‘If it bleeds it leads’ is not so true when it comes to social media

The controversial New York Post front page is a classic case of "if it bleeds it leads"In a reverse to the long established journalistic tenet that “if it bleeds it leads” it appears that when it comes to social media we’d rather smile and share.

It is as if the “and finally” fluffy story at the end of television news is the one that dictates our sharing habits when it comes to social networks and other forms of online communication.  This probably explains how cats have come to dominate the web.

This is according to a New York Times report that says neuro-scientists and psychologists have found that good news spreads faster and goes further than disasters and bad news stories.

Jonah Berger, a social psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania says the difference lies in the fact that when we share stories with friends we like to share good news.

Unlike mainstream media individuals are not trying to draw people in with news of a disaster or a tragedy.

The highly controversial New York Post frontpage story from December is a classic example of such a bad news story. It was perhaps the ultimate bad news story. A single picture showing a subway train bearing down on a doomed passenger. It was also a story that many thought should never have been printed and was called by one journalist “one of the most horrific tabloid covers in history” while Ian Prior, sports editor of The Guardian, said it was “sickening rubber-necking front page from the New York Post. Imagine how this man’s family feels”.

Berger told the NYT that “the ‘if it bleeds’ rule works for mass media that just want you to tune in. They want your eyeballs and don’t care how you’re feeling. But when you share a story with your friends and peers, you care a lot more how they react. You don’t want them to think of you as a Debbie Downer”.

The research, which looked at emails, web posts and reviews, found that stories tended to be more positive than negative.

However, this doesn’t necessarily equate to people liking positive news more, but it begged the question: “was positive news shared more often simply because people experienced more good things than bad things?”

To test this idea Berger looked at how people spread a particular set of news stories: thousands of articles over a six month period on The New York Times’ site:

One of his first findings to be reported was that articles and columns in the Science section were much more likely to make the list than nonscience articles. He found that science aroused feelings of awe and made Times readers want to share this positive emotion with others. 

Readers also tended to share articles that were exciting or funny, or that inspired negative emotions like anger or anxiety, but not articles that left them merely sad. They needed to be aroused one way or the other, and they preferred good news to bad. The more positive an article, the more likely it was to be shared, as Dr. Berger explains in his new book, “Contagious: Why Things Catch On.” 

“Stories about newcomers falling in love withNew York City,” he writes, were more likely to be e-mailed than “pieces that detailed things like the death of a popular zookeeper.” Debbie Downer is apparently no match for Polly Positive, at least among Times readers, according to the NYT.