Mental Health

Sharing Bad News Makes It More Inaccurate, Increasingly Negative, Resistant To Correction

From waiting for the newspaper every morning to receiving updates from anchors on television, it seems like the communication of news stories cannot happen any faster and easier than it does today.

It takes very little time for a negative story to go viral on social media and possibly, a few hours to spur think pieces and YouTube reactions. But in the pursuit of delivering news, to what extent is accuracy sacrificed?  

The study titled "Bad News Has Wings: Dread Risk Mediates Social Amplification in Risk Communication" was published in Risk Analysis on May 29.

"Society is an amplifier for risk. This research explains why our world looks increasingly threatening despite consistent reductions in real-world threats," said Thomas Hills, a professor in the Department of Psychology, University of Warwick in United Kingdom, who led the research. "It also shows that the more people share information, the further that information gets from the facts and the more resilient it becomes to correction."

As part of the study, 154 people on social media were followed by researchers from the university. The participants were split into 14 chains of eight people, with the first person in each chain reading news articles that were balanced and factual.

Following this, they were asked to write a message to inform the next person in the chain about the story. That recipient would do the same for the next person, and so on. The sixth person in each chain was provided the message from the previous recipient along with the original news story.

The researchers measured prior knowledge, perceived risk before and after transmission and, at each link, number of positive and negative statements.

"Results showed that the more a message was transmitted the more negative statements it contained," they wrote.

It was found news about potential threats become riddled with pessimism, inaccuracies, and exaggerations when passed from one person to another. The effect was severe enough that even after public attention was drawn to unbiased and neutral facts, the spread of panic continued.

Numerous studies have examined the phenomenon of bad news with a focus on factors such as economics and psychology. For instance, research from 2015 suggested the public had more to lose from missing a negative news story than it had to gain from knowing about a positive one.

"Whether or not the world really is getting worse, the nature of news will interact with the nature of cognition to make us think that it is," wrote psychologist Steven Pinker in a 2018 op-ed for the Guardian.

In the new study, high dread topics saw the highest influx of negative statements in response to an increase in transmission.

Living in the age of the 24-hour news cycle, with platforms falling prey to clickbait and unverified tweets, the study asked important questions about hysteria. The answer may lie in one of the observations of the research, noting that those with domain knowledge on the news story were able to mitigate the effect of increased perceived risk.