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If It Bleeds, It Reads

Kool-Aid or Drano? Pick Your Poison.

NFL: Atlanta Falcons at Houston Texans
Texans greatness to the left, not so much on the right...
Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

If you’ve been around the block and paid any attention to written content put out in almost any form, you’ve heard the old newspaper adage, “If it bleeds, it reads” or the colloquial rendition “if it bleeds, it leads”. This saying borders on cliched in 2021, but is just as valid as it ever was long before the internet came into existence and actual unbiased journalism left this world. Why is this a thing? Well, over the early years of tracking readership in order to sell ad revenue, newspaper magnates discovered that a negative story was far more likely to gain readership and go “viral” before “going viral” was a thing. People are just wired to focus on negative news, headlines, blog posts, etc., right or wrong. The average negative story is over ten times more likely to gain readership than a positive one.

Why is that?

Psychology Today

The brain, Cacioppo demonstrated, reacts more strongly to stimuli it deems negative. That is, there is a greater surge in electrical activity. Thus, our attitudes are more heavily influenced by downbeat news than good news.

Our capacity to weigh negative input so heavily evolved for a good reason—to keep us out of harm’s way. From the dawn of human history our very survival depended on our skill at dodging danger. The brain developed systems that would make it unavoidable for us not to notice danger and thus, hopefully, respond to it.

All well and good. Having the built-in brain apparatus supersensitive to negativity means that the same bias also is at work in every sphere of our lives at all times.

This isn't just factual for news; it works everything from op-ed gardening articles to sports talk. Over the years I’ve been honored to work alongside the awesome members of Battle Red Blog, I’ve watched this play out here. Both pre- and post-Coral, when we saw thousands of comments a day dwindle to tens of them. In other words:

If it bleeds Battle Red, it reads.

Looking at the hit counters for BRB posts routinely bears witness to this social phenomenon despite the large number of comments to the contrary.

Let’s pause for a moment and state unequivocally that no one (at least no one I’m aware of) on the masthead purposely writes negative posts to gain readers. There’s no motivation, no benefit, no dangling carrot or gun aimed at our collective heads to drive hits to the posts. SB Nation pays us in million dollar bills already, so whether a post gets 100 hits or a 100,000 doesn’t matter one iota to the writers on BRB.

It’s still very interesting to watch the old newspaper adage play out right here in our own little corner of the World Wide Web. Since we have a wide array of highly intelligent readers, I’m sure none of this is news to many of you. However, it is a point of curiosity (for me at least) how many view it this way.

In the end, we’d love nothing more than to write posts about how (insert player here) dominated the [Tennessee Not-The-Texans] in a 57-14 romp. Or expound on (insert player here) coming off the street to whoop the Cincinnati Bengals in the playoffs. Or how (insert coach here) turned a ragtag bunch of free agents into a Super Bowl contender in Nick Caserio’s first season as an NFL general manager. But these days, those tales, the “win” story seeds, are far harder to find - the Texans’ news field is more weeds than cash crops waiting for harvest.

I’ve seen a lot of comments where folks say things like “BRB was so much better a few years ago,” which dovetails with the team being so much better. Coincidence? At the end of the day, if the Texans are [kitten]ing the bed, expect posts to discuss said [kitten]. If they’re smoking the competition like cheap brisket, expect posts that reflect that.

(Sidebar: Despite what many might believe, the number of comments on a post rarely reflects the overall number of hits. Often the post with the most comments is one of the least read pieces of the day).

This got me thinking: iI a negative post here follows the typical rules of engagement for “if it bleeds, it reads” yet the comments section is usually more indicative of a desire for positive spins, does this become a simple case of actions speaking louder than words? Hard to say.

What do you think? Without much positive news, and knowing there’s an angle to everything, whether it be “negative Nate” or Pollyanna, what would you honestly rather view?


I’m more likely to read a:

This poll is closed

  • 48%
    Postive spun Texans post
    (43 votes)
  • 44%
    Pragmatic post, regardless of its negative/positive nature
    (40 votes)
  • 6%
    Negative post. If it bleeds, I read.
    (6 votes)
89 votes total Vote Now

Here’s something more upbeat to end on, just because we could all use a Texans memory to remind us of why we love this team:

YouTube: The Game That Made J.J. Watt Famous (the NFL now blocks video embeds on SB Nation for some reason)

(But you can still embed them on Twitter?)