News Stories People Swear By …
Everyone knows what makes people buy newspapers: sex and scandal, of course. But what kinds of news stories do people like to share? According to a new study by Wharton researchers Jonah Berger and Katherine Milkman, it’s a quite different sort of content—the kind that inspires awe.
Berger and Milkman analyzed more than six months’ worth of articles that made The New York Times top-25 “Most E-Mailed” list—about 7,500 in all—to try to pin down qualities that lead to viral popularity. Controlling for factors like front-page placement, they found that positive news tended to get passed along more frequently than negative news, and that stories that “open the mind” and “challenge people’s beliefs or way of seeing the world” are shared most of all.
Articles containing useful practical tips are also apt to go viral, but not to the same extent as those laden with what Berger and Milkman identified as “the emotion of self-transcendence, a feeling of admiration and elevation in the face of something greater than the self.” Thus it emerged that stories about topics like cosmology and RNA—hardly catnip to tabloid editors—often topped the list of readers’ recommendations.
“Such content does not clearly produce immediate economic value in the traditional sense,” the authors note, but it may pay dividends for the broader culture. “Sharing affectively rich content can reinforce shared views and deepen social bonds.”
… Stories That Bear False Witness …
News editors are often accused of favoring negative stories over positive ones, but the charge doesn’t stick when it comes to cancer reporting. In the real world cancer kills about half the people it strikes. In the print-media universe, however, it’s always getting cured—often by means of aggressive treatments whose adverse effects have a way of disappearing from the prose. That’s according to an analysis of 13 large-circulation newspapers and magazines led by Jessica Fishman ASC’96 Gr’01 M’06 of the Center for Clinical Epidemiology and Biostatistics.
In a March issue of Archives of Internal Medicine, Fishman and her colleagues reported that news stories about cancer are four times likelier to focus on survival than on death. And though most of the cancer-related articles in their data set dwelled on aggressive therapies, fewer than a quarter of those acknowledged that such treatments may fail. Stories addressing end-of-life palliative or hospice care were vanishingly rare.
Does this media bias do any harm? It might. Past research suggests that accurate information about end-of-life medical care can help cancer patients develop realistic expectations and improve outcomes. And failing to consider hospice care means forgoing its well-documented benefits for patients and family members. The prevalence of “unrealistic information” in mainstream media cancer reporting, the authors observe, “may mislead the public about the trade-offs between attempts at heroic cures and hospice care.”
… And One That Got Away
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s approval of a vaccine for human papillomavirus (HPV) in 2006 drew no shortage of media attention. The sexually transmitted virus causes cervical cancer, and when a federal advisory panel recommended that all 11- and 12-year-old girls receive a protective vaccine, a culture-war skirmish predictably ensued. For public-health advocates, all that extra glare set the stage for what you might call a teachable moment. Here was a golden opportunity to amplify awareness about cervical cancer and the best ways to elude it.
Yet according to a new study by researchers with the Annenberg School’s Center of Excellence in Cancer Communication, print and television journalists made a hash of it. The team, led by Bridget Kelly Gr’07, analyzed 321 print and broadcast news stories and found that more than three-quarters of them omitted arguably the most salient fact: the sexually transmitted nature of HPV. Furthermore, almost 80 percent of the stories failed to mention the need for continued cervical-cancer screening after vaccination—though newspapers generally did a better job of this than television. The finding appeared in the journal Patient Education and Counseling.