How constructive journalism could help solve the ethical dilemma of overly negative news

Editors may believe that negative news sells, but Denise Baden’s research indicates that it is having adverse effects on our wellbeing. This is an ethical issue, she says, and suggests that more constructive reporting could present a solution

Editors may believe that negative news sells, but Denise Baden’s research indicates that it is having adverse effects on our wellbeing. This is an ethical issue, she says, and suggests that more constructive reporting could present a solution

I was prompted to investigate news values after noticing how I often felt depressed and disengaged after watching news bulletins. Talking to editors and reporters, I found professional journalists tend to regard negative or bad news as ‘real news’ that should be reported. They had little interest in including positive stories in their bulletins. But my research suggests readers and viewers prefer them.

Results from my research at the University of Southampton, which involved more than 2,000 respondents, indicates that presenting news in a negative way leads to disengagement, avoidance, negative mood and anxiety. For example, respondents were exposed to two environmental news stories, one focused on the damage to the oceans, and another that recounted the success of a clean-up campaign. The positive news story gave rise to significantly greater motivation to be more environmentally-friendly.

I believe that – bearing in mind the challenges we face relating to sustainable development, pollution, resource scarcity and climate change – it is important to have news that is likely to motivate rather than demotivate pro-environmental behaviours.

“Framing news in such a negative and shocking style might be good for business, but it is not good for mental health or society.”

Similarly, respondents were exposed to another two stories, one focused on the atrocities in Syria, and one covered peace talks between Iran and the US. The news story on atrocities lowered mood scores by 38 percent for women and 20 percent for men. It also gave rise to very high scores on anxiety, sadness and pessimism. The story on peace talks had the opposite effect. Further findings were that the more negative respondents felt, the less likely they were to voice their opinions, donate to charity or take actions to make the world a better place.

I question whether constant exposure to negative news may be contributing to the growing problem of mental health issues, such as depression and anxiety, as well as leading to apathy and disengagement.

In addition to exploring the effects of news on the public, I also interviewed top editors and journalists from Reuters, BBC, Sky, Al Jazeera and others. My research found that although most editors believed that they and most other news professionals held themselves to high standards of integrity and believed the news served a higher function in society, the assumption was that negative news was news, and there was a dismissive approach to more positive news. The most prevalent justification for this view was that the public need to be informed about bad news so they can do something about it, that the public want this kind of news, and that the public are free not to consume news if they don’t want to.

However, there is evidence that humans are hard-wired to pay attention to alarming news as part of an evolutionary adaptive response, meaning that consumption of negative news is not necessarily a freely chosen activity. The argument that negativity is more likely to prompt action is also false as evidence indicates the opposite.

The dynamic appears to be that negative news leads to feelings of powerlessness and apathy – that in the face of terrible happenings we feel unable to do anything about, the most typical response is to turn away. On the other hand, more positively framed stories that focus on reconstruction, rather than destruction, are more likely to inspire a wish to help. Results from the studies also showed a clear preference for more positive news, although there was acknowledgement that negative news was more likely to grab attention.

I argue that this presents an ethical issue. The research clearly suggests that the framing of news in such a negative and shocking style might be good for business, but it is not good for mental health or society. However, it is an issue that is unacknowledged. There is awareness in most industries of the ethical issues that can occur when business interests clash with societal interests. But the more shocking and negative news, the more ‘worthy’ it is deemed to be – despite its negative effects – while more positively framed stories are seen as a distraction from more important issues.

This lack of conscious awareness of the extent to which only a subset of information is selected as news is nicely illustrated by the difference in how interviewees responded to the bad news of bumble bees disappearing and the good news that they were making a comeback.

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When the stories about bumble bees disappearing came up, interviewees were eager to mention that they had extensively covered this topic and also reported causes, context and so on. Yet none of the interviewees were aware that bees were making a comeback. When this welcome fact was pointed out by the interviewer, interviewees expressed at best a mild, but disinterested surprise, and at worst, completely ignored it.

The way in which this good news seemed not even to be properly heard or registered suggests that when new information is presented that does not fit a preconceived idea of what news is, no attention is paid to it. Thus a positive story like this is not being consciously rejected as news – rather it has not even reached the level of awareness that it could be news. The consequence is that the public remains ignorant that they now have less to fear.

One outcome of this research is that it has led to increased interest in how to present what is often reported as negative news in a more constructive way. I have been awarded funds from the Economic and Social Research Council to work with the Constructive Journalism Project to present workshops to journalism students on how news can be framed more constructively. The important issue to get across is that positive news is not just about fluffy bunnies, and it is not about ignoring the problems that society faces. Instead, it is about taking existing stories and presenting them with a more positive angle. By doing this journalists can cover the same issues, but rather than prompting distress and disempowerment, they can inspire hope and engagement.

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