Journalists are puzzled, even miffed, when consumers complain about "bad" news. To us, it's like calling medicine "bad" because you only take it when you're sick.
The purpose of news is to point out things that need attending to, that citizens need to know about, after all. It's bad when important things go unreported, not the other way around.
A group of economists at Washington State University recently stumbled onto this rather simple truth through a study that looked at the way people use information from news articles to enhance their well-being and avoid losses.
Their model analyzed how much happiness consumers derived from choosing either bad or good news. The results showed greater individual benefit from reading the bad news.
Collectively, this tendency creates a societal preference for negative news stories said Washington State professor Jill McCluskey.
"Newspapers act on this demand by reporting more bad news to attract readers and sell more papers," she concluded, just as one might conclude that university professors conduct studies to raise their professional standing and improve their income.
In designing their study, the researchers built their model on an economic theory asserting that as an individual's income increases, the impact of each additional dollar diminishes.
"When you are very poor and hungry, for example, each dollar is worth a lot as it helps you buy enough food to eat," McCluskey said. "But once you have more money and can count on regular meals, it's the losses that will affect you more. In terms of happiness and well-being, a $1,000 loss will affect you more than a $1,000 windfall."
The same idea applies to information offered in newspapers, the Internet, TV or radio, she said. In their model, the researchers used a measurement called utility to assess the benefits or drawbacks people get from consuming a good or service - in this case, positive and negative news stories.
Their findings highlight a strong human tendency to avoid risk.
McCluskey said consumers read good news to glean information about benefits from a positive event, which might improve their own income or welfare. Reading about the success of a Fortune 500 company, for example, might help one decide to invest in their stock.
Bad news, on the other hand, provides information on how to avoid a negative event or loss to one's well-being. Reading bad news helps consumers avoid making bad choices.
"Food scares are a good illustration as they are widely covered by the media," McCluskey said. To protect their health, "people choose to avoid the suspected food - such as beef during the Mad Cow scare, or spinach with the E.coli outbreaks."
Over time, McCluskey said the model clearly showed individuals gain a greater advantage from reading bad news than good news. These consumers, either consciously or subconsciously, then continue to choose newspapers with more negative reporting.
In response, news outlets take advantage of that risk aversion to maximize their profits, she asserted.
Bad news badness
Despite its benefits to readers, bad news generates negative consequences of its own, the researchers found. For instance, too much bad news can be depressing to some people.
And bad news can lead to extended or exaggerated responses to a negative event.
"Even after the E. coli scare was over, people still wouldn't buy spinach. There can be a lot of impact on growers and wasted food with these scares," she said. McCluskey did not say whether the researchers thought some consumers might have avoided being poisoned by reading news reports of the E. coli outbreak.