Good news creates a brighter outlook

There were a few months last year during which I stopped reading the news altogether; strange, especially for someone taking Journalism, but I simply couldn’t bother opening up my news app every day to article after article about political controversies, forest fires, global warmings and crime. The way cable news took these and puzzled over every facet of them through repetitive discussions and vivid video, seemingly in an effort to turn a molehill into a mountain, grew grating. The overwhelming negativity of the news, which I could formerly shrug off once I had left the page, now seemed physically draining and left me with one question: “Why is news so negative?” This feeling isn’t unusual. In fact, it’s been widely termed “negative news fatigue” and it’s supported by evidence.

A report by the American Physiological Association found that over half of Americans attribute feelings of anxiety, fatigue or sleep loss as a result of stress caused by news. Experts echo these claims. Steven Pinker, a professor of psychology at Harvard University, argued that “consumers of negative news experience misperception of risk, anxiety, lower mood levels, learned helplessness, contempt and hostility towards others, desensitization and in some cases… complete avoidance of the news.”

So, a decreased interest in any form of current affairs? Check. An overwhelming need to leave the room every time my parents switched on CNN? Check. Persistent thoughts about the meaninglessness of a single vote? Check. The only logical way (as advised by dozens of self-help articles by internet pundits and op-eds by psychology professors) to alleviate a case of “negative news fatigue” was to go on a complete ‘detox,’ or to balance out my news feed.

This proved to be easier said than done. I realized that one cannot point a finger in blame toward the media without taking a hard look at oneself. For all the complaining people seem to do (and I’m including myself in this one) about journalists fanning the flames on issues or providing a skewed view of the world, one can argue that the media are only feeding into the public’s demands. While polls show that the majority of people prefer reading good news, studies have shown that what readers say and do are two entirely different things.

This is best exemplified in a Russian news site, the Daily Reporter, when it received comments that said it was too dismal. In response, they pinned only positive news to the homepage of their website and ended up losing two-thirds of their daily readership.

So while people say they want to read about good things happening, it doesn’t translate into reality. In my case, picking up an article with a positive ring felt dreary didn’t feel quite like reading the news. This attraction to negativity over positivity is aptly named our “negativity bias.” Essentially, due to evolution, humans learned to prioritize and catch onto risk and danger before reward.

It only makes sense, considering early humans probably found the fact there was a tiger behind them more evolutionarily important than learning how people in the next village were learning to plant fruit trees. But in today’s world, negativity bias is not as integral. It leads us to confirm our prejudices about the darkness of the world and stay ignorant of progress.

Hans Rosling, a statistician and public health worker, administered a 13-question (survey discussing topics such as poverty and education to groups like Nobel Laureates, medical researchers, journalists, students, and civilians). He found that even among experts, people resoundingly failed, garnering an average score of about three or four out of 13.

To be more specific, people gravitate toward the answer depicting the worst worldview. The facts they knew about poverty, education, or foreign countries were drawn from the 1960s, not the 21st century. People are guided by knowledge that was true half a century ago: politicians use this mindset when governing, educators use this mindset when teaching, journalists use it when writing, and people use it when intaking information. When the negativity bias is factored in, the news intake makes the world seem hopeless, even if situations are getting better. A fatalistic worldview can lead to a decline in civic engagement and a lack of motivation to help the world progress.

But by reading good news, people can escape from that mindset.

Not only does it shatter their outdated perceptions of the world, it also changes how they interact with the news. Studies have found that people who read positive articles about others working to end global warming are more likely to contribute to the cause than those who read articles about its risks.

In fact, there’s a field of journalism called “solutions journalism” in which journalists cover human responses to problems rather than the problem itself.

In addition to being empowering, these media also lends more time to discussing solutions rather than fretting over problems. The hope is that this will shake readers out of their apathy to problems or reluctance to involve themselves, because they’ll see a clear plan of action, not a seemingly hopeless situation.

A number of news agencies have considered these findings as part of a conspiracy to ensure that more good news reaches your heads (or screens). Yet, this news isn’t clickbait featuring puppies and toddlers, but more in the vein of “how Georgia State University coupled empathy with data to double its graduation rate and eliminate achievement gaps between white and black students and how backyard beekeepers in East Detroit are bringing back the dwindling bee population while boosting the local economy” (Google Co.).

In other words, it’s more substantive stuff. The Guardian has released a series of good news pieces while Google created a program on its personal assistant Alexa that matches users to positive news. Other news organizations are following their lead albeit hesitantly.

However, at this point, the good news trend doesn’t seem to be much more than a fad. Sentiment analysis has shown that global and especially national media has become increasingly negative since the 1960s, and many agree that the momentum today is still headed in that direction. Much of the brunt for finding good news will be on the reader’s own back, but if one does choose to “bite the bullet,” one may find the positive impact of good news to be worth the effort.