The news tells us a story about the world in which we live but we all know that it is not the whole picture. We are only ever presented with a small fraction of our world, but it is so enlarged it can appear to be the whole picture – and herein lies the problem. The stories that are amplified are the ones that are most extreme, most conflict driven and most unusual, fitting our modern news mentra of “if it bleeds it leads”.
“The news is not, in fact, a reflection of everything that goes on in the world, it is a reflection of everything that goes wrong in the world” (Sommerville, 1999).
For this reason, as a consumer of the news, I find it difficult to form balanced opinions. How can I when my information source is so unbalanced? Nonetheless we all, myself included, do form opinions based on the news. You see, we are not fully conscious of this distortion of reality created by the news, even though we may know it to be the case. Instead, our minds are wonderfully working away to react to the information around us and respond to it in ways that keep us safe and protected. As my research points out, the psychological consequence of this skewed truth created by the negativity bias in the news can lead to a misperception of risk, where people think that world is more dangerous than it is. Our continuous confrontation with an unresolved threat can lead to anxiety and a felling of helplessness. We can become a passive observer of the world rather than a participant in it, leading to lower mood levels, contempt and hostility towards others, desensitization to the issues being presented and ultimately disengagement all together. If the purpose of the news is to engage and inform citizens (Lewis, 2012), in a way that empowers them (Lipman, 1922), then the inherent negative tone of news stands as a potential barrier to achieving this.
Despite the decades of research concluding that “prolonged exposure to bad news over long periods can have detrimental effects on moods, attitudes, perceptions and emotional health” (Haskins, 1981), the industry has failed to take heed to this warning and has instead become increasingly negative over the past three decades. Now is a significant time to find the brakes on this accelerating trend of inflamed and unbalanced news narratives and it appears we may have found them! These brakes not only halt the current trajectory but create a new one altogether. These brakes are known as solutions-focused news. To avoid any ambiguity over the term, my research defines solutions-focused news to be, “rigorous journalism that reports critically on tangible progress being made in order for us to learn about how issues are being dealt with”. It is important to note that reporting positive news does not require that we ignore negative news; rather, it requires that we not ignore positive news and that, where feasible, we include it into the wider narrative. The purpose of this inclusion is not to reassure everyone that everything is ok, but instead to see what is possible.
My research has found that participants who read both problems and solutions focused news were lifted by reading about possibility and progress, showing reduced levels of anxiety and helplessness as well as increased levels of hope, optimism and self-efficacy (a belief that their actions are able to make a difference). These three responses are a powerful combination for creating change because if you believe the world can be better and you are empowered to feel that you are able to make a difference, you may engage in action. Readers also showed improved mood, increased engagement and a feeling of connectedness and admiration for other people resulting in higher levels of altruistic behavior.
Jim Morrison said, “Those who control the media control our minds”. However, with the increased consumer choice available and an increased understanding of the psychological impact of the news on each of us, we can take greater personal control over the media we consume. As a result, we are able to take greater control of our minds, worldviews and psychological wellbeing.
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