I’m sure I’m not alone in thinking, “why does the news have to be so miserable all the time?” Between terror attacks, mass shootings, human rights violations, road collisions, and the perpetual shaming of politicians, the news can be quite a depressing look at our society. Feed these events into the 24-hour news cycle and social media discussions, and you wouldn’t be blamed for thinking mankind is on the brink of quite literally tearing itself apart. Would you believe it if I said that, statistically speaking, we are living in the safest time we’ve ever known? Maybe this pessimistic perception we have of the world is more to do with a state of mind cultivated by negative media exposure.
Firstly let’s ask ourselves, why do negative stories dominate the news headlines? Well, it turns out that this is due to a variety of reasons. According to the negativity bias, humans are more likely to hear and remember bad news due to its emotionally charged nature. This doesn’t necessarily mean we are all disturbed individuals driven by morbid curiosity, but rather that we have evolved to react to danger as a survival mechanism. To demonstrate this point, a Russian news site (The City Reporter) conducted a social experiment by running only positive news stories for an entire day back in 2014. The results saw its readership for the day drop by two thirds. So what does that tell us? In a world where commercial media outlets dominate the ratings and fight to compete with one another, this provides incentive for journalists to present their stories in a dramatic fashion that is likely to attract more clicks and viewers. Essentially, more bad news means more money.
But surely negative news is more important than positive news. How can we affect positive change through an ‘ignorance is bliss’ approach? I completely agree with this and there is no doubt that people should be exposed to the injustices and less pleasant realities of the world. However, I do question what effects the constant barrage of gloomy and depressing news has on society and our ability to see the bigger picture.
Psychologists have conducted studies which reveal the effects that overexposure to negative news can have on an individual’s mental health, including stress, anxiety, and depression. When people say that they don’t watch the news because it bums them out, they probably really mean it. These people avoiding the news may lead to a more disenfranchised public when it comes to important topics of discussion.
So what can be done to change this? Maybe a shift towards more balanced news reporting. Perhaps highlighting notable achievements and positive advancements within our society alongside all of the bad stuff would help. After all, good news makes people happier. And sharing that news with people we know makes them happier, too. In fact, the spreading of good news has been studied and is believed to enhance global emotional synchrony, leading to higher life satisfaction among individuals and more unity and acceptance within society.
Another potentially effective practice which could have major social benefits is the adoption of constructive journalism. By taking a more balanced approach to certain stories we encourage the public to consume them in a more critical manner, and attempt to learn and solve problems, rather than causing social unrest and viral outrage. This will hopefully encourage a more diplomatic dialogue on subjects which at the moment seem to only incite anger and mistrust.
A significant change in approach to what and how stories are reported could be the first step towards a more harmonious and understanding global community. There are many news sources out there adopting a more measured tone, and using constructive language to tackle issues that matter and require civilised discussion (such as The Guardian). But with commercial media dominating Australians’ news intake, it is easy for us to fall into the sensational, negative, and oftentimes biased cycle that we all know and *ahem* love. While the ABC and SBS continue to have their government funding cut and calls for privatisation, there is nothing stopping people who care enough to subscribe or donate to the various non-commercial news sites out there that are part of this cause. A conscious effort on behalf of the population is now more important than ever.