Yearning for Good News
Articles & stories

Yearning for Good News

When what you wish for and reality are at odds, it is almost always because reality doesn't measure up. It simply doesn't give you what you want. Your company isn't paying out bonuses, the weather is still gray and wet, your favorite team is stuck in the second division.

But sometimes the problem is what you're wishing for. Media scholars have conducted survey after survey, asking this question: What do people want from the media? For decades, responses have been astonishingly uniform. Whether newspaper readers or television viewers, they all want more positive reporting and more upbeat stories. In a Forsa survey, half of respondents said that TV news in Germany is too negative, and 80 percent that they would like journalists to show more solutions rather than reporting on everything that is wrong with the world. "There seems to be a real longing for positive news," says Hamburg-based media scholar Thomas Hestermann.

Positive News? No One Wants to Hear It

This has triggered a debate about "positive journalism" and "constructive journalism" – which would focus on the positive rather than the negative. After all, proponents say, the world isn't as bad as the media would have us believe. In the news, it's all about wars, storms, the melting of the polar ice caps, overpopulation and financial crises. In fact, however, things are getting better all over the world. Nearly everywhere, poverty is declining. Life expectancy is increasing, fewer children are dying and the global literacy rate is at a record high.

But no one wants to hear about that. While we may say, at least in surveys, that we want to know about geographical and social success stories, when it comes to the news we actually prefer just the opposite. Journalists have a cynical saying: "Bad news is good news." Consumers seem to agree. For as long as circulation numbers and ratings have been recorded, they have been a factor in shaping the news. Every day, you can go to Focus Online to see which stories have been clicked on most often over the previous 24 hours. What you will find contradicts the idea that readers want positive stories, as surveys would seem to show. Take, for example, the news of July 3 of this year: The top ten stories included reports on 18 deaths on the A9 highway, the conflict in the South China Sea, Erdogan's right-wing thugs, a car that smashed into a bridge, and a Great Dane that nearly killed a woman. Upbeat reports from Wimbledon and about an RTL anchor who, as an experiment, intentionally gained 75 kilos, attracted far less attention.

The Appeal of the Unusual

People also prefer to pass on bad news. Facebook, Twitter and the rest have made the latest tidbits of information much more widely available. We learn of terrorist attacks more quickly than in the past – and the news comes at us from all sides. Greater frequency has made things more hectic – but it hasn't increased variety. The worst news is spread most efficiently, including through the new media.

Journalists see themselves as seismographs, recording all the things that are going wrong. It is in the nature of their job to want to report on disruptions of the normal order rather than on efforts to rebuild, for example after a war or natural disaster. News that says "everything is fine" is generally no news at all. A negative report, on the other hand, is an "attention factor of the first order," says Vinzenz Wyss, a professor of media studies in Winterthur. In this respect, journalists are no different from anyone else. Just like the rest of us, they talk about things that deviate from the norm. "Those tend to be rather negative, such as stories about abuse of power, threats, damage and so forth," says Wyss. The fact that the sun comes up every morning, he says, isn't a very fruitful topic of conversation. His Hamburg colleague Thomas Hestermann agrees: "We're interested in the unusual, not the ordinary. The pilot who crashes his plane makes headlines, not the one who lands safely."

This is expressed in the term negativity bias, which explains the tendency people have to pay more attention to negative phenomena. Even at a similar level of intensity and emotional impact, negative events have a much greater effect on us, psychologically, than do neutral or positive events. This may help to explain the findings of a survey conducted by researchers at Sweden's Gapminder Foundation. Three years ago, their "Ignorance Test" revealed that a clear majority of people in the West are ignorant of how quickly and profoundly the state of the world is improving. Half of the respondents believed that extreme poverty had doubled worldwide in recent years. In fact, it has declined by one-half since 1990 – but only 30 percent of Germans and a mere 7 percent of Americans are aware of that fact. It may be that our preference for bad news leads us to form a more negative picture of reality.

We're interested in the unusual, not the ordinary. The pilot who crashes his plane makes headlines, not the one who lands safely.

Thomas Hestermann

But what has led to this negativity bias and our fascination with bad news? The answer lies in evolution. Danger provokes the most powerful response. The sight of spiders and snakes triggers a reflex in most people – a rapid and vigorous response before we even have time to think. Areas of the brain like the amygdala are involved when our body reacts before our intellect tells it to do so. Unthinking, instinctive responses saved the lives of millions of our prehistoric ancestors. If they had first stopped to analyze the snake, the lion or the scorpion and place it in the category of a "danger," they would never have been able to pass on their genes to the modern world.

