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Didja Hear?

Why we like to break bad news.

By Richard Laermer - January 21, 2004

I first noticed it at what I think was a Kwanzaa party. Having trouble keeping myself amused, I had started quizzing those holding drinks and soon discovered that everyone there was kind of "into" news and recent events.

For a second, I brightened. As a media junkie hanging out in a room of strangers, I realized it would be my lucky night if they all turned out to be informed whizzes.

It wasn't.

Turns out everyone was joking about who'd called whom, in the middle of what night, to break the news of whichever bit of current events. It was as if, I realized, it was a big contest for this crowd, a competition to be the first to tell people about each big happening in our hypey news times.

"Remember, I was nervous to call you at 3 in the morning about Saddam because you love your sleep so much," reminisced one woman. She was followed by some giddy man confessing how after a recent airline crash he didn't hesitate from calling a friend, regardless of the hour, because he wanted to get to that friend "before anyone else."

Welcome to news-observation as a sport. It's based on the recent discovery of how often and how fast we can celebrate (typically bad) news with each other, and we all want to win as often as possible.

I'm guessing this is another result of 9/11. On that day, for the first time in a while, news became way too important to do without. It was suddenly an era when it made you feel better to pass on a Tom Friedman column or something profound or uncanny Tim Russert or Jon Stewart had proffered in the heat of the day. Those were sad and perplexing days, and sharing was de rigueur.

I wonder if this is partially because we of the complacent generations have longed for our own Kennedy moment, a story with which to regale future citizens—and each other. Finally, on that crisp fall morning, we got our own "Where were you when?" game to match the one our parents play with sadness, nostalgia, and some element of glee.

But it's more than two years later now; why are we still calling each other with oh-my-God news in the middle of the night? Is it because we need to share life-affirming information with one another in the insecurity of Bush's America? Has our government's never-ending habit of attacking nations done this to us? Is it maybe our own small effort to increase our vigilance whenever the threat index changes hue?

Or could it be we're just bored?

It makes sense to go whole-hog over hugely significant news, attacks and the like. But why these phone call celebrations for items that are not going to change the world? Why call about Scott Peterson's court appearance? About Michael Jackson's arrest? About the Rosie O'Donnell trial? Is it perhaps that this is all we have to talk about, some communal "thing" that occurred a few seconds ago? Suddenly we've all become Dateline producers, organizing our lives around the "get" of the moment.

In an eerily familiar way, this is the return of the late-nineties stock ticker. Constantly clicking on stock news was the thing in the boom years, and then we all got into trouble with that. But in those days, one did not share the ticker news, as we do now, we merely yelped and ran from the room. It was fun—and unlike the constant news clicking, it wasn't a drain on your time for no real gain. Back in stock heyday you could jump online, get your price, know if your portfolio was up or down, go back to work. Now we spend time surfing news sites, surfing channels, and calling friends about it. I don't understand jumping up and down for a tragedy rather than for a Netscape stock split. This new habit seems like a very different kind of nervous-making, one we might reconsider having so much fun with.

A group of foreigners dies in a crash off a coast no one is sure where. That has to be shared with haste? A moment of silence might be more appropriate.

And how often do we really know what we're talking about before we make that call? So much of what we learn from the online news sites is really only the very latest news bites. How do you know when to jump from the link or stop watching Hannity before you email or call around? And if you're trying to get to your friends first, are you even sure you're right about it? Now we're all becoming news editors, each our own Jason Robards in All the President's Men. Are we sure about this? Are there multiple sources confirming? OK, then go to press.

Let's imagine we merely "took" the news, like our grandparents did. Mine sat down with a cup of tea at 10 p.m.; they knew where their children were, got their information, and went to bed satisfied. No sharing with others. In the morning they read a newspaper and learned what they might in detail. Sure there was water-cooler talk during breaks at work, but it was talk about family and friends—and perhaps the important controversy of the day. People didn't, however, feel the need to share a deadly crash/Stalin sighting/cure for polio the second after it jumped onto the screen.

Maybe our lives were more interesting in Grandma's day. Or there was more to gain from keeping it to yourself. Better yet, maybe there more faith in the evolutionary nature of the news. Here is the formula: A story breaks ("'Mad Cow' Cow Found"), there are denials of it mattering ("'Mad Cow' Cow Is Canadian"), people react really strangely ("Secretary of Agriculture Says 'Mad Cow' Won't Stop Her from Being Carnivorous"), and then we discover it's only one beast ("Lone Cow Theory Holds Up"). Eventually, the story plays out calmly ("No More 'Mad Cows,' Only Vengeful Ones") and we return to sharing liquids and baby pics with our colleagues and ultimately bored enemies.

The truth, as it turns out, is less exciting than we thought, but that didn't stop us from a half-dozen over-excited phone calls along the way.

Back to the Kwanzaa party. Everyone there seemed psyched that they knew something first and had gotten to each other before other acquaintances hopped on the facts. I kept wondering what the big deal was, why they were so thrilled to be smacking people with bad news. Then it occurred to me that in times like these, where we can no longer talk about acquisitions because it seems politically incorrect, when so many are ungainfully employed, it's hard to find and share things to be overjoyed about.

Perhaps the news is giving us joy.

Doesn't matter if it's bad, good, or just strange. (You can bet there were calls about the woman who found a condom in her soup and got a settlement from the fast-food company.) All that matters is that it's shareable. Bottom line is that when something unique happens on the horizon, people go berserk. It's pretty simple, really: News-knowledge makes us look good.

Richard Laermer is the CEO of RLM PR, a full-service public-relations firm with offices in New York, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C., and he's the author of Full Frontal PR: Getting People Talking About You, Your Business or Your Product.

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