Mar 24, 2023

Some very sad, terrible news to share.

Dear readers,

Today I'm writing to share some really unfortunate news: You can’t resist opening an article like this.

Everything is okay. This headline is clickbait — something I steadfastly avoid while producing Tangle. But I hope you'll forgive me this one time and allow me to make an important point.

Consuming news of the awful is addicting.

Headlines that evoke emotion like this one continue to thrive. In the media, this fact is so well known that you’ve probably heard the industry cliche, "if it bleeds, it leads." Local newspapers and television stations have understood our addiction to the awful for as long as there has been news, but it's a fact we don't talk about nearly enough. More specifically, it's a fact whose consequences we don't talk about nearly enough.

Negativity bias is something we are all familiar with, whether implicitly or explicitly. I get hundreds of emails a day, most of which are positive — people thanking me for Tangle, saying they love the newsletter, letting me know I changed their mind, or just a simple note like, "great piece!" A handful of those emails, though, are from people who have unsubscribed or are mad about something, writing in to tell me how much I suck, how terrible my product is, what a total fraud I am. For whatever reason, those are the emails that stick with me, the ones I reply to first, and the ones I'm thinking about before I go to bed every night.

This observation is not just anecdotal but backed by numerous different kinds of research, which have produced a variety of alarming takeaways. Researchers measure the frequency of negative news by looking for specific words in headlines and articles that evoke negative emotion. Over the years, negative news has become more common. Until 2013, negative news was more common on the right than the left, but in the decade since, left-leaning news outlets have increased their negative news output substantially. Vox’s Dylan Matthews recently reported on a study in the mid 2000s, which found that about half of the U.S., German, Italian, and Austrian campaign coverage conveyed bad news, while as little as 6 percent reported on good news.

Researchers have also found that for both right-leaning and left-leaning media, negative news spreads faster on Twitter than positive news. As a result, there are incentives for news organizations to publish more negative news than positive news. Consider, for instance, a scenario where a news outlet publishes one article about a bus crash that kills 10 children, and another article about a new invention for an automated braking system that reduces bus crashes by 85%. They put both on their homepage. If the bus crash story gets 100,000 views, and the brake system story gets 1,000 views, news outlets have an obvious incentive to do more of the former.

Unfortunately, we also know the impact consuming this type of news has on people. Today, consumption of nonstop negative news, regardless of its impact on our depression and anxiety, is so common it has its own name: "Doomscrolling."

Studies have linked deteriorating mental health to news exposure through major events like terrorist attacks or natural disasters. The more news a person consumed during or after the event, the more likely they were to be anxious and depressed. One study, in which participants were shown positive, negative and neutral news bulletins, found that the people exposed to the negative ones didn't just worry more about the specific issue or topic covered, but worried more about unrelated private concerns.

Again, while it's anecdotal, I've seen this in my own work, too. The number one reason people unsubscribe from this newsletter — more than partisan anger or disagreement about something I wrote — is that they have "news fatigue." Often, they write in with some version of "it's not you, it's me," as a way of explaining that they simply can't keep reading about politics right now because it is having such a negative impact on their mental health.

There are other, less obvious impacts negative news has on people besides inducing stress or increasing depression and anxiety.

Psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman have observed what they call the "Availability heuristic." This is the idea that people estimate the probability of an event or how often something happens by how easily they can recall instances of that event. In plain terms: We think things happen more often if we experience or learn of examples of those things. The classic case is plane crashes, which always make the news. People are much more scared of flying than driving, despite the fact that driving is exponentially more dangerous.

The implications of this phenomenon in political reporting are fascinating.

If you are someone who reads political news regularly, and you are consuming news about — oh, I don't know — presidents on both sides purportedly breaking the law, corrupt political families, war, lying politicians, and partisan gridlock... then you might come to think that all politicians are corrupt, lying warmongers who get nothing done. And, presumably, you will think this is much more true than it actually is, in part because news outlets spend much less time covering politicians who aren't being arrested or charged with crimes or starting wars, and much less time covering the bipartisan compromises that happen every day in government.

Even worse, this effect can make frequent news watchers less informed. A regular newswatcher might think, for instance, that crime is getting worse even when it’s getting better, simply because the increasingly negative news is covering crime a lot more.

And this raises an important question: Is this a supply side issue or a demand side issue? Is this my fault as a journalist, or yours as a reader?

As cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker put it, there is an inherent quality about news that creates problems for journalists — news is about things happening.

"We never see a journalist saying to the camera, 'I’m reporting live from a country where a war has not broken out'— or a city that has not been bombed, or a school that has not been shot up," he wrote. "As long as bad things have not vanished from the face of the earth, there will always be enough incidents to fill the news, especially when billions of smartphones turn most of the world’s population into crime reporters and war correspondents."

Pinker also pointed to the Norwegian peace and conflict researcher Johan Galtung, who pegged the issue as being more about time and scale. If a newspaper only came out once every 50 years, Galtung argues, rather than once a day, it would not report on a half century of celebrity gossip and political scandal. Instead, it would write about the momentous global changes like the increase in life expectancy and the advances in science. It would, in real terms, likely produce much more uplifting reporting. Unfortunately, the frequency of news is increasing, not decreasing, and so we're reporting ever more incrementally on all the bad things that are happening instead.

