Home All Protect Yourself from the Negative Consequences of Negative News Bias

Protect Yourself from the Negative Consequences of Negative News Bias

written by Henry Edwards May 17, 2018

Henry Edwards, MAPP '17 has the mission to create a better world by telling the story of human goodness and moral progress. For 30 years he has taught in progressive schools in the DC area. Henry blogs about human flourishing at the Getting Better Blog, and his book THE DAILY BETTER: 365 Reasons to Feel Better about Our World will be published in late 2018. Positive Psychology News articles by Henry are here.



Do you keep up with the news? There’s certainly a lot of drama on the air, in the newspapers, and on Twitter. How does the news make you feel? If you’re like me, you may find that your well-being takes a nosedive after a dose of the news. Nonetheless, I don’t think we should avoid it. A strong democracy requires us to be informed citizens. What can we do to keep informed without a major cost to our well-being?

Questioning the Content of the News

Reading the paper

People rarely question the content of the news, but they should. What we see on TV, in the papers, and on social media does not tell the whole story of the world.

Life has been getting better, not worse, for nearly everyone.

According to scholars like Steven Pinker at Harvard and Max Roser at Oxford, we live in the best time in history. Just as crime has fallen, so too have rates of HIV infection, homelessness, extreme poverty, war, murder, youth drug use, underage drinking, smoking, air pollution, and hunger.

At the same time, many of the good things in life have been on the rise, including longevity, high school graduation rates, educational attainment, vaccination rates, access to mobile phones, democracy, transportation, and human rights.

But we still seem to think the world’s going to hell in a handcart. The Center for Media found that during the 1990s, network evening news shows in the US tripled their coverage of crime, especially murders. The 1990s were also a time when the murder rate plummeted 42%. The gap between the way the world is reported and the statistical evidence that paints a picture of progress is stark. In 2015, despite the roll call of human progress noted above, a YouGov poll found that only 6% of Americans believed the future was going to be better.

Negative News

The news media is certainly one culprit for our pessimism about the world, but some of the blame lies in our psychological makeup. Researchers have found that we all are subject to negative biases. In their own research and review of the literature, Paul Rozin and Edward Royzman note that “negative events are more salient, potent, dominant in combinations, and generally efficacious than positive ones.”

Negative information grabs our attention more strongly than positive information. When people form impressions from a mix of positive and negative information, the negative dominates. When they consider negative information, people think more about and sift through the nuances of it more than when the information is positive. Negative memories form more quickly and remain in memory longer than positive ones.

Tied up in news knots 

These biases mean that we tend to see threats faster than opportunities and dwell on problems more than solutions. These biases affect journalists and editors no less than news consumers. Remember the trope, “If it bleeds it leads,” which reflects the negative biases of journalists and news consumers alike.

While much of the blame of news negativity lies in human psychology, it also lies in the news gathering and publication process. For a start, news doesn’t just exist out there in the world. It’s constructed. Journalists and editors determine what will be considered the news. Maxwell McCombs and Donald Shaw have called this the agenda-setting function of journalism.

Another important media effect is framing. Framing is the way a story is told. It affects whether or not consumers will keep reading or stay tuned. If we report that 95 people miraculously survived a plane crash, news consumers will likely find it less compelling than if we report that 5 people were killed. Journalists often frame stories negatively to get more attention.

Reporter

In an experiment that captured subjects’ psychophysiological responses to real news stories, Stuart Soroka and Stephen McAdams found that negative news caused stronger and more sustained reactions than positive news. In another experiment conducted by Marc Trussler and Soroka, subjects claimed to prefer positive stories, but eye movements showed preference for the negative, especially by participants who expressed interest in current affairs.

So what? Maybe negative news isn’t so bad.

Unfortunately, negatively biased news is both inaccurate and detrimental for well-being. Many studies demonstrate the negative psychological effects of negative news. Wendy Johnston and Graham Davey found that those exposed to negative news were sadder and more anxious. They also found that the negative news group obsessed more about their problems. In another study, Attila Szabo and Katey Hopkinson found “that watching the news on television triggers persisting negative psychological feelings that could not be buffered by attention-diverting distraction (i.e., lecture), but only by a directed psychological intervention such as progressive relaxation.”

