Is The U.S. Media Overly Negative?
Researchers at Dartmouth College and Brown University recently discovered two interesting things about media coverage of events surrounding COVID-19 after reviewing all related news articles from major media sources worldwide since the beginning of 2020. The first is that their audience (us) – regardless of country – strongly prefers negative stories over positive ones. The second is that U.S. media coverage has been significantly more negative as compared to the same coverage in foreign media and scientific journals. And the results appear to be independent of political leanings.
The fact that we consumers of news prefer to read or hear about tragedies, disasters, liars, and cheaters more than we do about the good things happening in the world ought to be a gold mine for psychologists. Are we really so titillated by bad news? What is wrong with us?
With respect to the second finding, the authors suggest that the more negatively-tilted media coverage in the U.S. results from a greater lack of fair and balanced laws regulating media reporting. In other words, people all over the world want dirt, and the media is happy to provide it, but other governments do a better job of controlling the tone, at least with respect to COVID-19. If true, perhaps it’s a consequence of our strong protections around freedom of speech. But is this a valid inference for all media topics? In the U.K., for example, the tabloid press seems to have operated even more unfettered than ours for many decades. When it comes to politics, though, I have to say media negativity in this country does appear to have been growing steadily. Political reporting has become more and more about scandals and verbal missteps and less and less about issues and policies.
In particular does any of this apply to the financial media? My non-validated impression is that they tend to exacerbate whatever direction the economy and capital markets are heading. The Dow isn’t just up today or this week. It’s soaring. The NASDAQ didn’t decline last week, it plummeted. But it would be interesting to find out if financial reporting exhibits this same negativity bias.
What I most commonly disapprove of with respect to the financial media is their apparent compulsion to offer a reason behind events regardless of any logical basis. For example, “The S&P 500 fell thirty points today on fears of inflation.” How do they know why the average large cap stock price index dropped? Perhaps it’s because there happened to be a lot of selling that day by profit takers. Or investors dumping one highly weighted stock which consequently pulled down the index average. If you don’t know why something is happening, don’t speculate. That’s not news.
The Dartmouth study was based on news reports from fourteen U.S. media outlets such as Fox, MSNBC, and the New York Times together with another thirty-nine foreign sources. Not included were any social media sites. For good reason. So many social media sites have demonstrated a complete disregard for any journalistic standards, let alone even basic credibility. The media may not be perfect. And ours may tend to be more negative. But there’s a lot worse out there.