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Evolution and Human Behavior 24 (2003) 208 216

Why humans value sensational news An evolutionary perspective

Hank Davis *, S. Lyndsay McLeod
Department of Psychology, University of Guelph, Guelph, ON, Canada N1G 2W1 Received 25 September 2002; received in revised form 7 March 2003

Abstract Although it draws nearly universal disdain, sensational news continues to attract a wide audience for reasons that are not fully understood. We examined sensational front-page newspaper stories from eight countries, published between 1700 and 2001. The 736 stories that we collected were sorted thematically, and 12 categories emerged. An analysis of the frequency of stories within these categories demonstrates relative stability in their ranking over time and place, suggesting that the content of sensational news is not socially constructed. The categories that emerged correspond to major themes in evolutionary psychology (e.g., altruism, cheater detection, reputation, treatment of offspring). We propose that, like gossip, sensational news stories may trigger an evolved tendency to attend to categories of information that increased reproductive fitness in the Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness (EEA). D 2003 Elsevier Science Inc. All rights reserved.
Keywords: Sensational news; Sensationalism; Gossip; Journalism

1. Introduction Few newspapers aspire to being labeled sensational. The term is often viewed as a scathing criticism, implying that the newspaper has abandoned serious news in favor of cashing in on stories that elicit emotional responses (Nordin, 1979). The fundamental assumption of this criticism is that serious news is worthy, while sensational news is not. Another commonly held assumption is that sensational news is a recent development, reflecting a decline in moral standards and beginning, if not in the twentieth century, then surely with the emergence of the penny press, in the nineteenth century.
* Corresponding author E-mail address: (H. Davis). 1090-5138/03/$ see front matter D 2003 Elsevier Science Inc. All rights reserved. doi:10.1016/S1090-5138(03)00012-6

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We question both of these assumptions. First, as we shall argue, sensational news may serve an adaptive function that will be hard to suppress, regardless of the disdain of intellectual critics. Second, with regard to recency, sensational news has been traced . . . into the eighteenth century and below that into the unorganized newsmongering which preceded the newspapers (Mott, 1962, p. 442). Almost from the first, sensational news has been viewed with disdain. In 1784, an editorial observed,
Let a Gazette come out filled with the finest descriptions of prosperity, general health, growing trade, internal peace and prevailing virtue [and] it will be read almost with indifference and thrown away . . . In contrast, let a Gazette inform us in detail [of a plague, civil war, or dreadful famine and] this paper would deeply engage the attention, be read over and over again and pronounced a valuable paper (Independent Ledger, January 26, 1784).

A century later, Guntons Magazine complained: There are more people who will give a cent for twelve pages of scandal, abuse, caricature and venal representation than will give two cents for clean, wholesome news . . . (Anonymous, 1898, p. 322). In short, as Mott suggests, Anything which answers to fundamental and primitive human desires can belong to no single period (p. 442). The generality of sensational news extends to place as well as time. Sparks and Tulloch (2000) argue that media standards are being driven down because of attempts to increase profit not only in America, but also in European countries such as Britain and Germany, and in Scandinavia. Similarly, Zaller (1999) shows in a variety of tests across TV and print news outlets in the US that higher levels of news competition are associated with lower levels of news quality (i.e., more sensationalism). If, as many of us assume, sensational news is unworthy, why do so many humans demonstrate its value by spending money on it? The appeal of sensational news has been explored from a variety of perspectives including sociology (e.g., Bird & Dardenne, 1990) and journalism (e.g., Clayman & Reisner, 1998). In the present paper, we will address the topic from an evolutionary point of view. If sensational news provides humans with information that served some adaptive function in the Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness (EEA), then one would expect sensational news stories to focus on a nonrandom array of topics. A survey of recent textbooks in evolutionary psychology (e.g., Gaulin & McBurney, 2001; Palmer & Palmer, 2002) identifies food acquisition, parasites, altruism, predators, reputation, cheater detection, violence, reproductive strategies, and the treatment of offspring as important determinants of our ancestors ability to pass on their genes. Will an examination of sensational news reveal that its topics are similar to these issues that evolutionary psychology identifies as having greatly influenced the success of humans in the EEA? Virtually all analysts and critics agree that the emotional impact of a story or its presentation are what decide whether or not it is afforded valuable space on the front page of a newspaper (e.g., Danson & Soothill, 1996; Sorenson, Peterson Manz, & Berk, 1998). The question is, what determines such emotional impact? Arguably, emotional appeal is uncorrelated with frequency of occurrence. For example, animal attacks (e.g., Crocodiles


