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  • Writer's pictureJustin McBrayer

The Angertainment Industry

I read the news almost every morning. I start with my local paper, The Durango Herald, then move to a statewide, non-profit, politically centered paper, The Colorado Sun, then a pair of center-right and center-left national papers, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post, and I end with some international coverage compliments of the BBC.

Over time, I've gotten the feeling that the news has gotten more and more emotional and less and less neutral. That's even more true for TV and online news sites. But this could just be a hunch. We shouldn't trust our guts to answer big questions.

New research published this month confirms that hunch: news headlines have gotten increasingly emotional in the last 20 years. The study tracks headlines in 47 major news outlets in the United States from 2000 to 2019 for a total of 23 million entries. The language of the headlines is analyzed to identify positive sentiment, negative sentiment, or neutrality. And the focus is on the so-called basic emotions: anger, disgust, fear, joy, and sadness.

With right-leaning outlets in red, left-leaning outlets in blue, and neutral outlets in green, here's what the researchers found:

[image credit: Rozado, Hughes, and Halberstadt 2022]

In a nutshell, the lower-right chart shows how neutral headlines have plummeted over 20 years. The remaining graphs all show how emotional headlines have increased. The scales aren't the same across the graphs, so a glance won't tell you whether angry headlines increased more than joyous ones, but the general pattern is that negative emotions like sadness and fear have increased the most. Conservative outlets tend to rely on anger and disgust more than their liberal counterparts, while the liberal outlets use more fear than conservative ones. And even neutral outlets are using more emotional headlines now than twenty years ago. It's not a partisan issue.

So, it wasn't my imagination after all. The news is getting more angry, sad, fearful, and disgust-provoking.

Question: why are headlines getting more emotional?

Answer: because news outlets are competing with one another for attention.

I've argued for several years that we should think of information (and misinformation) as commodities in a market (see here for that argument in print or here for that argument in video). That rule obviously doesn't apply in a location with a centralized news system like North Korea or China. But in free market economies of the West, news outlets compete against one another for consumer attention. Producers create information, customers consume that information, and both of them share information back-and-forth.

In a free market, producers have an incentive to create commodities that consumers want. The better they can meet that preference, the more profitable they will become. The news market is no different. The better news outlets can meet our preferences, the more profitable they will become. And with our attention spread across radio, TV, smartphones, and computers, news outlets are going head-to-head to grab the largest share of our attention, and hence the largest share of advertising dollars.

And you know what? The free market is just doing what it does best: getting consumers what they want. When it comes to news, that means emotional headlines and stories.

This fact puzzles many of my friends. You read the news to be informed, right? By definition, that goal rules out fake news. And if emotions get in the way of a clear-eyed understand of the facts, then consumers will favor neutral headlines over emotional ones. We should expect fact-based, neutral reporting to win out in the information marketplace. Just the facts, ma'am.

But that's not what we see. And the explanation is that we don't just read the news to be informed. That's one of our goals, yes, but not our only one. We also read or watch the news to be entertained, comforted, and riled up. Like a good church sermon, a good news story should engage us: make us laugh, cry, rise up in anger, or shout in joy. And like a good movie, we appreciate news stories that feature villains, heroes, and epic plots. Sometimes we want the facts, and sometimes we want something more. Often we're willing to take less than the facts (and even downright lies) when the rest of the informational packages is too good to resist.

And while I understand the shift towards emotional headlines, I also bemoan it. There are two reasons this shift is a bad omen for those who hold out hope for a well-informed citizenry. First, headlines frame stories. The psychological term for this effect is 'priming'. To be primed is to have your mindset altered in some way that affects your downstream emotions, understanding, or reactions. Frame a story in an anger-inducing way, and you're more likely to make your reader angry about the content. Second, many consumers never get past the headlines. That's all they read, and their ignorance doesn't stop them from liking, sharing, or otherwise engaging with the article. Given these two facts, the shift towards angertainment makes our society informationally worse off.

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