Endogenous Drugs

The bad news we see on the nightly newscasts today has much the same effect as the signs of danger our long-ago ancestors saw in the wilderness. The wars somewhere in the world, the epidemics that may be on the march, the harmful chemicals in cucumbers and eggs – these are the things that cause us alarm. But recognizing that the news can warn us of danger doesn't explain why we prefer bad news. It is drugs – endogenous drugs – that produce this effect.

There is a reward center in our brains. Through hormones, it creates a sense of well-being, rewarding us when we have accomplished something that benefits us. Animals, too, are rewarded with pleasant sensations when they succeed in ensuring their survival – vultures receive such a reward when they find an ample supply of carrion, as do storks when they have finished building a sturdy nest. When a rabbit finds a secure hiding place, safe from an eagle's clutches, it experiences a biochemical reward.

These effects are most intense at the point when the fear subsides. Fear serves to help us avoid danger. We all know the sense of euphoria that comes after we have overcome a dangerous situation or survived profound emotional turmoil. These moments are so pleasurable that they account for society's "adrenaline junkies," people who expose themselves to risks because they enjoy the hormonal rush that follows when the danger is past. According to cardiologist Barbara Natterson-Horowitz, a professor at the UCLA Medical School, gaining access to the drugs in our brains can be extremely motivating. All that is necessary to release these substances, for humans as well as for animals, is to behave in a certain way. Long before the modern era of roller coasters and bungee jumping, people reveled in the thrills that come with fear. From the earliest times, there has been a fascination with a sense of impending doom. For the ancient Romans it was the thrill of the arena; during the Middle Ages, knife-throwers created a hormone-fueled sense of excitement. Today, we tune in to TV shows like "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" not because we think it our duty to help solve a murder, but because we are drawn to "bad news" about the acts of human monsters.

Since security measures have minimized danger in the real world, we turn to fiction to satisfy our eagerness for excitement. Jonathan Gottschall, an American literary scholar, proposes an intriguing thought experiment: "Imagine you find a magical device that allows you to enter an alternate universe as an invisible observer. Before entering, you know you will witness brutal, scarring things: the rapes and murders of women and children, bodies tortured, defiled and dismembered. Seemingly decent men will reveal themselves as evil Nazis and sick maniacs. Watching, you will grow angry, tense and scared – your heart will pound, your breath will quicken and you will break out in sweat."

Then Gottschall asks the obvious question: "Do you want to use your magical device? If you answer, ‘Not a chance!,' then you'd be wrong." Gottschall reveals that the fictional scenario he's describing is from Stieg Larsson's thriller "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo." And the magical device is a novel. The most popular works of literature deal with evil. One in four novels revolves around crime. And more than a third of the time Germans spend watching movies or series on TV is devoted to crime stories. In 2012, all of the 10 most-watched programs were episodes of the crime series "Tatort."

"Fear pays off"

Psychiatrist Borwin Bandelow believes that all this is rooted in the primitive fear system, which simply cannot distinguish between a genuine threat and a television program: "It really thinks that something terrible is happening." The heart beats faster; viewers may start trembling. Ultimately, however, this kind of fear has a stimulating effect. Bandelow compares watching a crime show to riding a roller coaster – first there is terror, then euphoria. "The fear pays off, at least by 9:45 p.m. when the perpetrator has been captured."

All of this suggests that we should be pleased with the current American president. Obama gave us eight years of boring news, but that era is finally over. Donald Trump has achieved an impressive negative approval rating. On Germany's broadcasting station ARD, nearly every report concerning Trump has shown him in a negative light. Harvard University's Shorenstein Center has calculated that 98 percent of the time, the tone of ARD's coverage of the first 100 days of Trump's presidency has been negative. The American media have hardly treated him more favorably. Coverage by CNN, which Trump blasts on Twitter as "fake news," was negative 93 percent of the time. Following closely behind were the New York Times and the Washington Post (91 percent negative).

The figures reveal that we are getting what we want. News reports reliably provide excitement, as they describe events that deviate in a negative way from the norm. It's pointless to criticize this penchant for the negative. And it is naive to expect, or want, the media to reflect reality. Instead of complaining that the media present a distorted view of reality, we should be pleased. Fortunately, the real world is not as entertainingly horrible as it appears in the media, the movies and crime novels. It is a relatively calm and pleasant place – a place where we can recover from the excitement of what we experience in the media.