A new year brings hope; a chance for us to make resolutions, usually for the betterment of ourselves and others around us. This striving for improvement is a collective goal that has seen our society progress since the beginning of time. Johan Norberg, in his recent book “Progress” reminds us that “we have made more progress in the last 100 years than in the first 1000” as well as gives us good reason to look forward to the future. In spite of this, we are compelled to believe a different narrative of the world and its people as a result of their overwhelming negativity of the news, reporting on the failings and regression of society.
President Johnson (1963-1969) complained about the negativity bias in Time magazine to its publisher and editor, Henry Luce, “this week 200.000 ethnic minorities registered in the South, thanks to the Voting Rights Act. Three hundred thousand elderly people are going to be covered by Medicare. We have a hundred thousand young kids working in troubled neighborhoods. None of that is in here!” Luce replied, “Mr. President, good news isn’t news. Bad news is news”. This is as true today as it was then, as stories most commonly considered newsworthy focus on war, corruption, scandal, murder, famine, and natural disasters. Not only are these negative stories chosen for publication over positive ones, even when all other news values are the same, but they are also given preferential display. Although this may serve the commercial incentive of selling newspapers with sensationalized headlines to grab our attention, too much of a bad thing can in fact be bad for us. Haskins (a late journalism professor at the University of Tennessee) suggests, “prolonged exposure to bad news over long periods can have detrimental effects on moods, attitudes, perceptions and emotional health”. These detrimental effects are further exacerbated by the changes in media technology, which have increased the frequency and availability of news as well as increasing its “negative, sensational and graphic nature”.
A fundamental reason for the focus on negative news is credited to the watchdog role that the media plays in society, which serves an important function of holding power to account and shining a light on many of the world ills that need addressing, forcing them onto the public agenda. This serves to fulfill our evolutionary human survival instinct to monitor our environment for potential threats or dangers, which require immediate attention. It is reasonable to suggest that humans are “hard-wired” to pay more attention (voluntarily or involuntarily) to bad news than good news. But this is not the end of the story, as readers are even more engaged with socially responsible “constructive approach to bad news”, with readers finding it to be “more interesting than straight bad news”. This involves the “pro-social treatments of bad news and proposed solutions to problems”; we are not just problem finders, we are also solution seekers! It has been requested that there be “the introduction of more legitimate, less fluffy good news”.
This call to action has been answered so well by many pioneering news organisations that report on solutions including Positive News, Images of Voices and Hope, Boomcast and Huffington Post. This movement has grown with other organisations including Constructive Journalism Project in the UK and Solutions Journalism Network in the US, which has trained 75 news organisations and over 5,000 individuals to report solutions focused news through their robust and increasingly growing framework.
Rather than appealing to the morality or responsibility of the entire industry to embrace Constructive Journalism on our behalf, we can all make an individual resolution to change the way in which we consume the news in 2017. Constructive Journalism (inclusive of both problems and solutions) can help us in our striving for improvement; a core function of the press to hold these failures to account to ensure we learn from them to prevent future repetition. Well, what if we turned this somewhat on its head and said that what if we were able to hold successes to account in order to learn from them so we can perhaps encourage future repetition. Now before this is impulsively disagreed with on the basis of being advocacy journalism lets just compare the latter with its well-respected former. There is no difference in journalistic rigour between the two and both enable understanding of an event for the purpose of influencing subsequent behavior that brings about a better future. After reflecting on a year of turbulent and somewhat hostile change, perhaps it is a time to create unity, balance, and understanding and hope... Perhaps it is time for Constructive Journalism.
Jodie is a UK-based Psychologist with a Master’s Degree in Applied Positive Psychology from the University of East London. Her work encourages individuals to understand the detrimental state of the media industry, and how we have the power to encourage it to change. You can view more of her work here.