On Wednesday, NPR ran a story on Google’s experimental newsroom, which explicitly avoided publishing anything negative about Brazil’s soccer team in the wake of their shocking 7-1 loss to Germany on Tuesday. Brazilians increasing searched for “shame” and some reference to their country or team. However, Google refused to publish these trends in Brazil. Google copywriter Tessa Hewson is quoted explaining that the trend is rejected for being too negative: “We might try and wait until we can do a slightly more upbeat trend.”
This reaction stunned NPR’s Aarti Shahani, and it would probably stun many veteran reporters. Why avoid negative headlines?
I ask the team why they wouldn’t use a negative headline. Many headlines are negative.
“We’re also quite keen not to rub salt into the wounds,” producer Sam Clohesy says, “and a negative story about Brazil won’t necessarily get a lot of traction in social.”
Mobile marketing expert Rakesh Agrawal, CEO of reDesign mobile, says that’s just generally true. “People on social networks like Twitter and Facebook — they generally tend to share happy thoughts. If my son had an A in math today, I’m going to share that. But if my son got an F in math, that’s generally not something you’re going to see on social media.”
Notice how Agrawal is giving an example of a personal story – his son’s grades – instead of a sports game played by people we do not know personally. This difference between sharing personal stories about our lives and external stories about the world cuts at the question I posed in my last post: what do people find newsworthy? How do we balance personal and external news?
People who gather information for a living often focus on the negative, at least in many areas of social life like politics. The harmonious balance of a well-run community rarely has specific events that make journalists think “wow, that’s a great story!” But when people are sharing stories on social media sites, they tend to emphasize the positive out of what they are exposed to. This sharing vs. journalism model implies that people who produce media content for a living have fundamentally different views on what is newsworthy. Shahani’s article on NPR highlights these differences, and suggests some of why they are so shocking to a professional reporter. However, it appears at though people working in social media may conflate the type of communication (sharing vs. traditional news) with the thing being talked about (interpersonal stories vs. broader social interest).
Is Google’s emphasis on the positive unique to sports and entertainment?
It is interesting to compare the Google Newsroom’s treatment of Brazil’s loss in Brazil to ESPN or Yahoo!, which cover sports for a national audience in the United States. The World Cup is headed to the final. The NBA season concluded weeks ago. 20 years ago, the end of the NBA season would be the best time for a basketball writer to take a vacation. This year, many basketball reporters are realizing the offseason is when they see a dramatic increase in readership, making it one of the two main sports for ESPN to cover right now. Bryan Curtis explained the change at length in a feature earlier this week for ESPN subsidiary Grantland. He starts by interviewing Tim Bontemps, the New York Post reporter who broke the news that Jason Kidd was leaving the Nets.
It was more important than any story Bontemps had written all year. That’s because the trade rumor — shorthand here for any offseason transaction news — has become the dominant form of NBA journalism. “For everybody in my line of work,” Bontemps said, “the offseason has really become bigger than the regular season.”
“I can’t comprehend how big this has been,” Bontemps said. “When I got it, I thought it was going to be a big story. I had no idea. I didn’t expect it would be the lead story in sports for three days. It’s been stunning.”
Other NBA reporters tell similar stories. “It’s not just the offseason,” said ESPN’s Marc Stein. “It’s transactions, period. People love transactions.” In an era when reporters can count the number of times their posts get shared on Facebook or retweeted on Twitter, it is very easy to compare the audience’s interest in different topics.
This year, the offseason began on May 18 — the day Roy Hibbert scored 19 points in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals. That’s when a “rival executive” told Yahoo’s Adrian Wojnarowski that Minnesota was making noises about trading Kevin Love. Woj — who has mastered the Trade Rumor Era better than anybody — then posted two tweets, holding out Boston and Houston as possible destinations for Love. They were retweeted nearly 2,000 times combined. By comparison, Woj’s column about Hibbert’s Game 1 performance was retweeted 72 times.
While Google’s experimental newsroom focused on positives and negatives for the World Cup match, NBA fans have a different focus based on an orientation to time. Stories about the present or recent past receive relatively little attention. After the Spurs’ offense set records during game 3 in Miami, there was surprisingly little interest in articles explaining how their dynamic offense works. The audience perked up after the finals, when reporters started tweeting even the most speculative information about where LeBron James will play basketball next season.
