Negativity is the tendency of humans to pay selective attention to events and behaviors that could have a negative impact on themselves or their group. Selective attention to negative events by primary observers, such as journalists, may result in overly negative reports to those who were not witnesses, which may result in anger or fear.
Whether events, people, behaviors, or gestures – abstractly called objects – are negative or positive is easily judged by humans, as is apparent from our ability to rate almost every object on scales with a positive pole (e.g., good, beautiful, trustworthy) and a negative counter-pole (e.g., evil, ugly, untrustworthy). The semantic differential scale is based on this ability. Experimental research shows that humans are able to build positive and negative impressions within milliseconds, for example about whom should be distrusted or trusted (Todorov et al. 2005). This suggests already that first and casual observations are important, but when someone or something could become dangerous, impressions may be updated continuously, with great weight being placed on the most recent observations. Thus, in addition to continuous “online” monitoring, a primacy effect and a recency effect are observed. The underlying rating scales (e.g., good vs. bad, beautiful vs. ugly, strong vs. weak) are deeply rooted in the vocabulary of every human language, as is evident from thesauri with synonyms and antonyms, such as Roget’s thesaurus for English.
The tendency to pay selective attention to negative events, as well as the tendency to report selectively about them, probably arose from the need of Homo sapiens to use the human language as a warning system when predators or competing tribes entered the scene. One of the foremost important human reactions to societal danger is alerting others by shouting rather indiscriminately, which may produce a mobilization effect and may additionally frighten predators. Crying out negative emotions is also a good means when the aim is to drum up companions who could possibly help to overcome a danger for oneself, as when a baby cries loudly. “Negative news” – in its varieties of shouting and crying – strengthens the tendency to pay selective attention to negative events. Men appear to be more hardwired for selective attention to negative news than women (Grabe & Kamhawi 2006). Negative news may foster mobilization in the case of a societal danger and the impulse to come to someone’s aid in the case of individual neediness. Differential effects of societal and personal dangers have been demonstrated experimentally (Shah et al. 2004). It should be noted that other species have developed quite different reactions to danger. An ostrich will stay where it is, only hiding its long neck. A hare will jump away, zigzagging in all directions. A sheep will run toward the flock, which will prompt the complete flock to start running in one direction.
Negativity In Various Domains Of Communication
Negativity poses a variety of different challenges for each of the major fields of communication: for interpersonal communication and media entertainment, for organizational communication and public relations, but especially for mass communication.
In interpersonal communication and in media entertainment (e.g., the enjoyment of books, movies, stage plays, and games), negative or positive first impressions of characters are often counterbalanced by later impressions. Tension may result when both negative and positive observations are available “top of mind,” and thus when cognitive dissonance is apparent, e.g., when only a Samaritan is willing to help a Jew, or when only a small David dare challenge Goliath, or when a character is beautiful but evil, or trustworthy but ugly. Since deeper thoughts and additional observations are required to solve the inconsistency, inconsistency gives rise to increased attention for its sequel. In media entertainment the combination of negativity with tension is therefore a well-known device for raising viewing figures, circulation, and sales. While watching television, the tension raised by a particular program diminishes the likelihood of viewers zapping to another channel.
Research on the effects of negativity in media entertainment has concentrated on the impact on aggression of violence on television and in video games. Meta-analysis of research results indicates a moderate relationship indeed (Bushman & Anderson 2001).
In organizational communication negativity in the workplace is counterbalanced by communication management, or corporate communication (a term more often used in business administration). Negativity in organizations may originate outside or inside the organization. Negative external circumstances such as falling profits or innovations by competitors do not necessarily lower morale when communication management succeeds. Internal circumstances resulting in negativity are less easy to tackle. A negative mood throughout an organization may arise from a variety of internal issues, such as boredom at work, a lack of career prospects, organizational injustice, incompatible personalities, imprecise or impossible tasks, inconsistent performance criteria, poor leadership, or conflicting sub-cultures. Communication audits, analysis of internal communication networks, and analysis of leadership communication may help to achieve a precise diagnosis of the origins of negativity and dissatisfaction.
