The power of negative headlines — why you should be afraid, very afraid

This headline got your attention didn’t it?

Despite drowning in negative headlines lately, you just couldn’t help but click on it…

Negative headlines are testament to the robustness of our media industry, which despite our Press Code coming under severe attack by the government, continues to fight back and unearth the truth — and the truth often hurts.

But, when I opened a news article on a Monday morning with the histrionic headline, “South Africa, be afraid — be very afraid,” my blood started to boil.

As consumers it’s all our fault. We click on stories up to 30% more when they have negative headlines, according to a survey by Outbrain. So we have pushed the media industry into selling negative stories.

Source: Outbrain

Psychologists have pinpointed this to our fight or flight instinct. We’ve evolved to react quickly to potential threats, which is why we want to know about them. Bad news is a signal that we need to change something to avoid danger. During lab experiments, when the word “aids”, “gun” or “war” were shown to people who had to hit a button in response, they did it quicker than when they were shown the words “flower”, “puppy” or “party”.

So, I get all this, I get the science behind it and that newsrooms have to make money, but in a country drowning in poor sentiment, is it wise to continue pushing out such melodramatic headlines?

More importantly, negative headlines can be massively damaging to our country’s overall health.

Here’s why

1. Negative headlines are often not truly accurate of the story. For example, the headline: ‘pollution revealed to be major cause of cancer’. The article in question, however, revealed that pollution is one of the main ‘environmental causes’ of cancer, along with a myriad of other unrelated causes from smoking to genetics. The problem is, most of us don’t read entire articles, so we are making assumptions based on headlines and giant exaggerations.

2. Negative headlines and bad news stories have been shown to cause Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). This is according to findings from a University of California study, which assessed the coverage of the Boston Marathon bombing and the symptoms of stress shown by certain subjects following the coverage. It was found that symptoms of acute stress increased with each hour of exposure to bombing related stories. As a result, the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs Centre for PTSD concluded that there is a link between watching news of traumatic events and stress related symptoms. Perhaps this could explain why we often feel we live in an angry society (particularly Gauteng), where people fly off the handle at the slightest provocation. Are we all suffering from PTSD?

3. Lastly, and most importantly, negative headlines could damage our country’s investment potential. Investors have a term for the effect of negative headlines, called headline risk, which according to Investopedia, is the possibility that a news story will adversely affect a stock’s price. Look at what happened after the banking crisis to JP Morgan, CitiGroup and Bank of America?

When applying headline risk to a country, it makes sense that when overseas investors and expats keep seeing bad press, it’s going to influence their decisions — causing our economy and brain drain to slide even further. It’s the very principal behind insider trading because of the strong effect between sentiment and rumours, and actual fluctuations in share price and the bottom line of a business.

Studies affirm this. For example, when rumours circulated that McDonald’s burgers were made of worm meat, sales decreased by more than 25% ¹.

On the flip side, we’ve also seen how good publicity can increase tourism and investment into a country. Tourism New Zealand reports that tourism increased to the country by 50% after the first film in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. The movies combined with The Hobbit, helped generate more than $7 billion in tourism in 2014 alone. Ironic that Tolkien actually based the novels on the landscapes of Switzerland.

Similarly, the ‘Game of Thrones effect’ in Croatia has helped the Balkan nation move out of recession. ²

Closer to home, despite the controversy around the Football 2010 World Cup, one cannot argue against the marketing and PR benefits for the country. According to TNS Research Surveys, the World Cup attracted 32-billion global viewers. By watching just two minutes of a game, this amounted to an estimated R1.5-million worth of positive advertising.

As a country we’re all ultimately responsible for the stories we tell. So let’s take a step back, and try to avoid crushingly negative headlines and bias, before we truly do need to be very afraid.

¹(Greene 1978).

²Bloomberg; Winfrey & Kuzmanovic — Can Game of Thrones save Croatia?, April 2015