255 - Bad News Sells Newspapers

I have long felt that the old sayings “If it bleeds, it leads” and the one I use in the title line are untrue. I particularly have long felt that the attention to bad news doesn’t attract me to buying a paper. I try here to find out to what extent there is evidence either way.

Several studies by the Pew Center [2] in Washington (DC USA, not County Durham) relate, but [4,5] provided a good start. Spread across two decades and limited to the US news services, it reveals that what can be called taste in news has barely changed, that the overall interest has barely changed, with disasters and money news topping the charts and tabloid and foreign at the foot. Table to the right, inset. See [3] for a readable article starting from the same report. What [3] reports is that papers change what they offer far faster than their audience responds. What I found interesting was those items where the press over-reported and under-reported – where they gave so much volume that the interest was sated or left wanting. I am far from sure that the feedback loop is short enough for this observation to help papers change what they offer, but I note that, for instance, the Guardian (UK) indicates which topics are having the most hits on a daily basis, so this may well be informing them directly.

Source [5] gives a helpful list:

Our study concluded, “Although there are exceptions to every rule, we have found that news stories must generally satisfy one or more of the following requirements” if they are to be selected: 

  1. The power elite: Stories concerning powerful individuals, organisations or institutions.
  2. Celebrity: Stories concerning people who are already famous.
  3. Entertainment: Stories concerning sex, show-business  human interest, animals, an unfolding drama, or offering opportunities for humorous treatment, entertaining photographs or witty headlines.
  4. Surprise: Stories that have an element of surprise and/or contrast.
  5. Bad news: Stories with particularly negative overtones, such as conflict or tragedy.
  6. Good news: Stories with particularly positive overtones, such as rescues and cures.
  7. Magnitude: Stories that are perceived as sufficiently significant either in the numbers of people involved or in potential impact.
  8. Relevance: Stories about issues, groups and nations perceived to be relevant to the audience.
  9. Follow-up: Stories about subjects already in the news.
  10. Newspaper agenda: Stories that set or fit the news organisation's own agenda (Harcup and O'Neill 2001Harcup, Tony, and DeirdreO'Neill2001. “What is News? Galtung and Ruge Revisited.” Journalism Studies 2 (2): 261280. doi: 10.1080/14616700118449[Taylor & Francis Online][Google Scholar], 278–279).

This was offered, not as the last word on news values, merely as a contribution towards “rendering news selection a more transparent and better-understood process” (Harcup and O'Neill 2001Harcup, Tony, and DeirdreO'Neill2001. “What is News? Galtung and Ruge Revisited.” Journalism Studies 2 (2): 261280. doi: 10.1080/14616700118449[Taylor & Francis Online][Google Scholar], 279).

Inevitably there is significant confusion with what is read being shown to be newsworthy; just because we ‘all’ read a something doesn’t mean we’re actually better informed, except that we are informed about the current fracas being observed. Whatever the latest outrageous statement by Mr Trump, one can dispute whether this is indeed ‘news’, unless his pronouncement is used as an excuse to inform the readers what it is that he has understood or misunderstood about the issue. We might improve our understandings of any such issue if we assume (temporarily) that his office has access to far better information than the rest of us, so whatever extreme statement he comes up with just might be based on something we really do want to know. In which case, one would like to be better informed. So I distinguish between froth—the he said, she said, content; the celebrity behaviour; a good deal of the politics-that-isn’t—and news that genuinely informs. As such, and as I wrote at the start of this paragraph, we easily confuse the measure of ‘everybody is reading this’ with the better test ‘people felt informed after reading this’. So in many ways I wish to distinguish between what I’d like to call gossip and what I need to be told about.

