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very day the news is filled with stories about war, terrorism, crime, pollution, inequality, drug abuse and oppression. And it’s not just the headlines we’re talking about; it’s the op-eds and long-form stories as well. Magazine covers warn us of coming anarchies, plagues, epidemics, collapses, and so many “crises” (farm, health, retirement, welfare, energy, deficit) that copywriters have had to escalate to the redundant “serious crisis.”
Whether or not the world really is getting worse, the nature of news will interact with the nature of cognition to make us think that it is.
The data scientist Kalev Leetaru applied a technique called sentiment mining to every article published in the New York Times between 1945 and 2005, and to an archive of translated articles and broadcasts from 130 countries between 1979 and 2010. Sentiment mining assesses the emotional tone of a text by tallying the number and contexts of words with positive and negative connotations, like good, nice, terrible, and horrific.
Putting aside the wiggles and waves that reflect the crises of the day, we see that the impression that the news has become more negative over time is real. The New York Times got steadily more morose from the early 1960s to the early 1970s, lightened up a bit (but just a bit) in the 1980s and 1990s, and then sank into a progressively worse mood in the first decade of the new century. News outlets in the rest of the world, too, became gloomier and gloomier from the late 1970s to the present day.
Bornstein and Rosenberg don’t blame the usual culprits (cable TV, social media, late-night comedians) but instead trace it to the shift during the Vietnam and Watergate eras from glorifying leaders to checking their power—with an overshoot toward indiscriminate cynicism, in which everything about America’s civic actors invites an aggressive takedown.
It’s easy to see how the Availability heuristic, stoked by the news policy “If it bleeds, it leads,” could induce a sense of gloom about the state of the world. Media scholars who tally news stories of different kinds, or present editors with a menu of possible stories and see which they pick and how they display them, have confirmed that the gatekeepers prefer negative to positive coverage, holding the events constant.
The consequences of negative news are themselves negative. Far from being better informed, heavy newswatchers can become miscalibrated. They worry more about crime, even when rates are falling, and sometimes they part company with reality altogether: a 2016 poll found that a large majority of Americans follow news about Isis closely, and 77% agreed that “Islamic militants operating in Syria and Iraq pose a serious threat to the existence or survival of the United States,” a belief that is nothing short of delusional.