The Limits of Negative News and Critical Importance of Constructive Media

by Vins

Journalism’s historical approach is to highlight social problems in order to spur reform, expose wrongdoing, or generate awareness about injustice or possible threats. This “watchdog” role is critical to the vitality of a democratic society. However, it has led to an overload of news that feeds the evolutionary tendency towards “threat awareness” —a biological and psychological response known as the negativity bias. This perspective of attending to “negative news” helps us react defensively and thus avoid danger, yet it comes at a cost.

Research shows that negative news overload has led news consumers to feel increasingly depressed, anxious, and helpless. A 2014 study by National Public Radio, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and the Harvard School of Public Health found that a quarter of those polled said the news is one of their biggest daily stressors. Climate Central observed that newsrooms are struggling to produce engaging stories about climate change. Instead, they are writing stories that fuel a sense of hopelessness about the issue. As Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, said, “We call this the ‘hope gap,’ and it’s a serious problem. Perceived threat without efficacy of response is usually a recipe for disengagement or fatalism.”

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. A 2008 study by the Associated Press showed that the ongoing occurrence of tragedy, crisis, war, and terror in news headlines contribute to a cycle of disengagement—leading to “news fatigue” and “compassion fatigue,” feeding the desire for news consumers to tune out and lose their motivation to help. Where’s the empowering news that highlights human goodness, creativity, and possibility beyond “objective” facts?

Constructive journalism urges journalists to move the spotlight away from victims toward victors (creators) and models of well-being. Constructive stories do five things: expand the mind, storm the brain, change the question, tell the story right, and move the world—these help us orient towards the future and transform conflicts into possibilities. Stories should “tell the story right” by closing right. To support hope and possibility, reporters can end a story with a constructive closing paragraph with open questions, ideas about learning curves and visions for the future.

Just as our negativity bias has helped us survive, constructive positivity communicates what we are doing right or what is right about the environment. It provides a signal that our surroundings are safe and that new opportunities and ways of seeing the world are possible. The challenge of constructive journalism in an increasingly complex world is to produce stories that engage and inspire readers while also remaining committed to journalism’s core function to inform the public.

Mainstream media has no recent coverage about constructive journalism—and only one recent story about the negativity bias. CNN Pressroom published a March 2017 video revealing how the “real media bias” during the Trump-Clinton election and the first 100 days of Trump’s presidency wasn’t a liberal or conservative bias; rather, it was a negativity bias in which the press concentrated solely on what was going wrong on both sides. This incomplete coverage portrays the negative bias as an isolated story, rather than a deeply embedded approach to how we inform the public on most issues.

Sources:

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

Henry Edwards, “From Negative Biases to Positive News: Resetting and Reframing News Consumption for a Better Life and a Better World,” Master of Applied Positive Psychology (MAPP) Capstone Projects, August 15, 2017, https://repository.upenn.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1126&context=mapp_capstone

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