Let’s suppose that you are visiting Mt. Pleasant, S.C., and you pick up a newspaper – which of these headlines is most likely to catch your interest: “Mt. Pleasant High Schoolers Make Award-Winning Video,” or this one: “Mt. Pleasant Candidate Charges Town Fiscal Mismanagement”? Odds are, and research would predict, that the negative story is what you will read and remember. (Postscript: No evidence of fiscal mismanagement in Mt. Pleasant was found.)
It is part of our human nature to be drawn to negativity (“negativity bias,” as described by researchers). Negative and accusatory statements grab our attention and influence our opinions, overall, more than positive information. And we are more likely to remember the negative. A recent New York Times article described it well: “Praise is Fleeting, but Brickbats We Recall.”
Why is this important and what does it imply for community dialogue? First, research indicates that accusations and negative statements, in addition to gaining the most attention, are often accompanied by assumptions of elevated intelligence of the author and acceptance of the allegations as fact. This phenomenon is not new. But link that pattern with today’s expansive ability to pass along information instantly to thousands of people, often without mechanisms to ensure accountability and accuracy, and we have a problem.
We have all seen examples of a caustic or negative comment being recirculated far more widely than a piece of good news. In addition, today’s communication technologies make it easy to disseminate information anonymously, which contributes to lack of accountability. Associated Press journalist Scott Conroy put it this way in an opinion piece written following a nasty set of internet exchanges: “It was yet another example of how the Internet – and the anonymity it affords – has given a public stage to people’s basest thoughts, ones that in earlier eras likely never would have traveled past the water cooler.”
Perhaps the most promising approach is for each of us individually to maintain awareness of this accelerating phenomenon and exercise judgment and discipline to question negative information before accepting it, and to view anonymous sources with an appropriate degree of skepticism. But since there is a natural tendency to notice and believe negative information, we also need public mechanisms to correct inaccuracies and provide accountability.
Communities across the country are seeking ways to manage information to help assure (1) that information about public issues is widely available and disseminated through multiple digital platforms; and (2) that information used in public dialogue is as accurate as possible. One good example is Glendale, California, which maintains a “Rumor Page” on its website to help spot and correct inaccurate information and misperceptions that are being circulated in the community. Another example is the work of the League of Minnesota Cities that has assembled a protocol for setting an expectation of civility.
A good source for information and tools is the International Association for Public Participation. There are many more examples of communities successfully undertaking related initiatives. The key point: Participatory and authentic community dialogue is critical to informed self-governance, and attention to maintaining the integrity of the dialogue is of paramount importance.
Roger Waldon was director of the Chapel Hill Planning Department from 1984-2005, and is a former member of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Board of Education. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org