People nowadays get their news online, putting the digital news media in a relentless fight for its readers’ attention and engagement. With such a fierce daily battle, combined with the reality of how online media is crucial in informing, educating, and influencing opinions through its news, it’s fundamental to find out what motivates news consumption, and what readers and viewers want to see.
A journal called Nature Human Behavior recently released a study and answered everyone’s question, because it’s true: “Negativity Drives Online News Consumption“. The study confirmed that news headlines with negative emotional words essentially increase the rate of news consumption among online users. The presence of positive words in a news headline significantly decreases the likelihood of a headline being clicked on, the study said. Sad, but, yes, the internet loves negative news.
Covering 22,743 Randomized Control trials (RCTs) and with over 105,000 variety of news headlines from Upworthy, the study juxtaposed all RCTs headlines with the same news category and analyzed each spawned click-through rate (CTR), which specified the ratio of clicks per impression. These sets of headlines produced an estimated 5.7 clicks, equivalent to more than 370 impressions. While some it was observed that the results are akin to traditional news portals, it is also worth noting that Upworthy is not entirely similar to traditional news because of its ‘click-bait’ headline practices, such as “Incredible service dog catches a homerun at a baseball game,” and such stuff. Thus, the study did not directly imply that Upworthy’s headlines and news sites’ headlines correspond to each other.
The study’s findings revealed that the more negative language used in a certain news headline, the higher click-throughs the specific news item generates. However, the higher percentage of positive language used proved that it apparently decreased click-throughs. It also showed that lengthy headlines (with roughly 15 words) bearing even a single negative word increased click-through by more than 2%. On the contrary, a positive word in a news headline significantly decreases the likelihood of click-throughs by 1.0%.
In the headlines analyzed, positive words are higher in number (at 2.83%) than negative words (only at 2.62%). Thus, click-throughs were significantly low (with an average of 1.39% across all trial experiments and a median rate of 1.07%). While the chosen headlines covered topics such as economy, entertainment, and lifestyle, among many others, the study observed no difference in click-throughs given the headline categories. Moreover, the study also evaluated the effects of emotions such as anger, fear, joy, and sadness, and found out that there is a statistically significant and positive coefficient for “sadness” that increases the likelihood of a user clicking the headline by 0.7%, while a statistically important negative effect for “joy” and “fear” reduces the probability of a user clicking on a headline by 0.9% and 0.7%, respectively. There was no statistical gauge for “anger.”
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What does this say about us, newsreaders?
Is anyone even surprised by these findings? Not us. Honestly, when I came across the headline of the study, I felt bad and sad, but I knew I had to read it, so I clicked! This proves that negative news inherently gets more attention than it should, like a knee-jerk reaction, at least for me and most people. In fact, there is this newsroom adage, “If it bleeds, it leads,” “reflecting a culture among news sites to tell more stories about crime, death, bloodshed, calamities, and such disturbing tragedies, using headlines peppered with sadness and catastrophe to get more attention. However, the blame should not be centered on journalists and editors because, after all, these headlines are what audiences like to read, click on, and subscribe to, and news portals merely feel the need to structure their coverage to cater to the choices and dispositions of their consumers. Negativity is a human problem, not a newsmaker’s or digital news site’s problem.
New York University’s Claire E. Robertson, a co-author of the paper, noticed how basically bad news easily gets more attention, as it probably should. She also said that even when controlling for the same news story, bordering more negatively increases engagement. She also noted that although news makes up a small segment of the whole online content, this is where negativity seems to have the largest lift for engagement. Robertson also shared and validated, in her research, several other studies showing that people are ‘especially likely’ to consume political and economic news ‘when it is negative’ and noted how people who post, and retweet are both in the minority of online users and tend to be more extreme than the average user. When taking this into account, Robertson said, it’s logical that high-arousal content is most often shared or posted, even when it’s not what people are most interested in.
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While online news is a bizarre and barely a small subsection of the internet, driven by an even weirder and minor set of writers and consumers who have subsidized an ecology where negative emotion prompts more sharing and clicks, bad news remains to be that—bad news that really happens daily—and not just something that is conjured by traffic-chasing headline writers.
Read before you retweet
It is also important to read before you retweet or share on your own social media pages. Given that today’s buzzwords are “fake news,” “disinformation,” “misinformation,” and “deepfakes,” the “think before you click” tagline is critical. In an era where fake news (tenaciously fashioned, sensational, emotionally charged, misleading, or totally fabricated information that imitates mainstream news), disinformation (purposely deceptive or biased information; manipulated narrative or facts; propaganda), and misinformation (false material that is spread, regardless of whether there is intent to deceive) abound, understanding how false information is shared (including the underlying intentions behind it) is key to battling it.
While it is obvious that news headlines fiercely compete for engagement and attention, some news must have gotten a little too mundane for some people (including me, to some extent, and I don’t even know why!). But I also believe that a lot of the problems in the world are nothing but a downstream of systems that have gotten overly good at optimizing. Perhaps the measurable spin in media is intensifying the bad-news bias of news organizations, making certain consumers (who are evidently more interested in clicking on and sharing bad news) now considered ‘co-pilots’ to this bad-news bias.
All things considered, the culture of violence, sadness, and negativity is bad for our brains. But, come to think of it, internet users love bad news. And that’s bad news!
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