Journalism’s historical approach is to spotlight social problems in order to spur reform, exposing wrongdoing or generating awareness — or outrage — about injustice, neglect or hidden threats. This “watchdog” role is critical to the vitality of democratic society. But we believe it’s also insufficient, because it fails to capture and circulate some of the most essential information that society needs to understand and solve its problems.
A growing swath of research suggests a rationale for journalists to reconsider their traditional reporting emphasis. Several recent studies reveal the consequences of negative news overload – and suggest that there are potential benefits to reporting on the responses to social problems, in addition to the problems themselves. In essence, these studies indicate, solutions journalism can help engage and empower people as news consumers – and also as actors in a challenging and increasingly complex world.
The coverage gap: Do news organizations overweight their reporting on problems? Probably. In a study published in Nature Climate Change, researchers from the University of Exeter and the University of Colorado-Boulder examined how newsrooms in the United States and United Kingdom covered (or didn’t) a series of reports released in 2013 and 2014 by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The first IPCC report, which warned of the impact of rising seas, ocean acidification and increasing temperatures, was covered in 65 news stories. The second, describing policy options for curbing global warming, generated 51 news reports. And the third report, dealing with climate change adaptation, was covered just 27 times.
The news site Climate Central, reporting on the study, observed that newsrooms “are struggling to produce stories about climate change in ways that are engaging for their audiences,” so are “fueling senses of hopelessness on the issue.” And the implications, it suggested, were important for all sorts of coverage: “We find in our audience research that even the alarmed [those most concerned about climate change] don’t really know what they can do individually, or what we can do collectively,” said Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, in the Climate Central piece.
“We call this loosely ‘the hope gap,’ and it’s a serious problem. Perceived threat without efficacy of response is usually a recipe for disengagement or fatalism.”
“News fatigue”: In fact, a 2008 study commissioned by the Associated Press described this cycle of disengagement. Anthropologists observed the news consumption habits of eighteen participants, aged 18-34, in the United States, United Kingdom, and India. The researchers found that the participants experienced news fatigue “as they attempted to navigate an information stream that mostly dishes up recycled headlines and updates.” Amplifying the fatigue, the report’s authors wrote, “was the widespread belief that ‘all news today is negative.’ Over and over again in the study, the negativity of news – tragedy, crisis, war, terror – added to the desire to tune out.”
The AP study, “A New Model for News,” observed that news fatigue “brought many of [the participants] to a learned helplessness response.” But it also indicated a path forward: “The implication for the news industry is not to flood the marketplace with repetitive content, but to counter the audience’s anxiety and overload with compelling content delivered in innovative ways, whether it be with technology or tongue in cheek. It is important to keep in mind that learned helplessness is a chronic condition that can be reversed.”
“Compassion fatigue”: In 2014, the Australian broadcaster SBS reported on the sensation people experience when they feel overwhelmed by negative news. “The more that we hear about events and suffering and trauma that pull at our proverbial heartstrings, the more likely that some of us just withdraw and no longer have that strong motivation to help,” Dr. Lisa Williams, a psychologist at the University of New South Wales, told SBS. “You might find that people are avoiding exposure to the news media, simply because they just don’t want to engage emotionally with it.”
The prospect of people disconnecting from news should worry journalists – but the possibility that relentlessly negative news might actually weaken citizenship is even more troubling “If that happens overall at a more societal level, we find that people might become less engaged in pro-social action,” Dr. Williams said, “and of course, that’s not really an outcome that any of us will want to seek.”
The promise of positive: Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania tracked how thousands of New York Times articles fared on the news site’s “most e-mailed” list over six months’ time. Their finding: positive news seems to have a better shot at going viral than negative news. People tended to share stories that aroused them in some way – but not stories that just made them sad. Readers “needed to be aroused one way or the other, and they preferred good news to bad,” wrote The Times’ John Tierney, describing the research. “The more positive an article, the more likely it was to be shared.”
The findings challenge the age-old journalistic belief that “if it bleeds, it leads” – and the assumption that people are more likely to talk about and share news of catastrophe and scandal. Berger, author of the book, Contagious: Why Things Catch On, noted: “When you share a story with your friends and peers, you care a lot more how they react. You don’t want them to think of you as a Debbie Downer.”