The Influence of Bad News

Jul 11, 2011 Beth Monaghan

Ever since I sat on the couch in September 2008 watching the demise of Lehman Brothers and acquiesced to an inevitable long haul of bad news and sad stories, I’ve been considering the impact of news on our collective mood.

As we teeter on a shaky and timid recovery from the Great Recession, we’re still fretting over the much-reported possibility of a double dip and a looming U.S. default. Bad news has always trumped good, and consumers’ appetite for reading it has kept up with its proliferation thanks to blogging and social media.

Bad news is the prettier, younger sister to strange and unusual news. While Lady Gaga’s dress made of raw meat grabs headlines, bad news will always attract more. Last month, Deepak Chopra wrote a piece for the Huffington Post, Prozac for the Planet? Or the Plus Side of Unhappiness, examining the psychology of our Great Recession. He wrote that, “Economies are rooted in psychology. When people are frightened they don't spend, invest, or take risks the way they do when a dark mood doesn't prevail.”

Chopra also wrote, “In the mass media ninety percent of recovery plans and proposals are materialistic. But without a shift in psychology, such plans will not lead to growth or expansion.”

Is the economy making its own bad news, are we perpetuating it, or both? It does not really matter, but what does is the power of the news. Much has been written about the demise of the traditional news business amid 24x7 bloggers, citizen journalists and social media, but mass media still drive perception, awareness and therefore collective mood. If CBS News reports that this month’s jobs figures are below expectations, the market reacts. The CBS report will then proliferate into thousands of others through a myriad of new channels.

At the same time, the press are driven to cover more news more frequently. A PewResearch study on the media’s depiction of the economic crisis between February 1 and August 31, 2009 found that, “The press itself triggered nearly a quarter of stories (23%). Conversely, union workers and ordinary citizens combined to act as the catalyst for only 2% of the stories about the economy.” The top triggers were businesses and the White House, but the media drove nearly a quarter.

Why is this important? Because the number of vehicles that disseminate news and the constant pressure to publish something new every day, or every hour are increasing the amount of information available for consumption. Access to any news is easy, instant and ubiquitous. Does this onslaught also increase its power? I am not sure. All I know is that anything trending on Twitter becomes amplified within seconds as people jump into the conversation.

PR professionals have a unique view into what makes news. If we have a beautiful story about a company’s earnest growth that comes with great numbers about job creation and product sales, we can probably place it as long as Facebook doesn’t become embroiled in a privacy debate. This is part of our job and we understand it fully, but most average consumers do not understand how one story is selected over another.

When bad stories break, we cling to the news like a life preserver. We watch transfixed for more details, searching for the one piece of information that will keep us safe from the tragedy at hand. On those days, I’m tempted to publish a long list of the good stories that were passed up to bring us today’s Armageddon.

Topics: Public Relations, Journalism
Beth Monaghan

Since the early days working around her kitchen table, Beth has grown Inkhouse into one of the top independent PR agencies in the country. She’s been named a Top Woman in PR by PR News, a Top 25 Innovator by PRovoke, and an Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year finalist. Beth designed Inkhouse’s signature Storytelling Workshop to mirror the literary hero’s journey and to unearth the emotional connections that bind an audience to a brand or idea. She also uses narratives to build Inkhouse’s culture, most recently through two books of employee essays, “Hindsight 2020” and “Aren’t We Lucky?”

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