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If America is getting safer, why does it feel like everything is getting worse?

Can we blame our love for bad news on psychology? Or are we really just that negative?

A ping on your phone from your favorite news app notifies you of another tragedy occurring in the United States. You open the app and read the bolded headline. Chicago underwent one of its most violent weekends to date, with 74 people shot, 12 of whom were fatally injured.

It feels like violence is everywhere, and with constant access to the news, we are experiencing the stress and violence that comes with it. 82 percent of Americans check-in with the news at least once a day, and one-in-five Americans report that they consistently keep up with their social media. Extensive media coverage and advancements in technology allow us to consume tragedy and hysteria faster than we have ever imagined.

A study revealed that almost seven-in-ten Americans believe crime rates are increasing in the U.S. every year. But our beliefs are not always accurate. In fact, the top 30 most populous cities in the U.S., including New York, Los Angeles, Houston, and Chicago, have actually gotten safer; the overall crime rate in these 30 cities for 2017 has decreased 2.1 percent from the previous year, according to a report collected by the Brennan Center for Justice. Statistics released by the Federal Bureau of Investigation reveal that property and violent crimes rates have also decreased dramatically over the past ten years - crime rates reduced in the double digits.

So what is making almost 60 percent of Americans think crime is a serious problem when we have experienced the nation’s steadiest decline in crime rates over the past ten years?

The world is not that bad, our exposure makes us think it is

Chances are, if you go on any major news site or switch to your local news TV channel, you will get the details on all the recent tragedies. Negative headlines get more exposure and airtime - it is what sells. Sustained coverage leads people to draw conclusions that are not necessarily accurate, like higher crime rates within a city.

This principle is known as the availability heuristic, which dictates our thinking more than we know. This concept refers to our ability to make quick mental assessments when we process information. Take shark attacks, for example. People have a greater fear of getting into the water than stepping into a car. The likelihood of encountering a shark in your lifetime is 1 in 3,748,067, while the risk of dying in a car crash is 1 in 84. How we think and develop our fears is directly related to how much information we are exposed to; when we see so much violence on our screens, it is easy to make the assumption that the world is more dangerous than it actually is.

Bad news is good news for the media

Maybe we just gravitate towards negative headlines. That is what studies suggest when analyzing the popularity of different news stories. For the past two decades, two types of headlines have dominated American interests: disaster and conflict. Disaster includes reports about catastrophes, either man-made or natural, and conflict refers to stories about war, terrorism and social violence. These two categories have elicited more interest and attention than stories about money, politics, tabloids, or news overseas.

Our preference for bad news can be seen through our reactions to positive headlines. Negativity sells more than positivity; a local Russian newspaper reported only positive headlines for a day and lost two-thirds of its online readership, according to the deputy editor. The journalistic proverb, “if it bleeds, it leads” is what drives articles forward and pushes any news about violence, terrorism or devastation to the top of the news feeds.

Humans are programmed to love bad news

Stuart Soroka, Ph.D, a professor of communication studies and political science at the University of Michigan, suggests that our tendency to consume negative information occurs because it is “evolutionarily advantageous.” Living in a complex, information-rich environment, it is only logical that we scan and detect for any potential threats first. We have to figure out what information is beneficial for us to know and what is not. We have more to lose if we ignore the signs of danger than being aware of positive events.

Soroka and his colleague attempted to prove that our preference for bad news goes beyond psychological terms and into the physiological sense. In 2012, they conducted an experiment on how participants responded to varying degrees of positive and negative news, and measured each individual’s heart rate and sweat output. They found that when presented with negative news, they experienced a much stronger reaction in comparison to viewing positive news.

In another one of his studies, Soroka devised an experiment that observed participants’ eyesight when reading different news headlines. And to no surprise, they spent more time reading negative content versus neutral or positive content. What was surprising about this, however, was that participants who expressed a preference for good news paid more attention to bad news.

This highlights the negativity bias inherent in humans. The negativity bias refers to the phenomena in which negative information creates a stronger psychological impact on humans than positive information. As much as we want to see more positivity in the world, our evolutionary and biological disposition make it harder to pay attention to it.

Bad news is stressing out Americans

With a strong preference for bad news and an endless supply of negative headlines, the overexposure has detrimental effects on our livelihood. Keeping up with current events is important, and it is only understandable that the news you follow creates concern. The American Psychological Association found that more than half of Americans feel stress from following the news, and that a good number of adults experience nervousness, anxiety, anger and fatigue from negative media. Yet almost 95 percent of Americans continue to check in with what is going on around the world.

Some publications are good, but is that a good thing?

Not all news is death, war, or terrorism. A few publications have been created to combat the prevalence of negative headlines. The Good News Network, for instance, serves as an “antidote to the barrage of negativity experienced in mainstream media.” Other sites like Positive News and Upworthy share similar sentiments to remind us that there is still good in the world even though it is hardly covered. Their goal is to provide a balance of good and bad in broadcasting, and to inspire and engage the community. While some believe that that balance is needed, others argue against it.

Arguments against good news have emerged, explaining that the nature of news is inherently negative. The purpose of the news is to hold institutions, people, and policies accountable, and to bring forth the injustices and wrongdoings that occur on all levels of society so that the public is well-informed. While the opposition does not discourage the sharing of positive content, the public must always be conscious of the purpose of the news and should not neglect the truth in favor of positive information.

What do we do when it becomes too much?

This begs the question: what is the impact of bad news on society? Does an informed community breed indifference, or does it act as a catalyst for immediate action? And how are we to handle this much information?

Seth Davin Norrholm, Ph.D, an associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Emory University, offers different practical approaches when dealing with the stress of the news. He recommends maintaining everyday routines, limiting your news consumption, and relying on your social support system. He also emphasizes the importance of mentality, and how you must remain mindful of the odds of a tragedy actually happening and your risk of harm.

If the news is overwhelming, experts suggest realigning your focus from how much you are consuming to the ways that you are engaging with and processing the information. For day-to-day coping methods, recenter yourself by limiting the amount of news notifications you receive, watching an entertaining video, or talking through these issues with your close circle.

Technology changes every day and with it, so does the mind of consumers.

InMyArea Research is composed of industry analysts and data scientists. We conduct studies on internet usage, TV and streaming services viewership and how consumers make decisions when it comes to their home services. We also study internet connectivity, the digital divide and how it impacts students, low-income consumers, rural consumers and veterans.


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