The allure of bad news

by Mark Reynolds

Negativity! Untruths! Politics! According to associate professor of political science Stuart Soroka, that opening sentence alone means that you are more likely to read this story than, say, an adjacent one about an alumnus devoting themselves to alleviating global poverty.

“When you ask people directly, they say ‘Yeah, I think media should be less negative.’ But there is this strange divergence, where you have people saying they want the media to be more positive, but then you have the media systematically using negative information to get their audience,” says Soroka.

Soroka set out explain the discrepancy. He enrolled volunteers for a study requiring a purported “eye tracking” test. They were told that to calibrate the eye tracking software they had to browse a series of pre-selected articles on Canadian politics featuring headlines balanced to be either positive or negative in tone.

Respondents were more likely to read negative news stories, no matter their stated preference for positive ones. And, says Soroka, such a result might not be a bad thing.

Soroka, who has a forthcoming book on the subject (Negativity in Democratic Politics, University of Cambridge Press) points out that our entire political system is built on negatives – official oppositions check the government, the Senate checks the Commons, the courts check Parliament. The media fit right in: “When you look at the role of media in democracy, it is to monitor and identify error. It is to be a watchdog,” says Soroka.

People aren’t irredeemable pessimists or cynics, according to Soroka: “We pay attention to what is furthest from our expectations, and humans tend to think optimistically. We expect things to be at least marginally positive, and that means that negativity is farther from our expectations.”