Why is the news so negative? It’s the very definition of a truism to point out that bad news always dominates the headlines, but why is this? Some might say it’s because the media is cynical and they know that bad news sells papers. But that cuts out the customer. It’s a matter of supply and demand. If bad news sells, then it’s the customers that appear to want it.
This has been researched. Even people who complain that the news is depressing will still, given a free choice, read the stories about scandal, war and crime first. So why are we drawn to the negative? Is it a subconscious alertness to danger somewhere in our brains? Morbid fascination? Is it because they reinforce our natural fears and suspicions about the world? Or conversely, because they confound and challenge our rosy assumptions about how it will all be alright in the end?
Either way, we appear to be complicit in the culture of negativity in the media. It’s a self-reinforcing cycle where editors push bad news to the front to sell more papers, and we respond by buying them and incentivising the ongoing practice. This inevitably has consequences. It might lead us to think that things are worse than they are. There’s plenty of evidence that we overestimate some problems to a dramatic degree, and that will lead to some poor choices. Think of how many people voted for Britain to leave the EU over fears about immigration. Now consider that when asked what percent of the population are immigrants, people guess 24% – not far off double the reality at 13%.
Another consequence of the negativity bias is powerlessness. We could feel overwhelmed by our problems. It could make us passive, disengaged. We won’t act to solve the problems in front of us – such as climate change – because we can’t see our way out. If we can’t imagine a positive income, there’s no motivation to work for change. At its worst, the hopelessness becomes self-fulfilling.
Can the media be more constructive? Sure, and there’s a bit of a movement around it at the moment. Unless you have a particular interest in news and the media, you may not have come across ‘solutions journalism’. It’s something of an internal discussion, but it’s worth being aware of. Solutions journalism isn’t an attempt to screen out bad news and only present positive stories – I’ve seen a couple of attempts at that and it usually ends up fairly twee. Rather, it’s a commitment to telling the whole of a story: the bad news, and the responses to it.
“Societies don’t change simply because someone has pointed out a problem” says Tina Rosenberg of the Solutions Journalism Network. “We also need models to show that doing better is possible. Including coverage of how society is responding to problems — done in a rigorous way, without fluff, advocacy or public relations — is more engaging to an audience, more complete journalism, and creates a bigger impact.”
The Solutions Journalism Network advocates for better coverage of solutions, trains journalists and runs workshops, and tracks the development of solutions-based coverage. If you write, there are a variety of resources to help you get started and cover solutions well. Constructive Journalism is a similar idea, launched last year by Sean Dagan Wood of Positive News, which I write for occasionally.
Of course, if we’re actually all drawn to bad news anyway, then this is a doomed movement. But the research so far, by groups like the Engaging News Project, suggests that there’s an appetite for solutions. People read more of an article if it covers solutions as well as problems, and they’re more likely to be inspired by it.
I certainly hope so. I made an editorial decision myself several years ago to talk more about solutions than problems. We don’t need to be told that things aren’t working. We can see that for ourselves. The people and projects working to fix it, that’s where the story is. And those are stories that open up new possibilities, inspire action, and empower people to create change.