Bad news: Two tips for handling unrelenting negativity in the media

Happy New Year! In 2017 we will continue to bring you resources to navigate today's media landscape, when fake, misleading, and demonstrably false news stories have been proliferating. A striking recent analysis by the Shorenstein Center at Harvard adds to the list of media practices – beyond fake news – that may be harmful to us as readers and concerned citizens: the media’s negative bias.

The study found that media coverage of the 2016 general election was overwhelmingly and equally negative for both nominees: 87 percent of the coverage was negative. The negative reporting had consequences, including that it generated false equivalencies, with journalists suggesting that both candidates’ comments were equally incendiary or that the controversies that enveloped them had equal bearing on their fitness for office.

Such negative news also has partisan consequences that affect our politics and how we see the world, and tends to benefit conservative, anti-government positions. Policy successes and programs that are working or could work get little coverage. For example, news stories on health policy and the economy have been overwhelmingly negative, despite measurable improvements in both. As a result, the public cannot connect the dots between policies and positive outcomes in the world.

By creating “a seedbed of public anger, misperception, and anxiety,” as the report put it, our news has made it more difficult to see what is positive and what is possible in our society. Here are two tips on what to do about the media’s bias for the negative.

Tip #1: Be aware of the media’s tendency to over-emphasize the negative and our own reactions to it.

  • Remember, you are almost certainly missing the whole picture.  When things are working well, it is not news, so what we see on the nightly news and in our newspapers skews negative. That means that we see much more coverage of war and conflict than on peace and resolution, for example, but that doesn't mean that people are not working toward peace.   
  • We pay more attention to negative headlines than to positive ones, which translates to more clicks and more pressure on news sources to focus on negative stories. Bad events tend to stick with you more than good ones, according to psychologists. Our brains and market forces work together to keep our focus on negative news. Staying aware of this tendency can help you keep it in context.

Tip #2: Seek out media that focuses on solutions and stories of resilience.

  • Consuming negative news can be bad for you. One study showed that watching even just a few minutes of negative news stories in the morning made people unhappy later in the day. Even if the news itself is bad, however, different kinds of stories can have different emotional effects. Reading solutions-oriented stories can make you feel better because they do not foreclose the possibility of positive change and they do not make you feel as hopeless or powerless. Seek out news stories and sources that focus on solutions, even when they are covering problems, conflicts, and negative events.
  • Share stories that show that what we do matters. The study on how the news affected people showed that people who watched news stories showing people’s resilience had less stress and better moods later in the day. Feeling better is not only important for your own well-being, but it puts you in the right mindset to do more good in the world.

As we begin the new year, AFSC will continue to focus your attention on the serious problems we face, but we hope you will also read and share our stories of resilience and hope. We are seeing many positive things happening in our communities, and it is important that we hold them in the light.

As readers and viewers, you can be aware of the media’s bias toward negativity, and you can seek out and share stories that empower us to make positive changes that build more inclusive, peaceful communities.