“The Finals are about the Heat and the Spurs, LeBron James and Tim Duncan,” said Henry Abbott, ESPN.com’s NBA editor. “But LeBron James’s free agency is about everybody’s imagination. Now your team may get LeBron. You can project your dreams onto it.”
Comparing Google’s treatment of soccer to the audience’s interest in the NBA rumor mill illustrated a broader point about sharing behavior and newsworthiness. With many topics outside of our personal experience, envisioning the future may be more important than the present. The possibility of LeBron James leaving Miami for Cleveland may be a positive for Cleveland fans and a negative for Miami fans, but for most people it doesn’t clearly line up with concepts of valence. As a sports fan who is interested in organizations and news media, I find his decision interesting. It makes me think about all the possibilities for the future. But I don’t really care which team he chooses to play for on any personal or emotional level. [Ed: LeBron announced he is returning to Cleveland as I put the finishing touches on this post this morning.]
Separating positivity and negativity from the interpersonal
Instead of saying “people prefer to share positive stories,” it is possible that “people prefer sharing stories involving personal connections, and these stories tend to be positive.” We can think of many reasons why sharing interpersonal, negative content would be rare. Sharing negative feelings or comments about friends on a social media site where our entire clique can see is rude and could divide the group. People generally don’t like to read “whining” posts, an informal norm that is often communicated as a part of new users’ socialization. Users may keep problems to a smaller group of friends, versus a relatively wide broadcast to our entire social network.
When people post about politics and a broad range of social issues, we would not necessarily expect the same normative prohibitions to apply. For instance, as I was starting this blog post last night the athletic equipment company Warrior posted the following on it’s Twitter feed (both posts deleted this morning):
Comparing Warrior’s tweet to the angry replies illustrates some of the differences of when sharing negative emotions is not only acceptable but expected. Warrior shared negative feelings about ESPN, many segments of the sports audience, and women’s participation in sports more broadly. Many people who saw this tweet felt offended. Having covered softball’s College World Series, I’d certainly put myself in that group! We see Title IX as part of a historical trajectory in the United States, encouraging greater female participation in sports (and possibly other areas of social life). Warrior portrayed a different social trajectory. Critics like me pointed our ire at Warrior, a specific offender, more than the sport of lacrosse. That offender is not a part of our social group. Pointing out this company’s offensive tweet and subsequent refusal to immediately apologize is a fundamentally different form of sharing negative emotions.
Instead of simply putting “sharing” activity with positive feelings and “reporting” activity with negative feelings, we need to separate what types of activity people treat as newsworthy on social media. Sharing negative emotions may be more acceptable or even expected when it comes to politics and other social trajectories that may get threatened. It is worth think about whether a preference for sharing a certain emotional valence or a certain set of topics comes first, or whether they can even be separated.
- People who favor sharing “positive” stories may gravitate away from formal news stories and towards sharing more interpersonal stories. Cat videos and baby pictures can be cute and heartwarming. Politics may provoke anger. Local news may be full of crime and chaos.
- People who prefer sharing “negative” stories are easiest to theorize as part of a Durkheimian sense of maintaining moral order by highlighting transgressors. For example, people who didn’t tweet that they were happy about seeing softball on ESPN tonight may repeat Warrior’s tweet along with their condemnation. If people want to try and maintain moral order in some way by creating social boundaries and labeling deviants, they would probably look to discuss broader political and social areas instead of policing their own clique of friends.
- People who favor sharing interpersonal stories will probably gravitate towards sharing positive content. As I discusses earlier, there are many barriers against sharing negative interpersonal content.
- People who favor sharing political stories and social issues are the hardest to predict. Media organizations and large blogs that cover these topics often skew towards outrage. However, people may want to share more positive messages as a way to build solidarity or encourage some sort of affirmative behavior like donating to a political cause. People may be most inclined to share something about politics or social issues when it includes some kind of social trajectory. These trajectories may be uplifting stories of hope (think of Upworthy), negative stories of “deviants” trying to quash a preferred social history (Warrior and Title IX), or less emotional stories of social change that capture our imagination (LeBron to Cleveland)
Google’s Newsroom appears to be making a counter-intuitive prediction: news and negativity don’t go together all that closely. One possibility is that Google Newsroom is focused on “sharing” as a holistic behavior and not separating by topic. They could be making a huge mistake. The preferences that lead many people to share personal stories on social media may be very different than the preferences that lead people to share stories about social trajectories. Both preferences may be different than Google searches, particularly if people search about different topics than they post about.