In mass communication, negativity is prevalent at every layer of the communication process. For journalists, negativity of events is one of the guiding principles of news selection. The negativity bias in the news is quadrupled by news consumers, who usually pay selective attention to dramatic, negative news reports. Since many journalists’ powerful sources, such as ministries, political parties, politicians, companies, and CEOs, are generally not dependent on the ratings of news consumers, but on their rankings (e.g., which investments are least risky, which product is least expensive, which presidential candidate is least incompetent), they may adapt to the media logic that negativity increases newsworthiness with newsworthy negative attacks on their competitors (Kepplinger 2000).
Negativity In The Production Of Media Content
The negativity bias in the news entails that, for example, the news will not report upon every fire, but will focus on fires that cause a lot of damage. The negativity bias becomes less transparent, however, when additional criteria for newsworthiness play a role also, as was spelled out in a seminal article by Galtung and Ruge (1965). Geographical proximity, and the involvement of powerful actors, for example, render events newsworthy also, which means that heavily negative events abroad must compete for attention with negative domestic events. Heavy negativity abroad – for example, famine or tribal wars in third-world countries – will not become newsworthy unless its profile is raised by media events created by powerful domestic actors. The selective indignation about domestic negativity combined with the relative indifference about negativity abroad easily contributes to negative stereotypes about outsiders.
The possibilities and the readiness for disclosing and disseminating negative news depend on social and political structures. Authoritarian regimes will typically censor negative news about domestic events, while encouraging negative news stories about foreign enemies. In democratic nations the negativity of the news depends on journalists’ role perceptions. As early as the nineteenth century, Alexis de Tocqueville suggested in De la démocracie en Amérique that newspapers may shift from a partisan style of news reporting, with positive news about a preferred party, to a more detached, sensational style in order to attract more readers. Especially during recent decades, a shift toward a more negative, interpretive style of news reporting has been observed in many democracies, including the United States (Patterson 1993). When the media became the foremost important battlefield for politicians and businesspeople to compete for voters or consumers, the arrogance of journalists toward them increased. Newspaper journalists and television talk show hosts alike have arrogated the right to introduce and to interpret extensively the games that politicians and businesspeople play, to the detriment of news attention for issue news about policy aims and policy results or about business plans and products.
Negativity has also become one of the research topics in the study of the new media. Interactive media such as emails, Internet discussion forums, and blogs provide an opportunity to express one’s thoughts and to reveal one’s emotions. One of the consistent findings in computer-mediated communication is that the web enhances the disclosure of personal feelings. Flaming, defined as an uninhibited expression of hostility, such as swearing, name-calling, ridiculing, and hurling insults toward another person, is a common practice (Kayany 1998).
Effects Of Negativity
Research results are inconclusive when it comes to the question of whether fear or anger is the primary reaction to negativity. Negative news, e.g., news about the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the US, has the effect of making one’s mortality salient, which may result in a sudden fear of death. Protecting oneself by rallying behind the flag after dramatic negative events such as 9/11 is explained in terror management theory as an attempt to suppress the fear of death. Other studies indicate, however, that especially fearful citizens will be critical of aggressive counterattacks, which suggests that anger rather than fear is a motive to support indiscriminate aggression in one’s own group.
Much research has been done to establish whether negative, conflict-oriented news raises feelings of apathy and political cynicism among the public in the long run (Cappella & Jamieson 1997). The empirical evidence is mixed. On the one hand, negative news may indeed decrease trust in particular companies or parties, although this effect may not become apparent immediately (Kleinnijenhuis et al. 2006). Patterson found that negative impressions of presidential candidates increased step by step with the increase in negative coverage (Patterson 1993). On the other hand, many studies indicate that exposure to the news, negative or otherwise, has a mobilizing effect on political participation (Norris 2003).
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