But wanting to be told that which I need to know is a tall order that seems quite beyond the press as it exists today. The list of points above tells us what it is that journalists choose to write about, or what it is that the editors encourage their journalists to write about. So we are left wondering about ‘news values’. I have no doubt that to a large extent a journalist, like everyone else, works in response to short-term and local approbation, or its lack. [5] gives several academic references if you want to explore this further by that means. For example, Schultz argues that six news values dominate: timeliness, relevance, identification, conflict, sensation and exclusivity. Being first with a story—exclusivity—adds value for producers who must attract audiences, and can override other news values, such as timeliness. For Schultz, a distinction can be drawn between three types of news value:
• undisputed, taken-for-granted and rarely articulated news values, which she calls
doxic news values; 
• and explicit news values:  either 
dominant, undisputed orthodox values, or 
debatable, dominated (heterodox) news values (195–196). 
O’Neill suggests a hierarchy of news values may exist, with celebrity  dominating, not just in the popular press but also in “quality” UK newspapers.

There seems to be a critical element of timeliness. For example, David Attenborough has been banging on about pollution, including plastics pollution for a long long time, yet it was the content in one particular tv programme that caused there to be a sea change in opinion in the UK. Not the first by any means, but somehow the one that made a difference. Discovering why and how would be interesting, don’t you think? There were reports about plastic pollution way back in the 60s. Example, evidence. Do research this for yourself; it has been there for us to know for most of my life (let alone yours). 

In a similar way, we have tv programmes purporting to encourage us into a far lower use of plastics. I have watched several of these and the take-home message fo me has been ‘This is too difficult’, by which I might also mean too expensive, too time-consuming, too much bother and so on, including thinking it is largely not ‘my’ problem. If suppliers offer me a choice of with and without film plastic wrapping, I already know which I’ll do. I’m close to boycotting Subway ‘cos their salads come in plastic and they’re not interested in re-usable anything, while their site says otherwise. So I have decided that I’ll support any move by any company to reduce plastic, even at extra cost or at extra risk (of contamination, for example), but I’m not prepared to do very much more about the recycling issue, much of which thinking is explained in other essays on this site.

The Seattle Times made a fair attempt at answering the question ‘What sells newspapers’ [7], claiming that what sells newspapers is, more or less equallynews, news features and, believe it or not, advertising. But, yet again, the evidence is based on what they printed. They point out, quite correctly, that the two editions that sold out contained discount coupons for a major airline. Quite clearly this caused additional sales. But that goes only a very little way towards explaining what it is that changes the sales of a paper.

Source [8] from Journalism at Oxford (my abbreviation)  provided the two colourful graphs I reproduce here. Analysis of the data collected by social media tells us what people read, but will never tell us what people really wanted to know. Or needed to be told. What we have is an enormous echo chamber. Here’s some relevant comment from [8]Interestingly, the British population has a somewhat mixed view of the news they get, the media who provide it, and the journalists who produce it.  
First of all, only about a third see the media as free from undue political influence, and just over a quarter as free from undue commercial influence.
Second, the journalistic profession does not fare much better. 29% say they trust journalists “most of the time” — a much lower figure than the 50% who say they trust the news that journalists produce.
If we break down the trust figures by whether people consider themselves politically on the left, in the centre, or on the right, it is clear that people on the left in the UK have particularly low levels of trust in news, whereas a majority on the centre and the right say they trust news “most of the time.”

The questionnaire used in [8] just before the last UK election, established that, when using online sources for news, those who searched looked at typically 3 or 4 sources, and those who didn’t search looked at about half as many (but clearly didn’t stop at the first). But that might be a comment on the way we browse, chasing a minor point of interest. Similarly, those who used social media for news (I still do not understand how that works, since I get none at all by such a route)) used around three sources, versus two sources for those who don’t get their news from social media. The red/blue figure says all that. Blow it up to read the fine print.



It seems to me, having read much of the content I’ve referenced, that what sells newspapers remains unknown. Sales are falling, so papers are having to reinvent themselves and so, in a very real sense, they need to discover the answer to my question. Or, perhaps, they need to ask the question slightly differently; what is it that a traditional newspaper service might offer that allows them to maintain the staff in employment? That implied that it is something more like the ‘feel’ (of the whatever a ‘paper’ becomes) that will garner customers. Unfortunately, I am increasingly sure that news found by looking at what you’re interested in doesn’t tell you about the things you need to know; it might well serve your usual and immediate interests, but…. Examples of stuff you need to know might include:

 • a change in the bank rate (because that affects your own money eventually, such as your mortgage); changes in banking.