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tear apart Thai Suicide Woman) will probably draw attention whether such attacks occur once a year or once a week. Similarly, stories related to the safety of food supplies (e.g., Big Macs Poisoned Us, Gallacher, 1996) would draw considerable attention regardless of their frequency. Are concerns such as these socially constructed and peculiar to time and place, or do they reflect human universals? We believe the latter is the case. In fact, it is the appeal to our base instincts a term frequently used to criticize sensationalism that suggests that evolutionary theory may deepen our understanding of sensational news. In the following study, we begin by asking whether the character of sensational news has changed over the past 300 years. We examined newspaper stories dealing with people who were neither famous (e.g., movie stars, royalty) nor public officials or employees acting in the line of duty (e.g., politicians, police officers). Our guiding question was: What kind of behavior or circumstances did an average person have to engage in or experience to be featured on the front page of a newspaper? This definition ensured that it was the behavior or circumstances of an individual rather than her identity or occupation that was responsible for her newsworthiness. We sampled news stories from eight different cultures over the past 300 years. The stories were examined to determine: (1) what types of behavior or circumstances caused an average person to appear on the front page of a newspaper, (2) how frequently such behaviors or circumstances were reported within each time period, and (3) whether certain behaviors or circumstances were reported more or less frequently than others in different time periods. If an evolutionary point of view is applicable, we should expect to find relative stability in the themes of sensational news stories over time and place, as well as in the relative frequency with which these themes occur over time. Moreover, we would expect these themes to reflect issues that were of concern to humans in the EEA.

2. Method 2.1. Materials The materials consisted of a selection of newspapers from Australia, Bangladesh, Canada, England, France, Germany, Mauritius and the United States ranging in publication date from 1700 to 2001. The specific years and newspapers sampled are shown in Appendix A. 2.2. Procedure The years between 1700 and 2001 were divided into six periods: 17001750, 17511800, 18011850, 18511900, 19011950, and 19512001. A minimum of three papers was examined for each period, with no more than two of these papers coming from any single region (e.g., North America). Times of war and other major events (e.g., elections, stock market crashes, etc.) were deliberately avoided when selecting the years to be examined within each period because such events tend to dominate front pages, truncating the normal range of news topics.

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In order to obtain a balanced sample, we specifically avoided tabloids, whose primary function is sensational entertainment (Sparks & Tulloch, 2000). An attempt was made to use papers that occupied the middle ground. Thus, in addition to avoiding tabloid papers (e.g., the Toronto Sun, the New York Post), we also avoided papers like the contemporary New York Times, which eschew sensational content as a matter of policy. A standard protocol was used to avoid any bias in the sampling of stories. We selected the first 2530 front-page stories that dealt with individuals who were neither famous nor public officials or service employees. These stories became our data base, regardless of their content. In certain cases, it was necessary to collect non-front-page news stories simply because of formatting anomalies (e.g., early papers whose front page consisted solely of advertisements). Once the sample of sensational stories was obtained, three raters independently sorted the stories into categories based on their judgement of the storys primary emphasis. The first two raters independently constructed categories in order to facilitate their own sorting. Twelve of these categories (the ones presented here) were identical. In some cases, related categories were deemed too specific to be useful and were collapsed into one of the primary twelve e.g., kidnapping and child abuse were combined into the broader harm to child category. A third rater was given a randomly selected sample of approximately 400 stories to sort into existing categories. Concordance between these judgments and the original ratings exceeded 90%. The majority of these categories are self-explanatory; however, it is necessary to clarify several of them. The robbery and vandalism category encompassed different types of robbery such as counterfeiting and theft at gunpoint. The category titled reputation consisted of stories about people who had falsely tarnished the reputations of others. For example,
On Saturday laft, a Judges Warrant was iffued for apprehending of Parker the Informer, who ftands indicted at the Old Baily for feveral henious Crimes, on the evidence of thefe People whom he had employd to give false Informations againft for retailing Spiritous Liquors, contrary to Law (Leeds Mercury, October 17, 1738).

The reputation category also included stories about persons fighting to clear or improve their own reputations. For example, the following headline from the May 13, 1881 New York World: Atoning for Many Sins The good Michael Dunn is doing after serving 35 years in prison accompanies a story of a former prisoner running a halfway house to help undo the wrong he had done earlier in his life. The marital/courtship anomalies category included stories such as one from the October 21, 1816 Montreal Gazette about an old gentleman of 84 who took to the altar with a young damsel of about 15, or this headline from the New York World, January 14, 1921: Wed While He Waits. A further example of marital/courtship Best Man and Fiance anomalies appears in the Boston Evening Post:
On Sunday Morning an odd Affair happend . . . where a young Man and Woman (Country People and very well drefsd) came to be marryd; but before the Minifter had half performd the Ceremony the Woman was deliverd of a Daughter (October 6, 1735).


