to get every country to agree, the progress is very slow with many steps; each incremental step up to the point where the agreement was signed is not significant enough to make it newsworthy.

However, when the US, the second biggest greenhouse gases emitter in 2005,[12] pulled out of the agreement, the impact was immediate and significant. This decision has undone much of the good work that has painstakingly been drafted for years. This is why this event was newsworthy.

Tranexamic acid

In another example, tranexamic acid is a drug that helps blood clot and prevent overbleeding. A recent study[13] has trialled tranexamic acid in the treatment of post-partum haemorrhage with great success. Post-partum haemorrhage is the leading cause of maternal death worldwide, and kills 100,000 mothers each year.[14].

The trial had a large sample size involving 20,060 women, and the findings were significant. This medicine is cheap and can save tens of thousands of lives[14:1]. In all accounts this is a huge breakthrough.

However, this drug has actually been around since the 1960s, but it has taken so long for it to be accepted and finally passed through clinical trial. It will likely take many more years to find the best application for the drug, allowing it to fulfill its promise.

This is typical for many drugs, as a study has found that the average time to get a drug from the lab to the market is more than 10 years and over $2 billion USD.[15]

Again, this process is incremental, and each step is not newsworthy enough. In contrast, the reports on the 2009 swine flu pandemic was significant.

However, when we look at the numbers in terms of human lives, the swine flue pandemic killed around 15,000 people worldwide. Whilst that's still too many deaths, it doesn't compare to the 100,000 women who die from post-partum haemorrhage each year.[14:2] And yet, I bet, you've never heard of "post-partum haemorrhage" nor "tranexamic acid" until you've read this article.

Good is the Norm, Bad is the Exception

Building on from the point above, another explanation for the prominence of negativity is that we live in a world so good that we expect the world to continue to be good, to the point that we take it for granted.

We expect child mortality to decline, so it's not news when it does happen. We don't expect natural disasters, so when it happens, it captures our attention.

We only focus on the exceptions, not the norm, and the exceptions are generally negative.

The Root of the Problem

Fine. So there's a strong case for the hypothesis that the media is more negative than positive, and we understand why. Then the last question remains - is that actually a bad thing?

From our introduction, it may be easy to come to the conclusion that negative news is bad for us because they will influence us to also become more negative.

But we must separate 'negative' news into those where the subject matter is negative, to those whose narrative is negative.

For example - obituaries, although the subject matter is rather gloomy, its narrative is almost always positive. The author of the obituary will remind readers of the person's achievements, how he/she has affected the world, the legacy they leave behind, and how the world is a better place because they've lived in it.

Negative news is inevitable - we cannot control whether natural disasters happens or when someone dies, but we can control on how we report them.

Once again, let's look at Trump's decision to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement. We can see that the same event can be viewed from two different angles:

  • The United States have pulled out of the agreement
  • 195 countries have signed the agreement

Both are true, and yet the former focuses on the negative, while the latter focuses on the positive. We argue here, that regardless of the subject matter, the narrative of a story should remain positive whenever possible - whilst the headline may say "Trump pulls out of Paris agreemnt" (to sell more papers), the focus of the story should remain on the success of the agreement.

Sensationalism

Another problem we must tackle is the popularity of sensationalized news.

Sensationalism • /sɛnˈseɪ ʃə nlˌɪz əm/ • noun
The presentation of stories in a way that is intended to provoke public interest or excitement, at the expense of accuracy.

Whilst many stories have a negative subject matter, sensationalized news makes them appear to be worse than they actually are.

In his book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker argues that violence has decreased throughout history, and even in mordern times, when the extensive news coverage of war and terrorism makes it seem that our world is growing increasingly more violent. But it is not - our world was much more violent 100 years ago than it is today, even with the wars and terrorist attacks.

When journalists are reporting on an event, it is imperitive that the picture they paint is accurate.

When scholars examined the news coverage from LexisNexis Academic and CNN.com for all terrorist attacks in the United States between 2011 and 2015, it found that coverage of attacks by Muslim perpetrators received 449% more coverage than the average,[16] probably because it allows the news network to build on the existinig bias and fear people already have against Muslims, evoking a stronger reaction. This may partially accounts for the increase in islamophobia in the United States, which I hope you'll agree, is a bad thing.

Therefore, the press should not exaggerate the subject matter, nor extrapolate the narrative too far from the truth. It must not only be accurate and truthul, but also reflect reality proportionately.

Turning Negativity Around

So far, I hope you'll agree with me that:

  • News stories should be accurate, proportional, and not exaggerated
  • The narrative of the story should try to be as positive as possible, in order to inspire us

But even with a positive narrative, how can we stop the negative subject matter affect us?

By understanding why the press is seemingly so negative, and by knowing that the world is, in many aspects, better than it was a decade ago, we can view these negative subject matters in a different light.

Sure, the story may still affect us, but instead of allowing it to bring us down, to make us lose hope, we can instead use it as a reminder, that our world is not on par with our ideals of how it should be, that there are still much work to be done, that there are still many things we can do to contribute to a more pleasant world.

We need the negative news stories to remind us that our works will never be finished, that there are still conflicts, and extreme poverty, and draughts and famines. But as Professor Robert Sapolsky put so eloquently in his lecture The Uniqueness of Humans, the more impossible the task, the more we must do it.

And on a certain level, the harder this is, this contradiction, to take the impossibility of something to be the very proof that it must be possible, and must become a moral imperative, the harder it is to do that, the more important it is.
At the end of the day, it's really impossible for one person to make a difference. And thus, the more clearly, absolutely, utterly, irrevocably, unchangeably clear it is that it is impossible for you to make a difference and make the world better, the more you must.
~ Professor Robert Sapolsky

Conclusion

Negativity is not necessarily bad. By understanding why negativity inevitably prevails in our society, and having the knowledge that things are generally getting better, we can use the negativity to provide us with the motivation and encouragement to make a difference.

The duty of journalists are to report on the facts in a way that accurately reflects reality, and use their influence on us to inspire us rather than to drown us in fear.

Ultimately, it is a balancing act - we need enough of negativity to remind us to not be complacent, but not so much that it overwhelms us into paralyzing despair.

References


  1. A Warm Heart and a Clear Head ↩︎

  2. Blue or Red? Exploring the Effect of Color on Cognitive Task Performances ↩︎

  3. Experiencing Physical Warmth Promotes Interpersonal Warmth ↩︎

  4. Americans’ Distaste For Both Trump And Clinton Is Record-Breaking ↩︎ ↩︎

  5. Partisan Polarization Surges in Bush, Obama Years ↩︎

  6. Negative vs. Positive ↩︎

  7. Consumer Demand for Cynical and Negative News Frames ↩︎

  8. On Wildebeests and Humans ↩︎

  9. News, Politics, and Negativity ↩︎

  10. Here’s what happened when a news site only reported good news for a day ↩︎

  11. Paris climate deal: nearly 200 nations sign in end of fossil fuel era ↩︎ ↩︎

  12. Which nations are most responsible for climate change? ↩︎

  13. Effect of early tranexamic acid administration on mortality, hysterectomy, and other morbidities in women with post-partum haemorrhage (WOMAN): an international, randomised, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial ↩︎

  14. Overlooked Drug Could Save Thousands Of Moms After Childbirth ↩︎ ↩︎ ↩︎

  15. Cost to Develop New Pharmaceutical Drug Now Exceeds $2.5B ↩︎

  16. Why Do Some Terrorist Attacks Receive More Media Attention Than Others? ↩︎

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