If we’re constantly telling a negative story, we are not giving our audience the most accurate portrait of reality. We are shading it. We are doing a good job telling you why Covid cases are rising in some places and how the vaccines are imperfect — but not such a good job explaining why cases are falling elsewhere or how the vaccines save lives. Perhaps most important, we are not being clear about which Covid developments are truly alarming.
As Ranjan Sehgal, another co-author, told me, “The media is painting a picture that is a little bit different from what the scientists are saying.”
Why the bad-news bias?
The researchers say they are not sure what explains their findings, but they do have a leading contender: The U.S. media is giving the audience what it wants.
When the researchers examined which stories were the most read or the most shared on Facebook, they tended to be the most negative stories. To put it another way, the stories that people choose to read skew even more negative than the stories that media organizations choose to publish. “Human beings, particularly consumers of major media, like negativity in their stories,” Sacerdote said. “We think the major media are responding to consumer demand.”
That idea is consistent with the patterns in the data, Sacerdote added: It makes sense that national publications have better instincts about reaching a large audience than, say, science journals. And overseas, some of the most influential English-language media organizations — like the BBC — have long received government funding, potentially making them less focused on consumer demand.
All of that sounds plausible to me, but I don’t think it is the full explanation. I have worked in media for nearly three decades, and I think you might be surprised by how little time journalists spend talking about audience size. We care about it, obviously, but most journalists I know care much more about other factors, like doing work that has an impact.
In the modern era of journalism — dating roughly to the Vietnam War and Watergate — we tend to equate impact with asking tough questions and exposing problems. There are some good reasons for that. We are inundated by politicians, business executives, movie stars and others trying to portray themselves in the best light. Our job is to cut through the self-promotion and find the truth. If we don’t tell you the bad news, you may never hear it.