If you’re like most folks, there’s a part of you that seeks out bad news, especially about others. It’s something that’s always been obvious to journalists but only recently becoming plain to the rest of us.
Those of us in this profession have always known that stories about wrecks, shootings and scandal draw more attention than those about more cheerful developments. In the past, we could gauge that by comparing daily sales and headlines of one edition to another, and with the advent of the internet where views of individual stories can be measured, readers’ preference for gloom has continued to be true.
For instance, this week, the three most-read stories on times-herald.com were about shootings, child cruelty and high-speed chases. News about a local school training international pilots, a major employer coming to a neighboring county and a local athlete competing among the top women golfers in the state ranked far behind other news of crime and traffic fatalities.
Publishers who tilt the front page toward good news get accused of covering up the community’s flaws, and those who don’t get blamed by civic boosters for scaring away prospective employers.
My approach has been to weigh our choice of stories based on their news value. What’s news value? That’s how recent the development is, how close it is to readers and how many people it impacts.
That evaluation isn’t perfect. A fatal car wreck usually only impacts the victim’s loved ones, for example, but we know from experience that people want to read about it, which is the curious part.
Why are people so quick to read about a tragedy that doesn’t affect anyone they know but reluctant to read about the administration of the school system their children attend or the spending of the city they pay their taxes to?
Here’s my twofold theory, and I’d be interested in yours. First, a news story about a car crash is straightforward while a government story has two sides to it, requiring some thought about which side is right. Second, there’s that thing in our human makeup that sees someone else’s misery and says, “My life has its problems, but at least it’s not as bad as that.”
With our growing philosophical divide in this country, it’s no longer the political junkies who use national news in their quest for bad news. More and more Americans are developing the knack for divining negativity from national news stories, either because their opponents have had bad luck or done something foolish or because they felt the reporting glossed over the other side’s flaws.
Every story from Washington has become a Rorschach test to see what hidden message each reader finds in it.
But we publish plenty of good news, too. My hope is that if it’s a sad headline that catches your eye initially you’ll at least look around for what else is going on.
(Walter Jones is the publisher of NTH, which includes The Newnan Times-Herald, times-herald.com, Newnan-Coweta Magazine, Xtra and Coweta Living.)