• any of many possibilities in the way of political decision making, from the budget, to the Home Office (immigration, for example), the DWP (change in the minimum wage, for example, or in the way universal credit functions).

• things that require relatively immediate action by you, including voting.

But those items do not include any bad news, or not necessarily. Things that might require action such as expressing an opinion (think of going on a protest march) are usually based on what I might group together under a Project Fear umbrella; if we do <this protest> then maybe <this thing we fear will occur> won’t happen. Or won’t happen quite so awfully.

While bad news satisfies the need for immediacy, it doesn’t need to be presented as all bad, and indeed I found some evidence that bad news is not always presented as entirely bad. The Grenfell Tower fire was a tragedy, but what appalled was that it was an avoidable tragedy, so the progress made in fixing what went wrong so that it can’t happen again is well-supported. Psychologically ([9], among others) we react quicker to bad stuff mostly because we’ve learned that we need to—good stuff isn’t threatening— and if what we read about others is bad then our own lives are evidently better than those in the ‘bad’ news and perhaps that put us in the ‘better-off’ half of society. Or so we tell ourselves, while having very little idea about what ‘better-off’ might mean.  

So while we might well want to read about things that might make our lives better  (Oh, is that what adverts do?), we do read the bad news because somehow it makes us feel better (which I find quite awful; my usual cynical thoughts are more along the lines of “How did they let themselves get into such a position?” “Could they not see that this was going to happen?”. But I am not a nice person and I have known this a very long time. Bad news that informs you (or me, too) of new dangers or behaviours, so that I might develop a way of avoiding such unpleasant circumstances, are useful; in that sense they do inform in a positive way. 


I think my test for news became clear. Does this article, this piece of news, help me change my future behaviour for the better? If so, good; I have been informed usefully.  

That doesn’t relate at all to news comment, but that tends to be not so much bad news as the predicted consequences of a current set of circumstances – generally, we’re heading in <this direction> so <this> is a likely / possible result. Is that a good thing? The way in which this is written is what keeps you reading, as does how close the argument agrees with what you think (or are persuaded to so do). The frequency with which you agree, or with which you find yourself being led to positions that you in some sense ‘like’, is what will bring you back to that source.

I read the Times and the Guardian. I disagree with much of the comment in the Guardian, but I find that stimulating. With the Times correspondents, I find myself agreeing marginally more often. But the reason I buy a paper at all is to do the puzzles; there, the Times wins by a mile.


DJS 20181003
and a happy birthday to my brother.


[1] http://www.journalism.org
[2] http://www.pewresearch.org
[3] https://archives.cjr.org/behind_the_news/what_kind_of_news_do_people_re.php?page=all
4] http://www.pewresearch.org/2007/08/15/two-decades-of-american-news-preferences/
[5] http://assets.pewresearch.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/12/old-assets/pdf/NewsInterest1986-2007.pdf    The complete commentary

[6] https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/1461670X.2016.1150193
[7] http://community.seattletimes.nwsource.com/archive/?date=19910317&slug=1272234
[8] https://medium.com/oxford-university/where-do-people-get-their-news-8e850a0dea03
[9] http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20140728-why-is-all-the-news-bad
[10]

New York is in Tyne & Wear, between Wallsend and Whitley Bay. Washington is just off the A1(M) between Newcastle and Durham. Philadelphia  is also T&W,  East of Chester-le-Street  and quite close to Washington. Denver is a small village on the A10 near Downham Market, Norfolk. Houston is in Renfrewshire, Scotland, to the west of Glasgow. Portland is an island of sorts, often called Portland Bill, south of Weymouth, Dorset. Dallas is a village in Moray, in the far north of Scotland, not far from Elgin. New Orleans is close by Campbeltown on the coast of Kintyre in Argyll & Bute, Scotland. Boston is a sizeable town in Lincolnshire, quite close to the Wash. Richmond is a London suburb near Kew Gardens and a town in North Yorkshire just off the A1. And I didn’t try at all hard; I knew most of these already.


Email: David@Scoins.net      © David Scoins 2018