Should news always be negative?
How would you react if you checked the news in the morning and you saw "The sun is shining so lovely today"? I would feel suspicious. I would think there is a cosmic conspiracy. No new war, heinous crime, phenomenally embarrassing political incident, or black hole planning to eat our one and only Sun?
The sun is shining. It was doing that yesterday even if it was quite cloudy, and in all likelihood, it will do it again tomorrow. What is the news there? What kind of celestial scandal should the sun be engaged in to make it to the news?
Look at Rappler's mood meter now and see what kind of topics occupy the larger circles. Are they positive or negative news? Most likely, at any given day, the bigger circles would be on topics that are negative. We are magnets to negative news. Why?
Are we really such surrendering masochists in that even if we had a choice in what to read, we choose the one that will emotionally beat us up? Are news professionals educated and professionally trained not just to focus on negative news but to deliver them that way? We all watch our own local news every day, delivered in such ambulance panic mode that you wonder: If it were that urgent, how could news professionals still be all sitting there in the studio with suits, ties, and fabulous hair and make-up on?
A study that just came out validated what many, if not most of us, have observed about the news wherever it is around the world: they are really predominantly negative.
Across 17 countries namely Brazil, Canada, Chile, China, Denmark, France, Ghana, India, Israel, Italy, Japan, New Zealand, Russia, Senegal, Sweden, the United Kingdom, and the United States, they studied the response of over 1000 participants while watching 7 BBC video news stories in random order. The respondents had finger sensors on them that tested for skin conductance and blood volume pulse; both are physiological measures of emotional response. The data from all these countries confirmed that indeed we humans have a tendency to pay a lot more attention to negative news than positive ones.
In terms of the fundamental wiring of human brains, science knows why we pay more attention to negative news. This has to do with how we have evolved. Positive news elicit mostly a "business as usual" response from us. There is no news about the giant star in our solar system because it has never left and will be there for another 5 billion years or so.
But negative news alerts us and could mean life or death. Negative news in the days of our ancestors meant danger from preying beasts or dangerous environments. Paying attention to danger meant that you should be alert and fight, flee, or freeze accordingly, depending on what will save you.
Fast forward to 2019, and we still have that deep-seated tendency inside our heads. It does not get washed away in the deep connections in our heads just because we no longer forage the forests as hiding beasts wait to lunge at us. These tendencies are part of being human that even now, as Homo Digitalis (with subspecies such as Homo Digitalis Face Bookerus or Homo Digitalis Instagrammerus), we find analogues for the once "wild" dangers towards which we flight, flee, or freeze. We find it in crime stories, political scandals, environmental destruction, and the misfortunes of our friends and family. These things get our skin, blood, and brain in a sizzle more than positive news does.
But the real meaty news is this: what is natural is not necessarily what is good or better. "Natural" is the product of millions of years of nature sorting out what will work for what kind of conditions. While nature is exquisite at coming up with ways to cope with a myriad of conditions across thousands of years, it is an uninspired dismantler of what it has built up inside of us – it is slow to do that and leaves a lot of residues. This means that the alertness that was useful for our ancestor to avoid the larger mammal that wanted her as dinner is the same alertness that now holds you hostage when you watch a series of news on the humanitarian crisis, political scandals, and heinous crimes.
But the hopeful thing that the data from the study have revealed is that within each country, there is enough variation in individual data for news outfits to rethink how they frame what news really is. Within countries, the study found that there is enough variation that could not be explained by just charging it to "culture" or "country." In other words, while populations around the world are still largely attracted to negative news over positive ones, individuals, on their own, are breaking out of the general mold of being captives of negative news.
For news outfits that have largely banked on sensationalizing every detail they harvest, this could be a window to target a genuinely balanced view of the world – as a stage for both negative and positive news. They could have more impetus to begin or continue the equivalent of "breakout rooms" in their news offerings to cater to individuals who are seriously cultivating tendencies to tame their primal tendencies to only pay attention to the negative.
If you think about it carefully, amid all the tragedies and triumphs of people and planet – collectively and personally – the sun will still come up tomorrow and we will still inhabit the third planet from the sun. It is amazing that the cosmic calendar ticks with absolutely no care for our schemes and our regard for ourselves and our species. In fact, the sun will still be there, shining as it melts our planet and the stories that held us for millions of years with the tragedy we brought on ourselves with the climate crisis.
When the climate crisis eventually wears humans out of the future picture of life, the sun will be there. But that is news that will neither be positive or negative, since no one will be there to read it. – Rappler.com
Maria Isabel Garcia is a science writer. She has written two books, "Science Solitaire" and "Twenty One Grams of Spirit and Seven Ounces of Desire." You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.