Online news media is competing for a limited resource: reader attention. The need to keep readers clicking has led to the use of negative language in news stories to increase engagement.
Researchers have analysed the effect of negative words on news consumption using a dataset of viral news stories from Upworthy.com. The dataset comprises around 105,000 different variations of news stories that generated around 5.7 million clicks across more than 370 million overall impressions. The researchers found that negative words in news headlines increased consumption rates while positive words decreased consumption rates. For a headline of average length, each additional negative word increased the click-through rate (CTR) by 2.3%. The findings were published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour.
The tendency for individuals to attend to negative news reflects something foundational about human cognition – that humans preferentially attend to negative stimuli across many domains. Negative information may be more “sticky” in our brains, and people weigh negative information more heavily than positive information.
Previous studies have explored the role of negativity in driving online behaviour and have found that negative language in online content is linked to user engagement. Negativity embedded in online content explains the speed and virality of online diffusion dynamics. Furthermore, online stories from social media perceived as negative garner more reactions. Negativity in news also increases physiological activations, and negative news is more likely to be remembered by users.
The dataset used in the study comprises RCTs (randomised controlled trials) that compare different variations of news headlines for the same news story. For example, the headline “WOW: Supreme Court Have Made Millions of Us Very, Very Happy” and “We’ll Look Back At This in 10 Years’ Time and Be Embarrassed As Hell It Even Existed” are different headlines used for the same story about the repeal of Proposition 8 in California.
An average of 4.31 headline variations (median of 4) are tested in each RCT. The headline variations are then compared with respect to the generated CTR, defined as the ratio of clicks per impression. Overall, the 12,448 RCTs comprise 53,699 different headlines, which received over 205 million impressions and 2,778,124 clicks.
The experiments recorded CTRs ranging from 0.00% to 14.89%. The average CTR across all experiments is 1.39%, and the median click rate is 1.07%. Furthermore, the distribution among CTRs is right-skewed, indicating that only a small proportion of news stories are associated with a high CTR. For instance, 99% of headline variations have a CTR below 6%.
The results of the study contribute to a better understanding of why users engage with online media. Negative language in news headlines increases consumption rates, while positive language decreases consumption rates. The findings lay the groundwork for identifying the drivers of high levels of news consumption. Online media is important for society in informing and shaping opinions, hence raising the question of what drives online news consumption. Understanding the factors that drive online news consumption can help media outlets to provide a better service to their readers.
The use of negative language in news stories has been criticized for creating a culture of fear, promoting anxiety, and making people feel helpless. However, the results of this study suggest that it is not the news stories themselves that are causing these negative effects, but rather the way they are presented. Media outlets can still report negative news without using alarmist language that creates a sense of panic. By doing so, they can provide their readers with valuable information that is not only informative but also actionable.
Online media has become a widespread source of information and opinion formation. The need to keep readers clicking has led to the use of negative language in news stories to increase engagement. Understanding the factors that drive online news consumption can help media outlets to provide a better service to their readers.