Click Here If You Want to Be Sad

The internet loves bad news. And that’s bad.

An illustration of flames made up of computer cursors
Illustration by Matt Chase / The Atlantic

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Last week, I saw a new paper in the journal Nature Human Behavior called “Negativity Drives Online News Consumption.” That seems bad, I thought. Naturally, I clicked.

In a randomized study of 105,000 headlines and 370 million impressions from a data set of articles published by the online news dispensary Upworthy, researchers concluded that each negative word increased the click-through rate by more than 2 percent. “The presence of positive words in a news headline significantly decreases the likelihood of a headline being clicked on,” they said.

Are you even remotely surprised by any of this? Probably not. Neither was New York University’s Claire E. Robertson, a co-author of the paper. “People have been saying ‘If it bleeds, it leads’ for decades,” she told me. But what does that actually mean? Maybe substantively bad news naturally gets more attention, as it probably should. Or, maybe, even humdrum and unimportant stories can be juiced to attract eyes and ears if editors inject their headlines with a dose of sadness and catastrophe.

Upworthy might seem like an unusual choice for studying the properties of hard news, given that the site is typically associated with frivolous curiosity-gap bait: “This Baby Panda Learned to Breakdance—What Happened Next Will ASTONISH You,” and so on. But its database offers an unusually perfect opportunity to test the effect of headlines on audience behavior, because the site has made public the headline tests it ran for many news stories. This way, Robertson and her co-authors could control for the substance of each article, because some stories (a Harry Styles breakup, for example) will always get more clicks than others (a new law for Vermont pension accounting, say). “Even controlling for the same news story, framing more negatively increases engagement,” Robertson said.

Although blaming journalists and editors for this bias is easy, it’s also too simple. After all, it’s audiences who are reading—and watching, clicking, and subscribing to—all this stuff. (An alternate media maxim might be “If it bleeds, she reads.”) Even public-service-minded editors and journalists may feel they need to shape their coverage to match the decisions and emotional dispositions of their consumers. Negativity is not, strictly speaking, a news-maker problem; it’s a human problem—or, more to the point, a collective-action problem, in a dual-sided marketplace.

The internet is not best understood as a big room full of people screaming at one another about breaking news and policy debates. In fact, the room for political yelling is one of the smaller antechambers of the house of online content. One study of internet users in Poland found that news accounts for barely 3 percent of people’s digital-information diet. Much of the rest of the online world is populated by joyful gossip and animals doing stuff. In fact, a 2021 analysis of 126,301 Twitter posts found that rumors with positive emotions were much more likely to go viral, overall.

But although news makes up a small fraction of online content, this is where negativity seems to have the biggest lift for traffic. Robertson said her research validated several other studies showing that people are “especially likely” to consume political and economic news “when it is negative.” Surprisingly, to both me and the researchers, the study did not find that anger increased clicks; instead, sadness seemed to drive traffic in the Upworthy data set. But other research has found that high-arousal emotions, such as outrage, are most likely to be shared by users.

“There’s evidence that the people who post and retweet are both in the minority of online users and tend to be more extreme than the average user,” Robertson said. “When taking this into account, it’s logical that high-arousal content is most often shared or posted, even when it’s not what people are most interested in.”

When you put it all together, the big picture looks like this: Online news is a weird and small subset of the internet, which is driven by an even weirder and smaller set of writers and posters, who have contributed to an ecosystem in which emotionality drives sharing and negativity drives clicks.

Okay, so what? Bad news isn’t some myth conjured into existence by traffic-chasing headline writers. Many events and trends are actually bad, and any honest news organization needs a muscle for identifying them. Scrutinizing power, corruption, and oppression on behalf of the public requires a critical lens, and suggesting that the world would be better if journalists “just cheered up” is absurd.

Still, a negativity bias in news is worth keeping in mind, for at least three reasons.

1. Any systemic bias in news reporting is bad.

Lying to protect a political party, or throttling accurate reporting because it is ideologically or personally inconvenient, is broadly and rightly considered unethical. Although a bad-news bias might not initially seem as icky as an ideological bias, its dangers are manifold.