Ultimately, though, news is a business. And the greatest challenge with any business is keeping the lights on. I'm sad to report this, but, while we in the media have to own responsibility for sloppy reporting, misleading our viewers, and doing a bad job addressing our own biases, there is an overwhelming mountain of evidence that the real negative news problem is you. It's us. It's humans.

There is an evolutionary argument here that we are all basically hardwired to prioritize negative information, because the potential costs of ignoring that information far outweigh the potential benefits of seeking positive information. I just saw an NBC News story about tainted eye drops that have been recalled. People are using a common brand of eye drops that have been contaminated with bacteria and that bacteria is infecting people's eyeballs. Three people have died and several others have lost their eyes or gone blind. Some of the eyedrops are still circulating.

The story is here.

Try not to click it.

Why is it so hard to resist reading that story? It actually makes sense. If you or someone you know uses eye drops, you want to know: What brand? What happened? How do I avoid the contaminated product? The perceived costs of not learning more are much higher than the potential benefits of, say, a feel-good story about a new, more effective brand of eyedrops.

Readers often broach this topic with me: “Why is the media so negative? Why do you always cover bad stories?” The answer appears to be you, the reader. If you're thinking to yourself, "Well, actually, I would really love some more good news in my life!" Well, I've actually got some bad news for you. Even people who say they want good news don't actually click on it when it's available.

Personally, I have no idea what percentage of Tangle readers will open this email. I sent it to our entire mailing list, despite being a subscribers-only Friday edition, because I think this topic is important. But, I'd be willing to bet that by Monday, this will be the most opened email of the week. Why? You tell me. If it's true for you, why were you more inclined to open this than a newsletter about a TikTok ban or Vladimir Putin's arrest warrant?

One answer may be as simple as the subject line. A study published in Nature found that, "for a headline of average length, each additional negative word increased the click-through rate by 2.3%." That means the headline "Bus Crashes On Highway Outside Philadelphia" will get clicked about 10% to 20% less often than "Tragic Bus Accident Kills 10 in Worst Day For Car Accidents in Pennsylvania History."

Occasionally, the answer may actually have something to do with the publishers — or, at least, the platforms. From 2016 to 2019, we know that Facebook’s algorithms were giving "anger" emoji reactions to posts five times as much weight as "likes" when it decided which posts to show to other users. The result, unsurprisingly, is that really anger-inducing posts proliferated on Facebook during that time. But these instances of supplied outrage are less ubiquitous than the demand for news of the awful.

There are alternatives, though. A few years ago, I took some classes from the Solutions Journalism Network, which teaches journalists how to focus on the problem solvers rather than the problem causers in their reporting. In Tangle, we end every newsletter with a "Have a nice day" story and regularly try to push back on the firehose of negativity. We've published stories arguing why it’s still ethical to have kids, fighting the notion that doomerism is noble, and I once wrote about all the great things happening for my wife.

But it's not easy. There really is something inherently negative about the events that most capture our attention. Just look at this week of Tangle: The potential indictment of a former president, an arrest warrant for a war criminal, the anniversary of a bloody and failed war, and the potential ban of a social media app seen as a security threat that also hurts teenagers’ mental health. Regardless of whether there might be positive elements to some of those stories, they all have a negative tone. And as much as I don’t want to cover negative stories incessantly, the forces at play — what readers are interested in, what other news outlets are covering, what feels important — just push me there.

It takes digging to find the politicians, activists, journalists, and private companies who are making things better, not worse. That's doubly true when our partisan divides make us disagree so much on what actually constitutes "better" and "worse" in the first place.

Still, it is up to all of us to fight back against the negative forces of news. You can consider this a call to action. Not a political one — but a call to seek out the problem solvers, elevate the good, and click on some stories that might bring you hope, rather than despair. On my end, I’m committed to continue sharing some feel-good stories in our daily newsletter, and to do a better job of giving some attention to the folks who seem to be making good faith efforts to improve our country. There’s plenty to choose from: America's successful war on poverty, the successful "decarceration" happening without increasing crime, the increase in rural internet access, or even the 20-year-high of bipartisan legislation.

We shouldn't (and probably couldn't) ignore the many things that are broken and messy and difficult about our country, but if we only spend our time focusing on those things, we'll end up missing all the decent and productive people and stories out there.

That won't just weigh on our own well-being, as the evidence suggests it already does, but it will also limit our opportunities in the future to build on the good. How could it not, if we don’t even know the good exists?

Enjoyed this piece?

Before you go...

One of the most common questions I get in Tangle is "can you do more international news?" or "what about a Tangle for Country X?" While we focus primarily on politics in the United States, I am thrilled to announce a new partnership with DailyChatter, an international news organization built in the same ethos as Tangle. It's the most neutral, even-handed international round-up I've found, and one of the first reads for me every morning. You can try it for 2 weeks for free, and it's just $29.95 a year after that. 84% of all users who try DailyChatter for free stick around after their trial. Sign up here. So far, the feedback from Tangle readers has been great!

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Isaac Saul
I'm a politics reporter who grew up in Bucks County, PA — one of the most politically divided counties in America. I'm trying to fix the way we consume political news.