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An example of the heroism/altruism category is given in Fig. 1. The taking a stand/fighting back category is illustrated in the headline Pickpocket Smacked by Woman at Race Track from the April 6, 1926 Manchester Guardian. Lastly, stories in the miscellaneous category described bizarre or unusual events; for example, a story of a man who became stuck in a log with the rabbit he was hunting. For 24 hours the hunter and the hunted were confined within the narrow limits of their prison (Toronto Star, January 10, 1898). The miscellaneous category also contained stories about people caught breaking specific rules. Note that prior to 1950, such infractions often involved innocuous by-laws (e.g., no riding bicycles on the sidewalk). During the latter part of the twentieth century the majority of rule infractions involved illegal drug trafficking. We declined to include drug trafficking in our robbery category because the victims are often willing participants and the behavior itself is differentially prosecuted across cultures. The number of stories in each category was counted for each of the six time periods. The categories were then ranked based on the number of stories each contained; such rankings were compiled within each of the six time periods. To illustrate, if 10 murder and 5 robbery stories were collected in time period A, then the murder category would be ranked 1, or most frequent, and the robbery category would be ranked 2, or less frequent. This ranking might be reversed in time period B if there were fewer murder than robbery stories during this period. Thus, each category was assigned six independent rankings, one for each time period. The category rankings within each time period were compared using the Kendall coefficient of concordance (Siegel, 1956), which tested whether there was general agreement in the order in which the content categories were ranked across the six time periods. The null hypothesis was that the category rankings were random across time periods. In essence, we were testing whether the character of sensational news in eight different cultures has changed within the past 300 years.

Fig. 1. Example from the altruism category, Boston Evening Post, October 6, 1735.

H. Davis, S.L. McLeod / Evolution and Human Behavior 24 (2003) 208216 Table 1 Rankings of 12 newspaper story categories based on frequency counts over six time periods Category


Overall 1700 1750 1751 1800 1801 1850 1851 1900 1901 1950 1951 2001 ranking 2.0 3.0 1.0 5.0 4.0 7.0 7.0 7.0 11.0 9.0 11.0 11.0 2.0 3.0 1.0 4.0 6.5 6.5 6.5 11.0 11.0 6.5 11.0 9.0 1.0 2.0 3.0 6.0 4.0 9.5 6.0 6.0 8.0 9.5 11.5 11.5 1.5 1.5 4.5 9.0 7.0 3.0 7.0 7.0 4.5 11.5 10.0 11.5 2.0 1.0 5.0 4.0 7.0 6.0 11.0 9.5 3.0 12.0 9.5 8.0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8.5 8.5 10 11 12

Time period

Accidental/natural 2.0 injury/death Murder/physical 4.0 assault Robbery/vandalism 1.0 Reputation 3.0 Miscellaneous 6.0 Heroism/altruism 9.0 Suicide/self-inflicted 7.5 injury 5.0 Marital courtship/ anomalies Harm to child 11.0 Abandoned/destitute 11.0 family Taking a stand/fighting 7.5 back Rape/sexual assault 11.0

Note: The lower the rank, the higher the frequency of stories in that category.

3. Results A total of 736 stories were sampled and sorted into 12 distinct categories (see Table 1). The categories consisted of the following: murder/physical assault; robbery/vandalism; accidental or natural injury/death; altruism/heroism; suicide/self-inflicted injury; abandoned/destitute family; harm to a child; sexual assault/rape; taking a stand/fighting back; reputation; marital/ courtship anomalies; and miscellaneous stories. For each of the six time periods, the 12 categories were given a rank based on the number of stories in each. These rankings are shown in Table 1. The six independent groups of rankings were analyzed using Kendalls coefficient of concordance. The resulting value (0.696, df = 11, P < .00001) demonstrated highly significant concordance among the rankings across the different time periods. In short, the same general topics emerged in news stories from each of the six time periods, and the prevalence of stories in each of the categories remained similar over time.

