Academic journal article Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media

News as Nonfiction Theater: How Dispositions toward the Public Cast of Characters Affect Reactions

Academic journal article Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media

News as Nonfiction Theater: How Dispositions toward the Public Cast of Characters Affect Reactions

Article excerpt

Bad news dominates the news at large. Numerous content analyses have shown that the incidence of bad news exceeds that of good news, and that it does so to an impressive degree (e.g., R. L. Carroll, 1985; Haskins, 1984; Stone & Grusin, 1984; Stone, Hartung, & Jensen, 1987). News reporting appears to be partial to mishaps, setbacks, dangers, tragedies, and catastrophes that threaten or that have been suffered by people of all walks of life, whether or not such reports are of consequence for the news consumer. This partiality is obtrusive enough to be recognized by the public. According to an opinion survey (Shaw, 1993), 64% of news consumers believe that the media "put too much emphasis on negative news" (p. A1). A survey of news directors (Galician & Pasternack, 1987) shows these professionals to be cognizant of, but also to justify and defend, the disproportional selection of bad news for presentation, essentially contending that bad news is more newsworthy than good news. Interestingly, however, most of them believe that bad news desensitizes and depresses news consumers. Their beliefs are echoed by many media critics and scholars (e.g., Cowdy, 1993; Galician, 1986; Gerbner & Gross, 1976; Levine, 1986; Jaehnig, Weaver, & Fico, 1981; Veitch & Griffitt, 1976). In fact, the expectation of depressive and cynical reactions to the preponderance of bad news is said to have prompted the institution of closing newscasts with a piece or two of upbeat, good news (Scott & Gobetz, 1992; Zillmann, Gibson, Ordman, & Aust, 1994). Such placement of enlightening or amusing reports is thought to provide "a release from the deathwatch" that, in the judgment of some, defines much of the news (Marc, 1989, p. 1). Bennett (1983) similarly suggests that the purpose of upbeat closing stories is to "send people off to bed reassured that, despite its problems, the world is still a safe and positive place" (p. 5). Irrespective of the potentially pacifying effect of good news at bedtime (Zillmann et al., 1994), however, bad news generally is seen as infusing the citizenry with apprehensions, fears, depressive states, lingering anxieties, and at the very least, with bad moods.

The projection that a preponderance of bad news fosters a corresponding preponderance of depression-like states in the news-consuming public implies that people respond rather uniformly to affect-inducing reports. Specifically, it implies that bad news almost invariably evokes bad feelings and that, likewise, good news evokes good feelings. The expectation of such hedonic congruence between news revelations and emotional reactions to them is untenable, however, in light of any formal analysis of the affective dynamics involved.

Research on empathic reactivity, in particular, provides compelling evidence that affective reactions are a function of affective dispositions toward the agents to whom good or bad things are happening and who express positive or negative emotions in response to these happenings (e.g., Aronfreed, 1970; Berger, 1962; Eisenberg & Strayer, 1987; Hoffman, 1978; Stotland, 1969; Zillmann, 1991). When the indicated dispositions are favorable, persons respond in a hedonically compatible fashion to the good or bad fortunes of others; that is, they will be pleased and joyous when learning about good fortunes of liked others, and they will be displeased and disturbed when learning about bad fortunes of liked others. When these dispositions are unfavorable, however, persons respond in a counterempathic or hedonically incompatible way: The experience of good fortunes by disliked others is distressing, and that of bad fortunes by them is enjoyable. Empathic reactivity may be expected, then, wherever and whenever dispositions of liking exist. Dispositions of disliking, contempt, resentment, or open hatred, on the other hand, must be expected to foster counterempathic reactions. In such situations, the negative disposition virtually overrides empathic concerns, mostly because of moral considerations (cf. …

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