13 The Limits of Negative News and Importance of Constructive Media

by Project Censored
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Historically, journalism has highlighted social problems in order to expose wrongdoing, inform the public, and spur reform. This “watchdog” role is vital to a democratic society. However, as Christopher Reeve Linares reported for The Whole Story, as a result of a “negativity bias,” news reporting often fails to “capture and circulate some of the most essential information that society needs to understand and solve its problems.” As Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, observed, “Perceived threat without efficacy of response is usually a recipe for disengagement or fatalism.” Reeve Linares’s report highlighted recent research on the consequences of negative news overload and how “solutions journalism” can help empower news consumers as engaged actors. [For previous Project Censored coverage of “solutions journalism,” see, for example, Sarah van Gelder, “Solutions in a Time of Climate Meltdown: The Most Censored (and Indispensible) Story,” in Censored 2014: Fearless Speech in Fateful Times.] 

Research shows that negative news overload has led news consumers to feel increasingly depressed, anxious, and helpless. A 2014 study by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and the Harvard School of Public Health found that 40 percent of the 2,505 respondents polled said that watching, reading, or listening to the news was one of the biggest daily stressors in their lives. Only juggling schedules of family members and hearing about what politicians were doing rated higher as stressors, affecting 48 percent and 44 percent of respondents, respectively.

A study published in Nature Climate Change examined how newsrooms in the United States and United Kingdom covered the series of reports released in 2013–14 by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The panel’s first report, which focused on the impacts of rising sea levels, ocean acidification, and increasing temperatures, received significantly more coverage than the panel’s final report, which dealt with climate change adaptations. This leads to what Leiserowitz, the director of the Yale climate change project, calls a “hope gap.” The prospect of people disconnecting from news should worry journalists—but the possibility that relentlessly negative news might actually weaken citizenship is even more troubling. 

As an alternative to relentlessly negative news coverage, “constructive journalism” aims to produce stories that engage and inspire readers while remaining committed to journalism’s core function of informing the public. The Constructive Journalism Project defines constructive journalism as “rigorous, compelling reporting that includes positive and solution-focused elements in order to empower audiences and present a fuller picture of truth, while upholding journalism’s core functions and ethics.” As Cathrine Gyldensted, a pioneer in the field of constructive journalism, has written, constructive stories orient audiences toward the future and transform conflicts into possibilities by expanding the mind, storming the brain, changing the question, telling the story correctly, and moving the world. [See her book From Mirrors to Movers: Five Elements of Positive Psychology in Constructive Journalism (Lexington, KY: GGroup Publishing, 2015).]

Not only does the establishment press seldom utilize solutions or constructive journalism, it has not even covered these innovations in journalism as newsworthy topics. In reviewing corporate news for relevant coverage, we found just two reports on the effects of “negativity bias.” In March 2017, the Financial Times published an opinion piece that cited recent research suggesting that financial journalists are “more negative about market falls than positive about market rises.” And in May 2017, CNN posted a video report that revealed how the “real” media bias in coverage of the 2016 presidential election and the first hundred days of President Trump’s administration was neither liberal nor conservative, but rather a generalized negativity bias that led the press to concentrate solely on the flaws of the two political parties and, subsequently, the Trump administration. However, in both the Financial Times’s and CNN’s reports, negativity bias was presented as an isolated phenomenon—specific to financial reporting or campaign coverage—rather than identified as a pervasive in corporate media framing of most issues. 

Christopher Reeve Linares, “News and the Negativity Bias: What the Research Says,” The Whole Story (Medium), October 25, 2017, https://thewholestory.solutionsjournalism.org/news-and-the-negativity-bias-what-the-research-says-78a0bca05b11.

Student Researcher: Amber Yang (San Francisco State University) 
Faculty Evaluator: 
Kenn Burrows (San Francisco State University)