It is hard to believe, but there has never been a better time to be alive. There is growing consensus that things, by and large, are getting better. For starters, numbers indicate this is the most peaceful era in the history of the world. A few exceptions notwithstanding, violence rates across all nations are down, (although there is an increase in religious violence), and there are fewer wars. Other indicators are improving – most notably the human development index levels but we don’t realize these positive changes unless we truly go looking for them.
If you watch or read the daily news, be it on TV, the daily newspaper or any news website, it seems like the world is just one giant theatre of of wars, rape, murders and corruption. Some estimates suggest that the ratio of negative to positive news is as much as 17 to 1.
My initial hypothesis around this was that negative events especially are easier to report as they tend to be sudden and factual (a blast or a murder) as opposed to really good news which typically tend to be improvements over a period of time. Also, bad news tend to be dramatic as opposed to good news – reporting that 10000+ planes landed on time and safely is not really as shocking as reporting on the one plane that crashed.
In fact, as the Huffington Post itself points out , the rise in coverage of murders in the media surged after television networks and newspapers noticed the ratings bump that news related to murders and violence received.
In the 1990s murder coverage increased more than 500 percent — even as homicide rates dropped more than 40 percent
And as our very own beacon of journalism -Times of India – reports, murder counts in India have fallen to their lowest levels since the 1960s and yet one would never realize this, considering the space devoted to violence and murders in India. In fact, the same article ends with these lines –
It is not clear why the murder rate first increased rapidly and then has dropped equally sharply, but what is clear is that impressionistic ideas of society getting increasingly violent may need to be revisited.
Why does the media love stories about violence?
As it turns out, negative news actually sells a whole lot more than positive news – so publishing grim stories just ends up making more business sense. Look at the below stat based on research done by Outbrain. It suggests that readers were 65% more likely to click a negative headline than a positive one! Research also seemed to indicate that although readers said that they would like to read more positive news – they were more likely to click on and subsequently read more of the negative ones!
The average click-through rate on headlines with negative superlatives was a staggering 63% higher than that of their positive counterparts.
This was the aha moment for me: that negative news in the media is demand-led and not led by supply! Considering the relentless competition and the explosion of TV channels, there is a clear incentive for the media to go after negative news. But then why do we click or watch negative pieces of information so closely?
Introducing the Amygdala –
Inside your brain there exists a very little fella called the Amygdala. This guy has played a crucial role in your survival since the day you were born – he is the guy who scans all the visual and sensory inputs from all your organs and immediately puts your brains on high alert if you are in danger. When your life is in danger – your brain does not have the time to process the signals, its the amygdala that puts your body on survival mode. This is why when someone sneaks up on you – you instinctively turn around because the Amygdala gets your body to think that you are under attack. This is the same guy that makes you immediately double check that link that deals with a murder or corruption or violence. He is just watching out for you.
So it is a vicious circle – media houses know that negative stories sell and we continue to click on the links thanks to our own preconceived notions and of course the Amygdala.
Why should you care?
When questioned, individuals across the world confess that they feel more pessimistic about the state of their nation and the world than about their lives or their immediate surroundings. Even though we might not have experienced crime in our daily lives, just reading about it every single day would mean that you fear that the nation is going to the dumps.
And this directly effects the type of governance we want to see – we want our government to spend more on crime even if it’s not necessary.
More importantly, negative news (and this came as a big surprise to me) makes you less productive at work. Harvard and Huffington Post conducted a study where one set of individuals were shown really negative stores and another set stories of grit, determination and reward. The results couldn’t be more stark.
Individuals who watched just three minutes of negative news in the morning had a whopping 27% greater likelihood of reporting their day as unhappy six to eight hours later compared to the positive condition.
Finally, and most importantly, although research doesn’t indicate any sort of connection between reading negative news and depression, it is proven to have an effect on our sense of optimism. And there is enough concrete evidence to indicate that optimism is an important ingredient to long term health and happiness.
So go ahead and click on the story of the cold blooded murder of the family of four and indulge your morbid side, but even as you shake your head in horror, it would be good to be aware that all of the city is not murder and mayhem.