I was born into a journalistic family in the fifties. My father was a journalist, as was his father. The family business was journalism. Financial journalism. Their models of vertical integration included owning a printing press and shares in ad agencies and restaurants. Which meant that as a child, I was pretty used to hearing (and later taking part in) discussions about various aspects of journalism. And some of it intrigued me then, and continues to intrigue me now.
Take the phrase “Bad news sells”. I’ve personally never really liked the phrase. It was brought home to me as a 13 year old when I first heard 7 O’Clock News/Silent Night by Simon and Garfunkel. Was it really true that people prefer bad news? Why should that be? It didn’t make sense to me.
The Deadhead free-thinking folk-rock loving tie-dyed longhaired tree-hugging Sixties child in me never let that phrase settle in me. I never wanted to believe that people preferred to hear bad news. And you know something? I still don’t want to believe it.
A few years ago, the Pew Research Center For The People and The Press published something called The News Interest Index, 1986-2007: Two Decades of American News Preferences. The entire study is worth reading. From my perspective, three key points emerged:
- One, people appeared most interested in news about disasters, then about money, then about conflict. Political and “tabloid” news followed, while “foreign” news elicited the least interest.
- Two, that interest in “money” was growing, it was the fastest-growing topic.
- Three, the topic of lowest interest was that related to “foreign” news.
Sean Park, an old colleague and close friend, used to start to explain many aspects of the more esoteric workings of investment banks with the phrase “fear and greed”. And the Pew report seemed to indicate that he was bang on the money as usual.
My perspective on the role of fear in news was at least partially informed by reading two books in recent years: The Science of Fear and Scared to Death ; George Lakoff’s anchors and frames were probably also a key influence, building on the seeds planted in my brain by erstwhile colleague James Montier.
It didn’t matter what I did, I still didn’t want to believe that people preferred bad news to good; I still wanted to believe that given the choice, people would prefer to hear good news.
Very recently I came across an intriguing paper published in 1996 by Chip Heath who was then at the University of Chicago and is now at Stanford. It raised the question “Do People Prefer to Pass Along Good or Bad News? Valence and Relevance of News as Predictors of Transmission Propensity”. I quote from the summary:
…..People typically prefer to pass along central rather than extreme information (i.e. news that is less surprising rather than more surprising). However, when confronted with extreme information, the results support a preference for congruence, that is, people prefer to pass along news that is congruent with the emotional valence of the domain in question. This means that in emotionally negative domains, contrary to some theoretical predictions, people are willing to pass along bad news even when it is exaggeratedly bad. At the same time, however, people transmit exaggeratedly good news in emotionally positive domains…..
I find this whole concept of domain-specific emotional valence fascinating. I start asking myself questions like “What is the emotional valence of the web?” “What about slashdot?” “And what about Twitter?”. For many years now, I’ve taken part in many discussions about the nature of the web, and, influenced heavily by friend and mentor Doc Searls, I’ve gotten comfortable with the idea that the web is a place. A place made up of places, places that are zero distance apart.
The web has places of light and places of extreme darkness as well. I like spending time in places where people build each other up, say encouraging things to each other. I like spending time in places where people pass along tips and recommendations about people they like, books they like, music they like, food they like, restaurants they like. Positive things.
There’s an abundance of bad news out there already, in all shapes and colours and sizes. So why add to it?
I think that places like Twitter are good-news places, with a positive emotional valence. More accurately, the subset of Twitter that I inhabit, made up of the people I follow and the people who follow me, that subset is a place with a positive emotional valence. So we tend to pass on good news, not bad.
It doesn’t mean that bad news does not get passed by Twitter, or by my subset perspective. Of course there’s bad news in Twitter. But there’s also humour. And satire. And old-fashioned good-neighbourliness. And a whole lot of good news.
Twitter tells us about the miracle on the Hudson as quickly as it tells us about the crash over the Atlantic. Let’s keep it that way, let’s make sure we keep the web a place where good news is spread, not just bad. Where we help each other. Where we’re kind to each other. Where we build each other up. Maybe it’s because so many of the people I know are themselves children of the Sixties, maybe it’s why I get accused of being utopian and rose-spectacled. You know what? I don’t care.
There’s a whole world out there doing just the opposite. So let’s keep the web different.