4. Discussion Our research demonstrates that the topics of front-page news stories about average people in eight cultures have varied little over the past 300 years. The stability in their ranking over


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time suggests that these topics have not been socially constructed on the basis of time or local cultural values. Moreover, an examination of these topics the essence of sensational news suggests that they are strikingly similar to issues that evolutionary psychology identifies as having influenced the success of humans in the EEA; e.g., altruism, reputation, cheater detection, violence, reproductive strategies, and the treatment of offspring (Gaulin & McBurney, 2001; Palmer & Palmer, 2002). Why does this sort of news about other people interest most individuals? For example, why should the suicide of a woman, who jumped into a pit of crocodiles in Thailand, interest a woman in Toronto, Canada? Why should the possibility of Escherichia coli contamination in a McDonalds restaurant in the UK concern a man in Yonkers, New York? From an evolutionary point of view, the emotional impact of these stories makes sense. Our ancestors would likely have increased their reproductive success by gaining certain kinds of information about the world around them. Thus, stories about animal attacks, deadly parasites and tainted food sources remain salient topics, even millions of years after their likelihood of occurrence has become marginal in industrialized nations. Note that such stories (e.g., animal attacks) did not occur frequently enough in our sample to warrant a separate category; however, when such events did occur, they invariably resulted in coverage as front-page news. In addition to physical threats to human existence, we should not underestimate the role of social factors on success in the EEA. Membership in a group was essential to survival and knowledge of others in the group would increase an individuals ability to both survive and reproduce (Pinker, 1997). Although newspapers did not exist in the EEA, gossiping probably did (Dunbar, 1996). Indeed, Dunbar has argued that language evolved not to serve higher intellectual functions, but to allow communication about social information. There are two unmistakable parallels between gossip and sensationalism. (1) Just as sensational news is widely sought yet publicly disdained, so too does gossip trigger an ambivalent response. As Barkow (1992) notes, . . . gossip may at times be publicly disvalued and disowned, but it remains a favorite pastime . . . in all human societies (p. 628). Similarly, Boyer (2001) argues that gossip is practiced everywhere, enjoyed everywhere, and despised everywhere. (2) The topics people gossip and tell stories about across a wide range of cultures (e.g., Abrahams, 1970; Gluckman, 1963; Haviland, 1977; Scalise-Sugiyama, 1996) are virtually identical to the categories that emerged in our analysis of sensational news stories. Many of the categories in our analysis can be described as forms of rule breaking or cheating. The importance of attending to information about cheaters has been demonstrated by Enquist and Leimar (1993) who found that cheaters were less successful in a community of cooperators when those cooperators can communicate with each other. Both gossip and sensational news are effective strategies for disseminating information about the behavior of group members and not allowing cheaters to remain anonymous. The content of sensational news is often precisely what one needs to keep track of persons with whom one might be in competition for resources. Boyer (2001) has described the themes that attract our attention as topics of adaptive value, such as peoples status, resources and

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sex. In the present study, categories such as accidental injury and death, altruism, suicide, and those who take a stand or fight back help to define a social hierarchy. Information in the abandoned or destitute families category would allow for more informed decisions about mate selection and also help to solidify group norms. The final news story category, reputation, provides humans with a tool to manage the manner in which they are perceived by other group members (Bergmann, 1993). Sensational news stories may appeal to humans because they trigger an evolved tendency to attend to information that could have increased a humans reproductive fitness in the EEA. The emergence of newspapers and, with them, sensational news may simply reflect a technological change in the manner in which certain categories of information are transmitted. The fundamental attraction of such news to humans, even in large, virtually anonymous social groups, remains unchanged. Appendix A. Year(s) of publication examined for each paper sampled Time period Region 17001750 UK UK USA UK UK USA UK USA Canada UK USA USA Canada Canada Canada France France UK USA USA Canada France UK USA Canada Germany Newspaper Year(s) of publication examined






Penny London Post 1733 Leeds Mercury 1738 Boston Evening Post 1735 London Morning Penny Post 1751 Leeds Mercury 1769 Boston Evening Post 1756 Leeds Mercury 1814, 1815 New York Tribune 1842 Montreal Gazette 1816, 1817 Leeds Mercury 1859 New York Times 1897, 1898 New York World 1881 Toronto Star 1898 Toronto World 1898 Ottawa Citizen 1884, 1892 Le Temps 1861 Le Figaro 1887 Manchester Guardian 1926 New York Times 1908 New York World 1920, 1921 Toronto Star 1929, 1949 Le Temps 1901 The Guardian 1995 Detroit Free Press 1970 Calgary Herald 2001 Die Welt 2001


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Mauritius Australia France Bangladesh

LExpress Sydney Morning Herald Le Monde The Bangladesh Observer

2001 2001 2001 2001

Note: In the "Region" column "UK" stands for United Kingdom and "USA" stands for United States of America.

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