When No News is Good News
The UK COVID-19 news and information project being delivered by Reuters Institute within Oxford University is analysing how the British public navigates information and misinformation about coronavirus and about how the government and other institutions are responding to the pandemic. In its third report they found that after an initial surge in news use, there has now been a significant increase in news avoidance, with 22% of people saying they often or always actively try to avoid the news (up from 15% in mid-April), growing to 59% if those who say they sometimes actively avoid the news are included (up from 49% in mid-April).
The vast majority of those who always or often avoid news (86%) say they are trying to avoid COVID-19 news at least some of the time, and most of them said they are primarily worried about the effect it has on their mood (66%). 33% say they feel there is too much news, and 28% say they avoid the news because they feel there isn’t anything they can do with the information.
The COVID-19 situation is a stark reminder of how the news agenda can shape us and sometimes in surprising ways – from our perception of risk to our mental and physical wellbeing. After months of nonstop headlines about COVID-19, there are hints of an impending crisis of coronavirus anxiety. Mental health charities across the world are reporting unprecedented levels of demand, while many people are taking social media detoxes, as they strive to cut their exposure to the news. There are even moves to urge media outlets to recognise the power and influence they wield in their editorial decisions and to try and balance the negativity.
Amidst the present Covid upheaval, and Black Lives Matter protests and counter-protests the Human Flourishing Program at Harvard University has even gone as far as to suggest that there should be at least one positive news report for every three negative ones. They recently published an article entitled, “A Public Health Approach to Negative News Media: The 3-to-1 Solution,” and they firmly believe that focusing the mind on what is good, and the ensuing actions that promote good, is deeply needed to address what is wrong with the world and to promote global well-being. It also suggests that viewers and readers should only engage with news media that make a commitment to doing so. Laudable aspirations no doubt, but whether it sparks an appetite for more balanced news remains to be seen.
Closer to home, the BBC has also been experimenting with negative news filters on its homepage to help readers with anxieties. The public broadcaster has been testing a tool that would allow readers to blur out stories that may impact their mental health. That suggests they at least recognise the potentially damaging impact of constant negative news and their responsibilities in pushing it out.
Many psychologists believe that there are two key trends going on currently. The first is a more general sense of “corona fatigue”, with many of us simply weary of the ongoing situation we’ve found ourselves in. For many, this has been the replacement for ‘Brexit fatigue’.
The second trend is that the relentless news cycle may be exacerbating anxiety or depression for those who already have a history of mental and emotional wellbeing issues.
This is not a new phenomenon, however. In 2013, The University of California was conducting a general study of mental health across the United States when tragedy struck. On 15 April as hundreds of runners reached the finish line at the annual Boston Marathon, two bombs exploded, ten seconds apart. Three people were killed, including an eight-year-old boy. Hundreds were injured and sixteen people lost limbs.
As the world mourned the tragedy, news organisations embarked upon months – years, if you count the trial – of graphic coverage. It even sparked a Hollywood movie.
With access to the data of nearly 5000 people’s mental wellbeing, the researchers decided to pivot their research to find out if the event and the news reporting of it had changed people’s mental wellbeing in the weeks afterwards.
Something we are sadly very familiar with here in Northern Ireland, it is known that being physically present for – or personally affected by – a terrorist incident is likely to be bad for your mental health. By chance, there were some people in their study who had first-hand experience of the bombings, and it was indeed true that their mental health suffered. But the research also had a twist.
Another group had been even more badly shaken: those who had not seen the explosion in person but had consumed six or more hours of news coverage per day in the week afterwards. Strangely, knowing someone who had been injured or died, or having been in the vicinity as the bombs went off, were not as predictive of high acute stress levels.
Negative news also has the power to raise a person’s heart rate – and there are worrying signs that it might have more serious implications for our long-term health.
When the same UC researchers looked into the legacy of stress about the 9/11 attacks, they found that those who had reported high levels at the time were 53% more likely to have cardiovascular problems in the three years afterwards – even when factors such as their previous health were taken into account.
The Harvard researchers believe that people strongly and deeply underestimate the impact the news can have. They point to substantial evidence that suggests viewing or witnessing a positive or altruistic event makes it more likely that a person will undertake a subsequent altruistic action. Conversely, they say viewing a negative event perpetuates negative actions. While the effect for any individual instance of media exposure may be small, this effect is dramatically multiplied by the vast number of people viewing media and the ripple effect that follows. They suggest that with this in mind public health implications could thus be massive.
Compounding this problem further, news media tend to have more viewers when they report on negative events. One potential reason the news affects us so much is the so-called “negativity bias”, a well-known psychological quirk which means we pay more attention to the worst things happening around us. It is thought to have evolved to protect us from danger and helps to explain why, why losses weigh on us more heavily than gains, and why fear is often more motivating than opportunity. Governments even build this into their strategies – as the recent Coronavirus communications suggest – choosing between a positive or negative incentive for the general public, the know the latter is much more likely to work.
Since news outlets have an incentive to increase viewership, this has created a situation where most news is negative. The Harvard researchers believe this comes with a severe cost to individuals and to society and is hoping that media outlets and the public realise this and act to bring some balance back. Closer to home, can we now expect the likes of the BBC NI and their flagship Nolan Show or Talkback to adopt the 3-1 solution they have proposed? The optimist in me hopes so but then again perhaps the negative onslaught over recent months has warped my own grasp on reality.