Negative (& Positive) News

The Increasing Viability of Good News

This short book project, forthcoming in 2021, was motivated in part by the valence of news in 2020 about both the COVID-19 pandemic and Black Lives Matter. The Increasing Viability of Good News is coauthored with Yanna Krupnikov and is now forthcoming in Cambridge Elements in Politics and Communication. Our argument is as follows: In spite of what appears to be the increasingly negative tone of media coverage, the prevalence of positive news is likely to increase, for three reasons: (1) valence-based asymmetries vary over time, (2) valence-based asymmetries vary across individuals, and (3) technology facilitates diverse news platforms catering to diverse preferences. Each of these claims is examined in detail in our manuscript, based on analyses of prior and/or novel data on media content, psychophysiological responses, and survey-based experiments. Results are considered as they related to our understanding of media gatekeeping, political communication, and political psychology; and also as actionable findings for producers of media content, communications platforms, and media consumers. 

Attention to Negative News: Evolutionary and Cultural Accounts

This 2014-2020 project was funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, the LSA at the University of Michigan, and the Hebrew University. The project is a collaboration between myself, Patrick Fournier and Lilach Nir; papers are published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Political Communication, and the American Political Science Review. (Related work relying on physiological experimentation was published with Stephen McAdams in Political Communication, with Elisabeth Gidengil in Politics and Gender, with Penelope Daignault and Thierry Giasson in the CJC, and Johanna Dunaway and Vin Arceneaux in PLOS ONE.)

This research program focuses on the human tendency to give more weight to negative information than to positive information. The importance of this “negativity bias” in the political sphere is clear. Negativity biases affect the content of political news, and structure the content of political debate; attentiveness to negative information has also been linked to voting behavior and policy preferences. It follows that negativity biases have a significant effect on the nature, quality and functioning of representative democracy. Inadequate or biased political knowledge, systematic biases in what citizens perceive about their governments and the world around them, citizen apathy and disengagement — these are just some of the consequences attributed to negativity in politics. Where does this negativity bias come from? Is it reinforced (and perhaps worsened) by political and media institutions? These are the questions that motivate this project. 

Our lab-experimental, psychophysiological research centers around one question in particular: Does the negativity bias, evident in our reactions to news content, vary across countries and cultures? There is no research that currently provides an answer, but answering this question is central to understanding where negativity biases come from in the first place. The answer also has important implications for how we understand political communication, behavior (including policy preferences, and political participation), and institutions.

The project involved experiments run in 17 countries over a five-year period. Preliminary results were presented at conferences including the Toronto Political Behavior Workshop, the Hendricks Symposium, ICA, MPSA, and the NYU CESS 10th Annual Experimental Political Science Conference. The Methododological Appendix to our PNAS paper explains in more detail the structure of our experiments. The main project papers are listed below.

Negativity in Democratic Politics

Negativity in Democratic Politics: Causes and Consequences was published by Cambridge University Press in 2014. The book explores the political implications of the human tendency to prioritize negative information over positive information. Drawing on literatures in political science, psychology, economics, communications, biology, and physiology, the book argues that ‘negativity biases’ should be evident across a wide range of political behaviors. These biases are then demonstrated through a diverse and cross-disciplinary set of analyses, for instance: in citizens’ ratings of presidents and prime ministers; in aggregate-level reactions to economic news; in the relationship between covers and newsmagazine sales; and in individuals’ physiological reactions to network news content. The pervasiveness of negativity biases extends, this book suggests, to the functioning of political institutions – institutions that have been designed to prioritize negative information in the same way as the human brain. Some of the papers related to this project, leading up to the book, are below.

These books and project papers are included on the Political Communication page.