This bias, when it shows up as a tendency to sensationalize negative news while ignoring positive stories, can gradually desensitize audiences to truly grave issues, overwhelm people with a sense of global doom, misinform audiences about opportunities to make the world better, reduce their agency to fix solvable problems, erode trust in the general enterprise of honest news gathering, and exacerbate political and social polarization by locking audiences into a relationship with news coverage that highlights conflict.

Negativity bias in news is rarely as lurid as, say, the most propagandist Fox News coverage. Its costs are subtler. For example, if you publish a long essay about climate change’s very real dangers of ocean acidification and droughts, nobody is going to accuse you of lying. But publishing a relentless drumbeat of stories about how humanity is doomed because of climate change is dishonest if you never mention that the range of possible outcomes for planetary warming has improved in the past decade, thanks in part to rapid advancements in clean-energy technology. Over time, this bias might contribute to a world with widespread despair, flailing protest movements that have little to do with decarbonization, and more couples deciding not to have children, because their favorite news outlet assured them that all offspring will prematurely perish on a death planet.

Social-media platforms spread anger and doom to increase engagement, manipulating our attention to danger. They are fertile grounds for conspiracy theories, and the media have duly paid attention to this phenomenon. But news organizations should interrogate whether they, too, are sometimes helping confirm their audiences’ unjustified fears.

The solution to negative bias is not pie-eyed techno-optimistic boosterism. Toxic positivity is no cure for toxic negativity; it’s just the mirror image of the same disease. But if journalists want to build media institutions that people can trust, especially on subjects of great uncertainty, they have to recognize that crying wolf every day accomplishes little beyond leaving audiences in a state of despairing paralysis and obfuscating the exceptional danger of actual wolves.

2. Marketplaces of superabundance might have hidden costs.

I’ve written several times about the benefits of abundance in the material world, in housing, energy, infrastructure, and medicine. But lately, I’ve been thinking about when abundance isn’t naturally wonderful.

In the early 20th century, car companies used assembly-line manufacturing to speed up the production of automobiles. To keep up with supply, auto executives needed new ideas to boost consumer demand. Alfred Sloan, the CEO of General Motors, reportedly came up with the idea of releasing annual vehicle models, with new colors and specs. Over time, advertisers called this concept “planned obsolescence”—putting arbitrary expiration dates on products to get people to buy more of them. Abundance birthed advertising.

What does this have to do with news headlines? Well, the communication revolution in tech has expanded the marketplace for content, creating a crowded news environment where headline writers compete viciously for attention. In a marketplace of news abundance, the oversupply of content encourages posters to adopt the psychology of an advertiser: “How do I juice demand for my thing?” Just as a surfeit of auto production created the conditions for planned obsolescence, a bounty of content has given millions of people an advanced degree in the fluid dynamics of attention, and many of them seem to have arrived at the same conclusion: Five-alarm fires move traffic. Once again, abundance has birthed advertising.

3. Optimization always has a dark side.

Last year, I wrote about what I called “the dark side of Moneyball.” By optimizing for certain metrics, baseball had gotten overlong and boring. By optimizing for familiarity and reboots, blockbuster films had gotten predictable. I concluded that a lot of problems in the world are downstream of systems that have gotten “too good” at optimizing.

The news industry has better data than ever about what articles and posts people click on, how long they read, and how much they share. We can A/B-test headlines to squeeze a few thousand more clicks out of our audience by identifying the perfect curiosity gap. But perhaps the quantitative revolution in media is exacerbating the bad-news bias of news organizations. Audiences, who are clearly more interested in clicking on sad news and sharing bad news, are co-pilots–—or at least carefully watched inputs—of the news industry’s bad-news bias.

We don’t know for certain how increased exposure to doomer news increases audience anxiety. But we do know that an increase in online news with a demonstrated negativity bias happens to have intersected with a growing teen-anxiety crisis. “It’s hard to tell media companies, ‘Hey, negativity will increase your readership, but cut it out; it’s bad for our brains,’” Robertson said. I think she’s right; news organizations clinging to thin, or negative, profit margins can’t easily afford to ignore audiences demanding a diet of sadness and badness. But whether audiences want the news to bleed is no longer the interesting question. The interesting question is: Now that we understand one another, what do we all do about this?