There’s plenty of bad things happening in the world and it seems like we’re often lurching from one tragedy to the next, or trying to take in simultaneous horrors all over the world.
It can feel like journalism and news media revels in communicating the most depressing details of every tragedy. Whether this is driven by a need to fill airtime on 24-hour news channels with live coverage of unfolding events, a rush for ratings or awards, or to fulfil our psychological need for bad news, it’s no exaggeration to say that negative journalism is having an impact on society.
Negative journalism perpetuates stereotypes of individuals, groups and entire communities, whether its harming the job prospects of young people, demonising people on benefits or contributing to anti-immigrant political rhetoric. News journalism has been used by politicians to “bury bad news” among even worse news and by police to insinuate complicity in tragedies.
Bad news is also bad for our health. Studies show that exposure to a typical news story results in a drop in mood in most people – up to 38% in women and 20% in men.
Focussing on personal stories helps us understand and empathise with tragic events on a grand scale we couldn’t otherwise possibly comprehend, but chasing emotive personal stories at the expense of balanced, factual news coverage can lead to accusations of bias and is in danger of contributing to political propaganda.
Exposure to too much negative news has a substantial emotional impact on users and often makes the us feel passive and helpless, rather than engaged in society in a proactive way.
According to Dr Denise Baden at Southampton University, exposure to negatively-framed news items makes people significantly less likely to take positive action and the more anxious, worried or sad news makes us feel, the less likely we are to donate to charity, be more environmentally friendly or generally voice our opinions.
Stories of suffering in media leaves us apathetic, no longer makes us indignant or mobilises political change, but rather dulls our sense of outrage and desensitises us to suffering. Documentary-maker Adam Curtis calls this “oh dearism.”
What can we do?
We should learn to tell when we’re being manipulated by the news and journalism and refuse to be co-opted into its hysteria and sensationalism.
The Conversation is a much more balanced and considered news and current affairs website, written by academics but in a journalistic way. It’s backed up by research and the writers are transparent about who they work for and how their research is funded. It’s informed, interesting and above all, refreshing.
If health is your thing, websites such as Behind the Headlines from NHS Choices explain the science behind some of the latest news stories so you can come to your own conclusions. Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science blog does a similar job for science fans, challenging the way scientific research is interpreted and presented to the public by delving into the research behind the hype.
We should seek out less emotive and more balanced news reporting, that explain the situation and encourage the consumer to make up their own mind about what opinion or stance to take. There are probably no such things as unbiased news sources, since there is always a hierarchy, funding model and individual personalities involved, but we can look beyond mainstream media for a wider range of reported news.
Try the following news sites if you want to broaden your range:
Check out Balanced News, use the slider to see how left-wing and right-wing news stories differ and learn how to spot bias in your favourite news sources.
We should create demand for good news, learn to appreciate good news stories, to see the good in the world and to accept that feelgood stories deserve to be more than an “and finally” story at the end of the news.
The 2012 London Olympic Games offered a brief respite from misery as cross-media coverage led to a positive effects on the UK and and a spike in public pride, while Channel 4’s coverage of the Paralympics helped change attitudes towards disability which appears to remain two years later. Before the Olympics, attitudes towards disability were very different and were fuelled by regular negative news stories. The positive coverage generated by the Paralympics was driven by demand – for TV ratings, for the event to be a success – so a suitable investment was made.
The following sites focus on good news:
If you’re a journalist plying or learning your trade, you can start looking at presenting solutions to social problems in your writing. Not only does it make the story more engaging for your readers, but it helps promote your work too.
Research shows that people are more likely to like good news stories and to share them with their friends and family on social media, helping to lift moods and encouraging more positive action.
According to the Transformational Media Initiative, “constructive journalism covers positive and solution-focused news formats, narratives, angles, and styles of debate, within classical reporting.” The organisation aims to seek truth, reflect reality and express ideas and perspectives in a way that informs, inspires, and empowers people.
TMI believes that news reporting needs to become more emotionally balanced while still telling the investigative and critical story. With an audience that is no longer desensitised, we might see more action and impact from critical reporting.
Catherine Gyldensted is a Danish reporter who tries to promote constructive journalism all over the Norway and the world. She believes in the application of positive psychology to focus and highlight solutions in a story and to find lessons to take away from trauma, rather than focussing on the default ‘victim’ interview of traditional journalism.
Journalists need to be taught the benefits of good news and constructive journalism. Courses are regularly offered in Denmark and look to be finally breaking into the mainstream. The first Centre for Constructive Journalism was launched in 2014 to help promote the practice, The University of Texas at Austin has launched The Engaging News Project to research commercially-viable and democratically beneficial ways to improve online news.
The Solutions Journalism Network is offering a free toolkit (signup required) to help journalists develop solutions-oriented stories and therefore find positive stories responding to social problems that are not being reported in mainstream media.
Sources and further reading
- Storytelling and Media For a Better World
- Shock! Horror! Behind the ethics and evolution of the bad news business
- Beyoncé, cute kittens or relentless tragedy? Is good news really news at all?
- Notes on “Oh Dearism”, distant suffering and shame-based activism
- Constructive journalism from the Transformational Media Initiative
- Why we need constructive journalism