Bad news is good news for web traffic

You, faithful reader, have been stuck with me for a whole year now. I started as a full-time columnist and editorial board member at The Gazette a year ago this month. I’ve published about 150 columns and written 50 staff editorials in that time.

That anniversary gave me a chance to look back on what I’ve written, and also how many of you cared about it, as measured by website traffic.

The most popular article was my commentary on “The Miracle Season,” a movie based on the true story of a high school sports team in my home of Iowa City. That wasn’t particularly interesting to my core base of political readers, so you can chalk that one up to fortunate search engine listings.

The list of my other most clicked-on articles had two primary themes — columns blasting the justice system and columns calling out partisan politicians by name.

The first part is easy to explain. There is growing and largely unmet demand for thoughtful criticism of the criminal justice system and the war on drugs. My second most-read post in the past year was a short 200-word blog post about a Hawkeye football player’s unnecessary alcohol-related arrest. The punchy title, “Public intoxication is a fake crime,” apparently resonated with readers. Similarly, anything I write about our state’s nonsensical and overbearing marijuana laws is sure to attract plenty of traffic.

The relative popularity of that second category — my columns bashing our elected officials — is more interesting to me. Believe it or not, I do occasionally write columns praising politicians or their policy proposals, but those rarely cause much of a stir.

Indeed, it reliably is those negative commentaries that seem to get your fingers clicking.

Even though I identify as a right-wing commentator, I make a point of dishing out

bipartisan criticism. My top stories include knocks on Democrats — U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, U.S. Rep. Dave Loebsack and failed gubernatorial candidate Fred Hubbell — as well as on Republicans — U.S. Rep. Steve King and U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley. Curiously, none of my columns criticizing President Donald Trump cracked the list of my top 15 most-visited posts.


What drives high interest in bad news? Psychologists have observed what they call negativity bias, the phenomenon by which our brains are more stimulated by unpleasant things than by pleasant things. It’s an understandable evolutionary trait. Our senses are heightened when we are confronted with potential danger.

But the result of that tendency when it comes to media consumption is not ideal. More than half of Americans say reading the news causes them stress, and most also say we are at the lowest point in U.S. history they can remember, according to the American Psychology Association’s 2017 “Stress in America” poll. That’s true even among people who lived during World War II, the Vietnam War and the Cold War.

Maybe the majority is right and we are leading worse lives than earlier Americans. Or, maybe our extreme connectivity to the news — a smartphone in every pocket, a tablet on every nightstand — has robbed us of optimism. How’s that for some happy news?

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