Some acquaintances asked over lunch a few days ago what people tend to read on our newspapers' websites.
My answer was the same as it's been for years. People tend to gravitate to what I call the 4 (and sometimes 5) Ds: death, disaster, destruction, debauchery (and sometimes dumb).
Study results released last week offer insight into why.
The study, by researchers at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, involved more than 1,000 people across 17 countries and concluded that, on average, people pay more attention to negative than positive news.
The findings, reported by the Los Angles Times, "hint that this human bias toward negative news might be a large part of what drives negative news coverage."
Among academics, one explanation for this bias was that "journalists were angry people and skeptics and they produced a bunch of negative content, and that was bad -- as in bad for democracy and bad for people reading news," Stuart Soroka, the study's lead author and a political science professor at the university, told the Times. "Our suspicion was that the way news looked wasn't purely a function of what journalists felt but more about what audiences responded to."
And so, we're back to the chicken-or-the-egg dilemma. This study, at least, tilts the scale toward the average reader's preference for negative over positive news than any journalistic inclination to present more of the former than the latter.
"But the results also revealed that this negative bias was not shared by everyone, and some even had a positive bias -- a sign that there may be a market for positive news," the Times reports. About 2 out of 5 participants showed either no bias toward negative news or a bias toward positive news.
"It's not the case that most people want mostly negative news all the time," Soroka told the newspaper. "And knowing that, I think, opens up other possibilities where news is concerned."
Hmm. We offer a decent number of stories that appeal to those who tell us they want to read about “positive” things happening in their community; we consider it part of our responsibility. Here are a few headlines from last week that accompany stories most reasonable people would define as positive:
• Teams wanted for Brooklyn’s Fight fundraiser to benefit Houma girl.
• State to provide $42 million for Lafourche storm protection.
• Volunteer comes full circle with CASA of Lafourche.
• Nicholls’ online business degree ranks highly for value.
• How one player delayed his dream to help Nicholls one last time.
All of them attracted attention from a lot of readers, but none made the top five most-read stories of the week. These did:
1. Lafourche School Board member arrested on theft charge.
2. Fleeing suspect killed in Houma crash, police say.
3. Houma man found dead after car crash had shot and killed himself, police say.
4. Alabama 14-year-old accused of killing 5 family members.
5. Sheriff: Shooting suspect turns himself in.
How about the rest of the top 10? Any positive news there?
6. Body of dock worker found in Port Fourchon.
7. Booked on the Bayou: Police report for Aug. 31 to Sept. 1.
8. Criminal charges for 7 Ohio students accused of serving teachers crepes tainted with urine, semen.
9. Grieving mother on crusade to fight drug addiction.
10. Live Music: Who's playing locally.
That last one proves the study's lead author right. It really isn't the case that people go for negative news all of the time. Just most of the time.
-- Courier and Daily Comet Executive Editor Keith Magill can be reached at 857-2201 or firstname.lastname@example.org.