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  • Raghav Sand

Negativity Bias in the News

Democracy attains profound vibrancy when journalists are reporting on facts. Those charged with governance of the nation must be uncompromisingly held accountable for their statements and deeds. Also, anyone projecting themselves as the alternate to the incumbent, should also face scrutiny. Ever since satellite television became the dominant medium for information consumption, the level of discourse has been steadily declining. With each passing election, people are becoming more polarized. Journalism, the so-called guardian of the republic, has repeatedly fallen short of self-regulated idealistic standards of conduct.

Consuming news through audio-visual means is at an all-time high at the moment. This widely known fact is being used by corporates, politicians and power brokers. We can no longer trust the news as the only source of useful information. Print media still has some credibility among the people. The here and now nature of our world has given disproportionate power to electronic media. Every news channel commences operations with the promise to transform the news ecosystem. Sooner than later, it either starts showing true colours or gradually attains one from the available choices. Every policy and governance issue is made to look like a ‘us versus them’ debate.

Perception Paradox

Whether it is academia or news, critical commentators are (wrongly) considered serious and more knowledgeable. On the other hand, focusing on the positives at times is interpreted as a sign of inexperience and cheerleading. In this game of perception, even the most rational speaker and listener fall prey to the negativity bias. Our instinct to pay attention to risk makes us susceptible and attentive towards adverse outcomes. Early humans knew about the risk of being attacked by a predator. This pre-historic psychological trait is being monetized by news networks.

Whether it is vaccine hesitancy, risk of war or collapse of the financial markets, the fear mongers and doomsday advocates never miss an opportunity to capitalize. On most occasions, negativity in the world is exaggerated. Where fearless and forthright information exchange is required, more often than not, news networks assess the probable impact through the prism of profits. Utter neglect or overcautious approach towards essential news undermines the integrity and independence of media outlets at the same time.

Chicken or the Egg

Does the public want more negative news or are the news outlets prioritizing it? There cannot be one perfect answer to this question. In all the chaos, a self-reinforcing cycle takes centerstage – for the sake of engagement and advertising revenue, media houses start serving a tried and tested formula. Such decisions are not easy at the outset, but once a news channel aligns itself with a particular school of thought, subsequent editorial content operates on auto-pilot mode. Negativity results in heightened state of awareness and is a call for action. By highlighting a bad situation over and over again, it can be made to look horrible.

If a rule or regulation is broken by someone or there is an alleged shortcoming in the conduct of a public servant or any person holding a constitutional position, the law should take its own course. Any favour or fear to not implement the spirit of law has the potential to puncture the morale of law-abiding citizen. Not everyone will start to disregard rules at once, but the nation will gradually start to lose spirited and motivated citizens.

Out-group Virality

While researching for this article, I came across a study which introduced me to the concept of out-group virality. Previously, there have been suggestions about its existence, but with help of data the authors of the study show the method to the madness. Let me try to explain what out-group virality actually does and how anyone on the internet who doesn’t want to be invisible chooses to speak negative about the out-group.

Out-group is an exclusive group of people with different interest or identity. Some examples for the grounds on which such differences can arise are on the basis of ethnicity, political affiliation, or liking for a sports franchise. In the Indian context, first let us consider a news channel which has a soft corner for the Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP). Any statement from the BJP minister or spokesperson against the Indian National Congress (INC) is certain to garner more attention as compared to the statement made on government’s development and governance initiatives. Similarly, when any politician or political consultant from the opposition alleges wrongdoing or enumerates shortcomings in the ruling political party, another set of news outlets will play this sound bite constantly.

If a person is overly-negative and has no suggestions to offer, they become unlikeable without even trying too hard. Negativity has the potential to provide visibility as a public figure or primetime news show host and is hence used for proclaiming oneself as the messiah. Being solution oriented is the better option to garner support and following in the long run.

What Can You Do?

If you think that there is something fundamentally wrong with the way news and information channels are going about their business, stop feeling helpless and clueless. Your like, share, subscribe and comment has made far less significant things viral. A new dance move, must-try food hacks, cringe-worthy short video or cat and dog videos can wait for a while.

For your own sake, and everything that matters to you, make sure that the public discourse regains civility. It is you who has consumed and shared audio-visual content that eventually made it to the trending list. Why not give something a fair shot at virality which can genuinely make the world a better place. Don’t give up on the hope to bring about positive change or be a part of the change that you feel is worth the effort. If you want your voice to be heard in the noisy media environment, believe in the power of togetherness and large numbers. Singularity is the first step towards virality.

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