Bad news is bad news for society

When negativity is a vehicle for status

We’re wired to notice bad news over good. We assume this bias towards the negative must be realistic and helpful: if we know about problems, we’re more likely to act on them. Denise Baden argues that these assumptions are untrue and bad news can be harmful, making us unhappy, antisocial and less likely to take positive action. Good news doesn’t have to be propaganda or fluff – we should rebalance our news environment for a more accurate picture that’s better for us and society.  

 

The negativity in the news and journalism is well-documented – if it bleeds it leads. We are presented hourly with the world’s atrocities and reports of political upheaval, war, terror, environmental degradation, climate change and epidemics, and it is easy to feel disheartened and disengaged. This has an impact on our individual mental health as well as our political beliefs and motivations, helping fuel public intuitions that the world is getting worse. Our shared doomscrolling habit is well-established, with studies showing that we’re more likely to click on negative stories. However, my own research of nearly 300 respondents found an overwhelming preference for more positive news. If it’s not what we want and it’s doing us harm, why are we fed a diet of bad news?

Negativity bias, in which we regard negative information as more important than positive information, is a feature of human cognition. My study interviewing news editors and journalists found that many associated ‘positive news’ as being fluffy and unserious, or propaganda. They also feared that it would lead to complacency: if bad things are happening, we need to report them so that we can do something. Yet my research also found that the assumption that awareness drives action was incorrect – framing news stories negatively led to a significantly lower likelihood of readers taking action.

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The news industry is caught in a dilemma. On one hand, a free media is a pillar of western liberal democracy, holding power to account. On the other hand, it is also a business.

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Respondents were exposed to positive and negative versions of similar but real news stories, for example graphic depictions of war, heartbreaking stories of destruction of coral reefs and plastic in oceans. Those in the positive condition read about solutions, such as peace talks and ocean clean-up projects. These solution-focused news stories gave rise to significantly higher motivation to take action, such as donating to charity, being more environmentally friendly, and proactively sharing opinions, than negative news stories. We also found that in the positive condition there was a significant and strong correlation between how positive respondents’ mood was and how motivated they were to take action. The more positive they felt, the more motivated they were to act. In the negative condition there was an inverse correlation – the more anxious, pessimistic or sad the stories made respondents feel, the less motivated they were to act. Not only did negative news make people feel worse – it also eroded their desire to create positive change.

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The news industry is caught in a dilemma. On one hand, a free media is a pillar of western liberal democracy, holding power to account. On the other hand, it is also a business. Unfortunately, these two drivers are in conflict, and the latter is winning. News is a business, and it competes for our attention in an increasingly crowded marketplace. If we’re more likely to click on negative stories, the clickbait will meet that demand.

As well as an academic, I’m also a writer, and the art of good storytelling is conflict. We can explain our fascination with conflict using evolutionary psychology. Human beings are social animals – cooperation underlies our success as a species. Therefore, a primary motivation is a need to belong – no one wants to get thrown out of ‘the cave’. Belonging doesn’t necessarily require one to be an alpha male or queen bee. However, social success, and indeed a group’s success, does depend upon the way conflict is managed.

Information of external threats is a social asset, and many animals beyond humans have found ways to communicate alarm. When birds chatter furiously or monkeys shriek, the others pay attention to see what’s going on. This hard-wired instinctive response has been exploited by journalists capturing our attention. They are taught to foreground the most alarming aspects of any story in the headlines. Context or more positive aspects are relegated to the small print, if included at all.

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People are nicer than the news would have you believe. This matters because if we expect others to behave badly, this can give rise to pre-emptive, defensive or hostile behaviours that will make things worse.

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This matters for several reasons. Firstly, it matters for our mental health. We may have evolved to pay attention to alarming information, but our brains were not designed to have the worst of the world’s disasters delivered to our poor frontal cortex several times a day.  There is a growing body of evidence that the negativity of news presentation can lead to mental health issues such as depression, stress, worry and anxiety. Individuals are likely to dwell on bad news, as negative events or emotions have a stronger and more lasting impact than do positive events or emotions. This was confirmed in my own research, which showed such harmful impacts were felt especially strongly by female respondents.

Negative news also gives rise to harmful impacts on a societal level. It has been shown to reduce helping behaviour, decrease tolerance, reduce perceptions of a community’s benevolence, lead to compassion fatigue, and cause feelings of helplessness. The real danger is that bad news can become self-fulfilling. A controversial study using Facebook found that reducing the amount of positive emotional content in the newsfeed led to fewer positive posts and increased numbers of negative posts. Conversely, increasing positive contents led to more positive and fewer negative posts. This study illustrated the contagious nature of mood and how exposure to positive or negative information affects interpersonal behaviour. People are nicer than the news would have you believe. This matters because if we expect others to behave badly, this can give rise to pre-emptive, defensive or hostile behaviours that will make things worse.

Fictional outputs that deal with challenging issues such as climate change often face similar problems. Most climate fiction and many climate movies for example, concentrate on the catastrophically negative. My research shows that this can leave viewers or readers feeling guilty, avoidant or in a kind of passive despair, whereas tying solutions to problems can catalyse action. This motivated the Green Stories project to create a cultural body of work that focused on solutions rather than problems, such the eco-themed rom-com  Habitat Man, which tells the story of what we can do in our own backyard to help nature. Writers and climate experts also worked together to create an anthology of 24 short stories, all with climate solutions at their heart. Similarly, the #Climate Characters project started a lighthearted conversation on whether it was still acceptable to present fictional characters with huge carbon footprints as aspirational.

Fiction can model ways for us to cope better with adversity. Factual content like the news can do this too, and some outlets are doing it already. It would be a sad irony if an article about the dangers of negative news focused just on what’s wrong, so I shall finish by showcasing examples of communications that provide a more positive perspective, but without falling into the trap of complacency, fluffiness or propaganda.

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For my own mental health and to ensure a balanced diet of news, I subscribe to the Positive News newsletter. I learned from recent editions that we’re in a golden age of medicine; making headway on cancer; nature is returning to Europe. I learned about Greenland’s new ‘green tax’; regenerative seafood farms that create ocean habitats and jobs; legalisation of same-sex marriage in Greece; huge reforestation projects shielding vast areas of the US from overheating; and that the UK has joined numerous other countries in quitting the Energy Charter Treaty which has been enabling fossil fuel companies to sue governments in secret courts for profits lost due to climate policies.

What Could Go Right is another newsletter and podcast founded by The Progress Network. Be heartened to learn that lab-based diamonds are now stealing the market from those mined under appalling conditions. Solar panels are booming; less than one percent of China’s rural population lives in poverty compared to 97% in 1981; Tasmanian orange bellied parrots are recovering their numbers after fears for their extinction; Japanese scientists are working on wooden satellites that can biodegrade in space; race inequalities in America are finally shrinking; and a malaria vaccine is leading to dramatic declines in child mortality rates. I’m feeling better already.

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