Ben Adler’s CJR cover story on millenial media consumption habits and their implications for journalism is interesting throughout, but one particular theme he mentions that was novel to me is that people prefer to share upbeat stories:
The emphasis on sharing may result in even more soft, feel-good material. As the Times reported in May, “By scanning people’s brains and tracking their emails and online posts, neuroscientists and psychologists have found that good news can spread faster and farther than disasters and sob stories.” Jonah Berger, a social psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the Times: “When you share a story with your friends and peers, you care a lot more how they react. You don’t want them to think of you as a Debbie Downer.”
The convention in prognosticating about journalism is to arbitrarily assume that the old way is good and change is bad. Personally, I think a change to more positivity and less emphasis on Debbie Downer stories would be good. There is an extremely pronounced negativity bias in the way news coverage is traditionally done, and that misleads people and distorts our understanding of the world. If half a dozen people in some town somewhere get caught in some kind of food stamp fraud, that’s news. The fact that over the past several decades government transfer programs have led to a massive reduction in poverty and deprivation is not. If a middle-income country is hit by an earthquake that kills hundreds of people, that gets a lot of coverage. If a middle-income country enjoys 5 percent real income growth and rising living standards, that’s not news.
In general, journalists sometimes neglect the fact that even before the Internet the media business was still a business and publications were still pursuing business strategies. A kind of relentless negativity and alarmism was the dominant business strategy of 20th century print media. But it’s not the only way to be “serious” or to cover big issues. If social media makes people want to read and share positive stories about things they can be enthusiastic about, I say so much the better.