Literacy

Correcting The Impact Of Negative News Bias On Mental Health

We can have an influence on the negativity of the news and media we see, and that begins with educating ourselves on where the bias towards negative news comes from. Educators have an important role in helping stem the tide of negative news bias, and edtech and eLearning platforms are uniquely positioned to step into the void of online literacy education.

You’ve probably had this experience–or a rendition of it–recently. You turn on the TV, open your laptop, or scroll through social media, and it appears that the world is constantly in a state of turmoil. As the headlines flash, you might feel a sense of stress, anxiety or overwhelm building from just a few minutes of absorbing the news. Why is this?

Why does the news tend to skew towards the negative, and how can we work to stop the way this bias impacts us and our students?

On the surface, negative news bias seems like a straightforward problem: the news is always so negative. But look just a little deeper and we start to understand that it’s not just the news that’s perpetuating negative news bias, our own brains and behavior are a part of the problem, too! 

Negative News And The Psychology Of Content

A 2017 survey found that 95% of Americans say they follow the news regularly. Over half of them (56%) say that doing so causes them stress. Studies have shown that watching negative news can increase anxious and sad moods and increase worry in areas unrelated to the negative content we’re consuming.

And as the Harvard Psychologist Steven Pinker points out in an insightful piece for the Guardian, “heavy news-watchers can become miscalibrated. They worry more about crime, even when rates are falling…”

Why is this? Well, let’s break it down. This problem of negative news bias is two-fold:

  1. The way things are determined as ‘newsworthy’
  2. The way our brains process information

Let’s start with the first: How is content deemed ‘newsworthy’?

What News Is ‘Newsworthy’?

Whether you get your news online, through social media, or by watching it on TV, it would seem that crime is rampant, disasters are constantly impending, and the state of the world is worse than ever before. Why does it seem that way when some of our best indicators of human progress are saying otherwise? 

137,000 people escaped from extreme poverty. Child labor around the world has been cut in half in just 16 years. Child mortality has fallen by more than half since 1990, violent crime has decreased by 74% in the past 25 years, and life spans have increased by more than six years between 1990 and 2016.

So, where is all this good news? Why do we only seem to see negativity? Well, to put it simply, news is about what’s new, and none of these positive changes happened overnight. They were the result of slow progress. 

Things that are newsworthy, are attention grabbing and emotion-inducing. A violent crime, the impact of a horrible natural disaster, the latest political drama, these are all newsworthy subjects because they are breaking stories with new information that induce an emotional reaction. They are headlines that will catch our attention as we flip through the channels or scroll through our Facebook feeds.  

So, how does that affect us?  In a study that looked at what stories from the New York Times went viral, content that evoked heightened emotions like awe, anger, and anxiety were at the top.  But our brains handle positive and negative information differently, and negative emotions tend to involve more thinking. This means that even though awe makes it to the top of the viral list, we tend to dwell more on those unpleasant events.

Add to this another quirk we humans have and it makes negative news (particularly when there’s a lot of it) keep ringing in our ears if we fail to think critically about the news. Our brains estimate how likely it is that something will happen by how easily it comes to mind. Images that are vivid, gory, or violent–very often ‘newsworthy’ topics– will rise to our minds far easier. So, if you’ve been seeing a lot of scary posts about crime or danger, your brain will overestimate how likely it is you will find yourself in a dangerous position.

This, of course, leads us to feel more fearful and anxious and changing our behavior accordingly. 

3 Ways To Help Mitigate The Impact Of Negative News Bias

With an understanding of how news gets made and how our brains react, we can start to work on correcting the impact of the negative bias taking place.

1. Notice how much negative news you read and share

News and social media are like any other thing we consume, the higher the demand for something, the more content creators will supply it. So, if we click on and give a lot of attention to content that makes us feel anger and anxiety, the more likely content creators are to keep creating that kind of content. This is important to know because once we understand this feedback loop of negative news bias, we can learn to control it. 

Now, this is where educators come in. We can’t change the way our brains, or students’ brains react to negativity, but we can work to be more conscious about the media we engage with, and how we teach young people to consume it themselves.

2. Teach digital literacy

Teaching online literacy, whether we’re showing students how to find reputable sources online, explaining the difference between a blog and news, or how to discern opinion from fact is more important than ever. It’s vital that we help students learn to think critically about the media they consume. Every click, comment, or share we make is being counted online. The more we click on the things that spark anger and fear in us and in others, the more of that kind of content we will see.

In our own work with students through Ever Widening Circles and EWCed, we have found that young people are deeply empowered by an understanding of the power of their clicks. When they understand how content is made to give them more of what they click on, and explain that giving attention to content that makes them feel anxious or angry only creates the incentive for content creators to make more content of the same, they want to change their behavior. Suddenly they are empowered to have an influence on the media they consume.

3. Observe how what you read affects your well-being

Like any issue we face, educating ourselves and others, and becoming more aware of our actions, can make a dramatic change! By learning why we react to media and how media is created, the type of media that gets our attention and, eventually, the type of media that outlets create, will change towards what we want. 

Negative news bias is far from an impossible problem to solve and educators have an important role in helping stem the tide of negative news bias. Edtech and eLearning platforms are uniquely positioned to step into the void of online literacy education and work to educate the next generation internet users. 

Dr. Lynda Ulrich founded the new multimedia platform Ever Widening Circles (EWC) with one mission—to change the negative dialogue about our times and celebrate the insights, innovations, and good news in an unbiased and refreshingly agenda-free manner that prove it’s still an amazing world.