America’s Technology Obsession: Rise of the Negativity Bias in Political Media

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Most Americans would probably have no problem admitting that they are, to some extent, dependent on technology. Many of us may even go so far as to concede that we would feel uncomfortable without access to our cell phones—they are, after all, our lifeline to the connected world. Approximately eighty-eight percent of American adults have cell phones [1] and ninety-nine percent of American households own at least one television [2], making it clear that electronic, immediate communication is becoming the norm. And this phenomenon transcends the economic hierarchy:  an article published by the Washington Post reports that roughly thirty to forty percent of homeless people in Washington, D.C. have cell phones; a smaller percentage of the D.C. homeless population even actively use email and blogs [3]. Clearly, technology is pervasive across the board—but how has this impacted American politics?

While there are many relevant answers to this question, arguably one of the most noticeable effects that the rise of technology has had on the political sphere is the manner in which campaigns are conducted and covered. As a society, we simply have access to more information than ever before—so much so that it is virtually impossible to absorb it all. Thus, as the country’s media consumption rises, so too does the competition among media outlets; if a website or television company hopes to attract an audience, it must set itself apart from the pack.

Essentially, this increased pressure to attract audiences often results in a scramble for “breaking” or “exclusive” news, along with a widespread shift towards negativity in the media—a phenomenon that is particularly apparent in the coverage of presidential candidates. For example, in the 1960 presidential election, seventy-five percent of the media’s coverage of both Nixon and Kennedy was positive and only twenty-five percent was negative. In the 2000 election, however,  over sixty percent of the coverage given to George W. Bush was negative, with Al Gore receiving similar treatment [4].

From a psychological standpoint, the emphasis on negativity makes sense–humans actually tend to neurologically prefer bad news. Called the negativity bias, this phenomenon occurs below conscious awareness and describes the human tendency to more easily remember negative news [5]. In a sense, then, news corporations’ shift towards the negative is understandable—but at the same time, the increasing negativity seems to have had a profound impact on both the electorate and the candidates themselves.

The negativity bias is seen not only in media coverage but also in the candidates’ campaign strategies, most notably in the realm of television advertisements. For example, in the week before the 2012 Florida primary, ninety-two percent of the campaign ads that aired were negative [6]. If the electorate is, on a consistent basis, bombarded with negativity from both the news and the candidates themselves, what effect has this had on the attitude of American voters?

One could argue that the prevalence of negativity in the political atmosphere has led to a good deal of cynicism in the electorate on a scale that, perhaps, was not present in decades past. Because politics is essentially founded upon contrasting beliefs and principles, it would be naïve to suggest that cynicism did not exist before the rise of mass media. However, as American voters are increasingly exposed to predominantly bad news, their opinions of politicians and the government as a whole may in response become ever more pessimistic.

While not an attack on the news outlets and politicians that rely upon bad news—because, as discussed earlier, this approach makes psychological sense—the impact of the negativity bias in the media should not be dismissed. If voters, many of whom do not have much knowledge about the candidates beyond is covered by the media, feel like they cannot trust our elected officials, what incentive do they have to participate in American democracy? Yes, if a citizen feels that the government is headed down the wrong path, this may spur an otherwise apathetic voter to head to the polls. On the other hand, however, it could result in an increasing number of potential voters forgoing politics altogether as an impossibly negative and hopeless endeavor.

[1] http://pewresearch.org/pubs/2296/mobile-cell-internet-web-access-phone

[2] http://www.csun.edu/science/health/docs/tv&health.html

[3] http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/03/22/AR2009032201835_2.html?sid=ST2009032300833

[4] http://hnn.us/articles/1134.html

[5] http://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/200306/our-brains-negative-bias

[6] http://thecaucus.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/01/31/92-percent-of-ads-in-florida-were-negative/

[Image Credit: http://awesome.good.is/transparency/web/1111/american-news-media/flash.html]

About author

Katie Miller

Raised in Tucson, Arizona and later a suburb of Chicago, Katie is a sophomore in the College of Arts & Science. She is majoring in psychology with a likely double major in English, but since taking a government course in high school, she has had a strong interest in learning and writing about American politics.

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