A study from economics and policy researchers revealed that the buying habits of news consumers drive media organizations to cover and publicize negative stories. In other words, the public actually demands bad news and the media is merely responding to an apparent market demand.
Jill McCluskey, professor from the School of Economic Sciences at Washington State University, and her colleagues at the University of Leuven in Belgium observed and analyzed the phenomenon involving the dissemination of negative information under the lens of economic science.
The researchers built a model based on the Buyer’s Remorse Theory, which asserts that as the income of an individual increases, the impact of each additional dollar diminishes.
“When you are very poor and hungry, for example, each dollar is worth a lot as it helps you buy enough food to eat,” said McCluskey. “But once you have more money and can count on regular meals, it’s the losses that will affect you more. In terms of happiness and wellbeing, a $1,000 loss will affect you more than a $1,000 windfall.”
The same theory applies to information from media—including newspapers, television, and the Internet. To be specific, the researchers designed a model that assessed the utility or benefits and drawbacks people get from consuming positive and negative new stories. Their model illustrated how news consumers use information from bad news articles to enhance their wellbeing and avoid losses. In other words, this means people get more value from consuming bad news than good news.
Good news simply helps news consumers to obtain beneficial information that come from a positive event. Bad news, on the other hand, helps news consumers to obtain information necessary for them to understand how to avoid the losses that come from a negative event. Note that the Buyer’s Remorse Theory suggests that losses affect an individual more than the acquisition of beneficial information from a positive event.
This collective inclination creates a societal preference for negative news stories. The media responds to a market demand by covering and reporting more bad news to attract more audience and in the case of newspapers, to attract more readers and sell more papers.
However, despite the benefits obtained from consuming bad news, the researchers also identified several consequences from doing so. These include depression or anxiety, heightened irrational panic, and exaggerated responses.
Further details of the study are in the article “You get what you want: A note on the economics of bad news” published in the journal Information Economics and Policy. Coauthors include Johan Swinnen and Thijs Vandemoortele.