The Psychology of News

By Deane Barker on August 24, 2012

I love the news.  I’m a news junkie.  I’m constantly attached to CNN in some form or another, and have been since I started college.

Lately, I’ve become very interested in news from a content strategy perspective.  I’ve been talking about rivers and trees, and The Indoctrinated Audience, but I want to back up for a second and talk about news itself.

Why do we like the news?

The simple answer is: we derive practical value from being informed.  I see a news story, and I know something that I didn’t know beforehand.

Well, sure, but it goes beyond that, right?  There’s something else about news that fills a basic human need.  What is that?

Last year, I read A History of News by Mitchell Stephens, a NYU professor of journalism.  Stephens makes the point that one way to discover why news is important is to examine what happens when it’s gone.

To this end, Stephens introduced me to the work of Bernard Berelson, who examined what happened during a 17-day newspaper delivery strike in New York City in 1945.  During this time, New Yorkers had trouble getting any newspaper, and during this era, the only other option was radio, so it introduced significant isolation for many people.  Berelson reported on (PDF) several studies of New Yorkers’ attitudes and emotions because of this.

So, here’s why we like the news –

First, the news tells us that things are happening around us.  It is a form of entertainment, and therefore it provides us security that the world is an interesting place.  As Stephens puts it, news allows us to “marvel at the world.”

Taken down a smaller level, news tells us that an entity is still viable, alive, moving.  We read the news about the National Football League in the offseason, and mentally we check off that the NFL is still around and there will be football in the fall.

This is echoed in some quotes from New Yorkers in Berelson’s research:

I don’t know what I am missing – and when I don’t know, I worry. […] I sat in the subway, staring, feeling out of place. […] You feel put out and isolated from the rest of the world.

News signals momentum.  News signals vitality.  News tells us that the world is still turning.  This gives us security.

Second, the existence of news reinforces the belief that we can become informed.  There is an inherent “cloud of unknown” about the world, and that scares us.  We don’t like the fact that there are a lot of things we don’t know.  Consuming news reinforces to us that we can, in fact, become informed and dispel this cloud.

From Stephens:

More than specific information on specific events, the great gift a system of news bestows on us is the confidence that we will learn about any particularly important or interesting events The news is more than a category of information or a form of entertainment; it is an awareness; it provides a kind of security.

The telling and re-telling of news continually reminds us that people know things that we don’t, and that there is a method by which we can be enlightened enough to escape from the unknown.  We draw peace from that.

Third, news allows us to form a shared consciousness with others.  If I’m reading an article about the presidential race, I subconsciously know that I am entering into a shared domain of knowledge with other people.  This is an issue that affects us all, and we have shared concerns about it.  We may not agree about issues, but that fact that we all have “skin in the game” solidifies our membership in the group.

From Stephens:

Societies depend for their unity and coherence on a sense of group identity. […]  a society too depends on the flow of a stream of perceptions and sentiments from a shared perspective — in this case a societal perspective — to provide its members with day to day, minute to minute, reminders of the existence and the significance of the group. To think a society’s thoughts is to belong to that society. News provides the requisite set of shared thoughts.

I may not know everyone in my city, but I know that a lot of them read the local paper.  When I do this too, whether I acknowledge it or not, I am proclaiming my membership in this community, and, by extension, other people.  Deep down, we all love community, and news that affects a community binds us to it.

So, now that we know why news is important, how does this relate to business in general, and content strategy in particular?

Let’s relate to this to a specific instance of news around a product and see how the above reasons apply –

We sell EPiServer to people (it’s website management software, for those completely outside our industry).  In doing so, we always have prospects go look at EPiServer World, which is the thriving community for EPiServer developers and users.  EPiServer World has a never ending flow of blog posts and articles, along with a busy forum system.  It never fails to impress.

Clearly, this because of the first three reasons explained above:

  1. It tells a potential customer that things are happening with EPiServer.  New products are coming out, new sites are being launched, new partners are being signed, and new content is being developed.  They look at the byline on the latest article, and they are reassured, “EPiServer is alive and well…”
  2. It tells a potential customer that there is a steady stream of information about this product, so there is a way for them to clear up things that confuse them.  The Cloud of the Unknown can be dispersed, which is important when considering a significant investment of time and money.
  3. It lets a potential customer feel like they’re part of a community.  They read articles written by real people, and this tells them that there is a group that they can identify with that has needs and opinions and beliefs about things related to this product.  Each news article gives another look into this consciousness that they can share in.

And this is why news matters, both to the world, and to your business.

Yes, it has practical benefit.  But if that’s all you’re using it for, then you’re vastly missing the point.

News fills a psychological and emotional hole inside us.  It fills a hole that we probably don’t even know is there.  And history shows that fortunes and empires have been built by doing that very thing.

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