Television news

In a 2014 poll conducted by National Public Radio, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and the Harvard School of Public Health, a quarter of respondents said that the news was one of their biggest daily stressors. In a 2001 study, Mary McNaughton-Cassill found that exposure to the news was directly related to anxiety. When hearing negative news, consumers feel less emotionally stable and more fearful about possible harm to themselves than when exposed to positive news.

Clearly the news is biased toward the negative, and negative news has negative consequences.

Workshop to Combat Negative Biases in the News

As part of my work as a positive psychology masters student at the University of Pennsylvania, I developed a half-day workshop meant to combat negative biases in the news by training attendees in relevant strategies.

A healthy diet

First attendees explore their own news diet, which I define as a person’s daily intake of local, regional, national, and international news from print and digital media sources.

After assessing their own news diet, attendees learn about negative biases both in themselves and in the news they consume. They next learn about Barbara Fredrickson’s theory of positivity, that positive emotions can cause upward spirals via positive feedback loops of positive emotion, creativity, and physical health. They learn about cultivating and savoring positive emotions.

The next step is to learn about how news is constructed and framed by journalists. Consumers can then get their news from news sources that frame stories in broader, less narrowly negative, frames. Thus, consumers can create their own healthier news diet that is both more accurate and more positive.  Several examples of more constructively framed news sources are listed in my capstone on pages 55 and 56.

Summary

While not all news is negatively biased, much of it is.

Biased news is inaccurate.

Negatively biased news is detrimental to well-being. There are alternatives for those looking for a healthy news diet.

 


 

Sources

Edwards, H. (2017). From negative biases to Positive News: Resetting and reframing news consumption for a better life and a better world. MAPP capstone, University of Pennsylvania.

Center for Media and Public Affairs. (1997). In 1990s TV news turns to violence and show biz. Pess release, Washington, DC.

Gyldensted, C. (2011). Innovating news journalism through positive psychology. MAPP capstone, University of Pennsylvania.

Gyldensted, C. (2015). From Mirrors to Movers: Five Elements of Positive Psychology in Constructive Journalism.

McCombs, M. E., & Shaw, D. L. (1972). The agenda-setting function of mass media. Public Opinion Quarterly, 36(2), 176-187.

McNaughton-Cassill, M. (2001). News media and psychological distress. Anxiety, Stress, and Coping, 14, 193-211. Abstract.

Pinker, S. (2012). The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. Penguin Books.

Roser, M. (2017). Our world in data.

Rozin, P., & Royzman, E. B. (2001). Negativity bias, negativity dominance, and contagion. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 5(4), 296-320. Abstract.

Soroka, S., & McAdams, S. (2015). News, politics, and negativity. Political Communication, 32(1), 1-22.

Szabo, A. & Hopkinson, K. (2007). Negative psychological effects of watching the news in the television: Relaxation or another intervention may be needed to buffer them!. International Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 14, 57-62. DOI: 10.1007/BF03004169.

Trussler, M., & Soroka, S. (2013, June). Consumer demand for negative and cynical news frames. In annual conference of the Political Science Association, Victoria, BC.

Photo Credit: Flickr via Compfight with Creative Commons licenses
Reading newspaper courtesy of Christof Timmermann
Entiled courtesy of Rusty Russ
Reporter courtesy of Ian Muttoo
Television News courtesy of caribb
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3 comments

Judy Krings May 18, 2018 - 12:55 pm

Right on, Henry Edwards! Refreshing to read your analysis. My husband and I discuss the negative bias all the time. Well done! Also, my Ph.D. thesis adviser way back in 1977-78 was named Henry Edwards, U of Ottawa, Canada, so thanks for the memories. Hope you keep posting here, Henry. With gratitude to you, too.

Reply
Henry Edwards May 24, 2018 - 8:43 am

Thanks for your comment, Judy. Yes, the negativity bias is strong and pervasive. My book, which will be coming out in late 2018, gives readers a daily dose of good news about the world. It’s meant to counter the strong and pervasive negativity bias. Watch this space!

Reply
Josef Mattes May 26, 2018 - 12:45 am

Very nice discussion indeed.
I would like to add that one negative consequence of the negativity bias is an urge to tell others how to lead their lives. That happens even among those who believe to be mindful, as I argue in a recent paper. If you are interested:
“Mindfulness and the Psychology of Ethical Dogmatism”, Journal of Buddhist Ethics, 28, 233-269. Open access at: http://blogs.dickinson.edu/buddhistethics/files/2018/05/Mattes_MBSR_Psychology-final.pdf

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