It’s a question we’re often asked during our media training courses when we look at how journalists work and what makes a story.
We hand out some newspapers (remember those) and ask the participants to flick through them and think about what they’ve heard on the radio, seen on television or picked up from their phones or laptops. We also include what might be trending on social media.
The discussions about why certain topics are newsworthy, how they’re treated and how the participants in the training course feel about them are fascinating.
Then, of course, that question will come up – why is there so much bad news? Why do journalists only like things going wrong? What is it about tragedy scandal trouble and disasters that appeal so much to the media? Why is it so often the case that “if it bleeds it leads”?
Well, the short answer is that it appeals to the media because we know that it appeals to our audiences.
But let’s unpack that a little. Essentially there are three reasons why bad news so often leads the agenda and why journalists love bad news.
The first is that bad news is unusual and it’s the unusual – the man bites dog story – that appeals to journalists. Most of the time things work OK. All the planes land safely at the airport, people have good treatment in hospital and we all go home from work to our families without killing them. When something goes wrong it’s out of the ordinary and it ticks the unusual box of the newsworthiness criteria.
You will also see, by the way, plenty of examples of unusual things happening that are not bad news at all.
A woman who was told she was infertile has a baby. A quirky but useful new app is launched. Images emerge for the first time of new creatures from the depths of the oceans.
More often than not these things are just unusual.
The second reason for the appeal of bad news is psychological. The amygdala is situated deep in the brain and fires our fight or flight reaction. This is what has kept us alive since we were the animals by warning us very rapidly and powerfully of any approaching danger. It’s the same with what you read, hear and see in the media. Good news might be interesting and helpful but you’ll respond more quickly and profoundly to bad news, risks and danger.
Think about how often you see the “risk,” “fear,” “row,” “fury,” or “scare,” in a newspaper headline.
Good short, powerful words. So don’t blame us, journalists, it’s your brain’s fault!
Finally, and you might snort cynically at this, but journalist generally wants to flag up dangers, risks, injustice and unfairness because it can help us to make the world a better place. Whether it’s historic child abuse, Grenfell Tower or even great scandals such as Thalidomide, reporting all this bad news can, in the long run, prompt investigations and reforms that might ultimately make the world safer and fairer.
OK, I’ll get down from my pulpit now. So, how can you use this love of bad news? For one thing including a risk, an example of unfairness or danger as the focus of the press release rather than some general news is more likely to grab the attention of a journalist or news editor.
Similarly, you can flag up danger or something that will make your audience feel indignant or concerned at the start of a media interview. You can then offer your solution. Problem to a solution is a good way of thinking of your message, as we often pointed out in our media training courses and our business writing courses.
Bad news will always be around, but you can use it to your advantage.
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