The Doom Loop
January 17, 2024
Kevin Schulman, Founder, DonorVoice and DVCanvass
If it bleeds it leads. This media cliche begs the question, is the media feeding us negativity we swallow like bad medicine or are they giving us a spoonful of our preferred elixir?
The Russian news site, City Reporter, did an experiment for an entire day publishing nothing but positive stories. The result? They lost two-thirds of their normal readership that day.
Other research shows that for a headline of average length, each additional negative word increases click-through by 2.3%.
But has it always been this way? In a recent, working paper (findable on SSRN) researchers compiled a massive dataset of 170 years of digitized newspapers from 13,000 local newspapers constituting about 1 billion articles. Their aim was seeing how well sentiment predicts economic outputs, e.g. GDP. It turns out media sentiment is a very good predictor (and reflector) of economic outcomes.
But that’s not why I’m sharing this. Check out this trend data parsing economic article sentiment from non-economic over 170 years of US history. I added in a few of the seminal events.
Notice anything? How about the long fall off the negative sentiment cliff for economic and non-economic since 1998 and 78′ respectively? How is it that our media sentiment is so much worse over this recent history? A Civil War, two World Wars and a Great Depression ain’t nothing in the annals of crappy.
Notice also the gray bars, each of which marks an official recession; many more and wider in the first 80 years. There was a lot more reason for economic gloom and doom during this stretch and yet it was rainbows and unicorns compared to more recent eras.
What gives? In a word, competition. The proliferation of media outlets and the 24hr news cycle all playing to the lowest common denominator, a myopic click-through race to the bottom. If negative “works” then give me a double, triple…octuple dose because more negative must be better, right?
What’s the fundraising point to all this?
- Don’t follow, lead.
- Good luck selling a doom story into a doom vortex that’s exponentially more powerful than yours because it already includes your gloom story plus a billion other ones.
- Sell hope if you dare, sell promise and uplift if you’ve got conviction in the good you’re doing
- People aren’t motivated by fear or guilt or even anger or aspiration. It’s not that simple. They’re motivated to reinforce their values and goals and feel psychologically satisfied. Nothing about that formula requires or even benefits from the doom loop.