Stylist’s Alix Walker explores why we’re so drawn to negative headlines and whether things really are as woeful as they seem.
That ongoing political fiasco, which shall remain nameless; Donald bloody Trump; potentially irreparable damage to our oceans from mindless plastic consumption… If we were to reflect on the headlines from 2018, most of us would head straight back to bed. As the year came to a close, Twitter was full of commentators declaring it the worst in history.
Many of us feel hopeless, anxious and overwhelmed by the news today. It certainly doesn’t help that around 66% of us see almost hourly news updates on our phones, effectively leaving us with no respite from negative headlines. Of course, the world has always experienced tragedies, disasters and wars, but only now do we have 24-hour access to them through the devices that rest within arm’s reach of our pillows. Perhaps unsurprisingly, a study by Reuters found one third of people avoided the news altogether (often because it has a negative effect on their mood) and the term ‘headline stress disorder’ was coined for the growing number of people who attribute their stress, in part, to the barrage of bad news.
Obviously, negative things happen in the world, and it’s absolutely crucial we shine a light on the problems we face, but it’s far from the whole picture. Because as we trundle through January, the world is, in fact, safer than ever before, with fewer wars, fewer murders and falling terrorist attacks (17,000 in 2014 to 11,000 in 2017). Today, less than 10% of the world lives in extreme poverty. Thirty years ago, that figure was 37%. Child mortality is declining (the under-five mortality rate has dropped by 58% since 1990); life expectancy is increasing (since 1900 the global average life expectancy has more than doubled to 72).
But these positives get buried in the vortex of bad news filling our papers and screens. Our media diet makes us forget how much progress humans have made. Bill Gates’ “favourite book of all time” is Enlightenment Now: The Case For Reason, Science, Humanism And Progress by Harvard University professor Steven Pinker. It explores how, contrary to what we might think, the world is better today than it has ever been.
“I wrote this book because I came across data showing that we haven’t just improved in terms of reducing violence, but the world has also drastically reduced the rates of starvation, of disease, of illiteracy, of keeping girls out of school, of work hours,” says Pinker. “Graph after graph indicates that life has become better. People seem to think that life is getting worse because anytime something bad happens, it’s guaranteed to make the news and our mind fixes on the explosions and refugees.”
We crave bad news. Bad news sells newspapers. Bad news gets clicks. Newsstand magazine sales increase by around 30% when the cover is negative rather than positive. Indeed, Russian news site The City Reporter decided to publish only positive news for a day and lost 66% of its readers. A technique called sentiment mining (which assesses the tone of text by tallying the number and context of positive and negative words) found that publications are getting more negative despite the world, on the whole, improving.
Bad news bias
So why does a story about murder grip us, while a medical advancement gets lost in the noise? It’s human nature; our brain is designed to fixate on the negative. A study by John T Cacioppo at Ohio State University which showed participants images that had either negative or positive associations – images of pizza, for example, versus images of dead cats – found that the brain had a greater surge of electrical activity when it viewed the negative picture. It’s a survival tactic: negative information can warn us of potential threats, so the brain considers it to be more important.
Another reason is ‘availability bias’ – our tendency to assume that the examples which instantly spring to mind are more representative of a situation than is actually true. “Our assessment of risk and danger is driven by available episodes from memory, not representative data,” explains Pinker. “If you ask people if we are living in an increasingly dangerous or increasingly safe environment, they will think of the latest terrorist attack and conclude that life has been getting more dangerous –rather than going to FBI data on violent crime, which in fact has shown a decline over 25 years.”
In response to the seemingly endless stream of negative news, a slew of new publications aim to report only the good. The Happy Newspaper run by Emily Coxhead now has 74k followers on Instagram. Google Assistant is trialling a service called “Tell Me Something Good” in the US, which shares good news stories. Positive News, a website and quarterly print magazine, has seen massive growth since it relaunched in 2016. “We wanted to create a fuller picture and offer balance to what we believe is a real negativity bias in the media,” says its publisher, Seán Dagan Wood.
Of course, reading stories of inspiring people and pets rescuing their owners is great for our mood, but it’s critical we highlight suffering and injustice too. Constructive reporting, as practised by Positive News, aims to report on tough issues but to shift the angle of the story, including examples of change and progress.“Constructive journalism engages people and provides them with a sense of agency,” says Wood. “Rather than feeling hopeless about the problem it shows that things can be done, which encourages people to feel they can be part of positive change.”
So, as we brace ourselves for 2019, it might be time to relook at how we consume our news. Rather than clicking automatically on the dramatic headline, try following more outlets that focus on stories of progress, hope and kindness – share those stories, too. And when the inevitable bad news does hit the headlines, try to see whether it’s really telling the whole story.
“My advice is to follow the trend lines, not the headlines,” says Pinker. “And remember that problems are inevitable, but problems are solvable.”