Tuesday, September 04, 2007
RESEARCH: Pew roundup study finds "bad news sells" according to Greenslade
LINK TO PEW STUDY (pdf download):
STUDY AUTHOR'S COMMENTARY:
By Roy Greenslade
The Guardian Unlimited
Tuesday September 4 2007
The good news about bad news - it sells
What news do we read and why? I'm always suspicious of surveys that try to discover the answer to the first of those questions because I believe people tend to lie to researchers, claiming to have an intense interest in serious news while, in practice, ignoring it in favour of somewhat lighter material. Even allowing for that, a recent American survey does appear to have revealed at least one interesting detail about news consumption.
The Pew research centre survey, Two decades of American news preferences, is a synthesis of 165 separate surveys across the United States, so it is should be regarded as an accurate snapshot. (Its author, Michael Robinson, provides a helpful short commentary here). One of its central findings is that, over the course of 20 years, peoples' interests have remained remarkably similar. In short, they are war, weather, disaster, money and crime. In a list of 19 categories, "celebrity scandals" come last. I wish.
Anyway, whether that's entirely true or not, the finding that I do believe concerns the overall changing level of interest in news. According to the survey, the percentage of people who claim to follow the news "very closely" dropped from 30% during the 1980s to 23% during 1990s before jumping back to 30% in this decade. As Columbia Journalism Review's Curtis Brainard argues, that swing has less to do with changes in information technology than with changes in world events, or "reality" as Robinson calls it.
In other words, peoples' interest in news is much more intense when there is a perceived threat to their way of life. They care much less about what happens around them when they enjoy relative peace and/or relative prosperity. I think there is extra proof for this in studying the greater level of interest in news in developing societies and emergent democracies. Fear and poverty stimulate greater interest in news.
Note how fear in developed countries, created in recent times by terrorism, also sells many thousands more newspapers. That apart, the lack of interest in news is traceable to the comfort provided by relative affluence. This aspect of self-interest - or, more pejoratively, selfishness - may be unsurprising. But it does have all sorts of ramifications for news-gatherers.
First, it implies that the regular calls for papers to publish "good news" rather than bad is largely a waste of time. People are stimulated to read by the latter. They want to know what has gone wrong rather than what has gone right. Second, it reminds us that "real news" - about events - wins far greater attention than "manufactured news", about personalities and scandals. Third, it proves that journalists face an uphill task in trying to tell people what is happening. The audience just isn't reading or listening.
And fourth? I realise I may be overstating this, but it does suggest that people do not bother to inform themselves about what is being done by those who govern them in periods between the eruption of crises. This means that they are not aware of the complexities of problems until it is too late for them to take a coherent stance for or against policy decisions. This situation tends to favour political leaders.
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