July 7, 2016

Too much Bad News? Try a Different Approach to the Media.


“I’m actually always looking for the good news.” ~ Sophie B. Hawkins

Author’s Note: This was written before the most recent events in the U.S. this week surrounding gun violence.


Like many others, I tend to read the news on a daily basis.

Doing so makes me feel like I know what is going on in the world at large. I enjoy feeling up-to-date on global and local developments.

However, since such a large portion of what makes the news is rather bleak, spending a lot of time reading (or watching) the news often does not make me feel good.

This appears to be a common side-effect of negative news: a 1997 study found that participants who watched a negative news bulletin were significantly more anxious and sad than people who had been shown a positive or neutral news bulletin. They were also significantly more likely to catastrophize a personal worry.

Despite the impact that negative news has on us, we appear to have a preference for it. A 2007 study by the Pew Research Center, which examined two decades of American news preferences, found that stories about war and terrorism (U.S.-linked) have consistently ranked at the top of the list.

A more recent study also revealed a preference for negative news. Interestingly enough, the participants in this study actually reported preferring positive news. However, through eye tracking measures, researchers exposed their bias and discovered that they were more likely to select negative stories.

To show the absurdity of our collective (and often unacknowledged) preference for negative news, let’s imagine for a moment that our private relationships were as dominated by bad news as our media consumption. Imagine that we never bothered to tell our partner, family or friends about our recent promotion, a reassuring health checkup or a new friendship. Eventually, they would probably feel that we are withholding crucial information from them.

Or suppose our loved ones never listened to us if we shared our own positive news with them. Imagine they only cared about our stories of distress. Over time, we would probably want to spend less time with them or give up and only bring up negative news around them which would diminish our life quality. We would constantly be on the lookout for the next problem without taking time to celebrate the good.

Couldn’t the same be true of our relationship with the media?

These questions recently prompted me to undergo an experiment that I called the “Conscious Media Diet.” For a few weeks, I started my day by looking at websites dedicated to reporting positive news. During this time, I mostly avoided reading negative stories.

Here’s what I learned from this little experiment:

  • In my experience, the “Conscious Media Diet” is an easy way to improve one’s daily mood. To my surprise, I was noticeably happier during my media diet. Since I did not change anything else in my life, I can only attribute this outcome to my changed habits. This would also be consistent with the study referenced above that found that watching a negative news bulletin had a negative impact on one’s mood. What I concluded from my experiment is that—unless we have to do so for job-related reasons—focusing on the latest atrocities and catastrophes is not the most auspicious way to start our days. And even if we have to or want to spend time reading about tragic events, it is helpful to balance that out by also looking at positive stories. Often, there is a silver lining even in the midst of tragedy, such as people rushing to the help of others.
  • Exclusively reading negative news sources leaves us paying little attention to many positive developments and events. There are a number of scientific breakthroughs or altruistic acts that we never hear about. Even when the media reports on them, they often disappear in the midst of all the other news. By consciously focusing on positive news, we start to perceive the world more accurately, which in turn has a feeling more positive about the future.
  • Good news websites have limitations too. In my experience, most websites which compile good news have a bias towards stories that focus on individual benevolent deeds, not systemic positive developments such as same-sex marriage. A prime example of this are stories about kind souls giving gifts to people in need. While news about individual acts of kindness are heartwarming, they can also sugarcoat real-life problems. Many of these problems, such as widespread poverty, cannot be solved through one single act of kindness. Websites dedicated to good news can also mask differences in opinion. Everyone, regardless of affiliation and personal convictions, can get behind cute animal pictures. Systemic positive developments such as the diminishing support for the death penalty in the US are generally much more political.

Despite their oftentimes controversial or even polarizing nature, positive developments affecting the whole are arguably the world’s most important news. They change things on a larger scale. And in this way, they awaken a justified sense of hope within us for a better society.

Despite these real limitations, the “Conscious Media Diet” has clear advantages: many of us probably know a person who believes that “everything is getting worse,” despite some evidence to the contrary. Some factors that contribute to such a negative belief—such as bad personal life experiences—may require outside help. Other circumstances which increase the tendency to catastrophize, in particular exposure to negative news, are more easily remedied.

In my own experience, consuming positive news can really improve one’s mood. For instance, if we do so just after getting up, we have a bigger chance of starting our day in a state of gratitude. By sharing uplifting stories with others, we have the chance to spread our sense of happiness beyond ourselves and to also make other people’s day.

And changing our media habits doesn’t even cost a cent!

If you would like another daily pick-me-up you can get free access to my short meditation here.~


Author: Bere Blissenbach

Image: The Awkard Yeti

Editors: Caitlin Oriel; Yoli Ramazzina


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