Is negative news skewing our perceived reality?

We live in a media-saturated world where news can be beamed into our houses 24/7. The more traditional world of newspapers, radio and television has been joined by the internet generally, YouTube and the social networking sphere.

Following the news does have some advantages. It helps us to keep abreast of the major issues dominating the political arena and, hopefully, be better informed when the next election comes around. Hearing about injustices stimulates public pressure to achieve reforms. Where an authority is negligent in fulfilling its duties or tries to perpetrate a cover-up, the media will ideally take on a whistleblower role.

However, when we succumb to the urge to “find out what is going on in the world”, we are inevitably exposed to a biased and manufactured version of events that usually has a tenuous relationship with the reality of our everyday lives.

On the whole, the bias towards negative stories is far greater than any political slant because shock and awe is what sells media. Unfortunately, as with many other aspects of consensus reality, the negativity encountered in mainstream news and popular culture is rarely examined.

The big addiction

There was a time when newspapers were informative but dull and bland. Eventually, the publishers realised that if you spice up the news while dumbing it down, your audience share grows considerably. The term “yellow journalism” refers to the period of competition in the New York newspaper market during the 1890s characterised by large-font scare headlines, many of which were misleading or about minor news items.

Today, much TV news could be described as “infotainment” and, in a bid to capture audience share, is timed to come on when adults return home from work.

Negative news is undeniably addictive, tapping into primitive emotions such as anger, rage, disgust, fear, shame and guilt. It is probably no accident that these words often appear in tabloid headlines. Many of us are driven towards the media as if by a magnetic force, drawn by factors such as curiosity, voyeurism, prurience, titillation or a desire to see justice or punishment.

It may be that part of the reason has nothing to do with magnetism at all. Being in a particular emotional state triggers opiate-like chemicals known as neuropeptides, which have addictive qualities. People organise ways to revisit their habitual emotional states for a regular hit of their favourite neuropeptide combination, and the news can be one such means.

Unlike many other shows, the TV news does not come with a PG-rating indicating its questionable suitability for children. There are images of extreme violence implicit in such terms as “flak” (grenade shrapnel), “spray” (a stream of bullets) “axing” and “the knives are out”.

Between the ages of six and 10, children are able to follow the content of news but, unlike adults, they lack perspective and may think the family is at immediate risk, causing unnecessary anxiety and worry. Younger children are also inclined to take this violent language literally. The burden of responsibility is shifted onto over-harried parents to provide reassurance and explanations.

There’s an old newspaper saying: “If it bleeds, it leads.” News outlets travel the world in search of pain and suffering because of a belief that it attracts a greater audience than pleasure and enjoyment might. Survivors in disaster situations or in a state of trauma or grief are therefore a valuable commodity and there is a constant impetus to thrust a microphone in their faces at a time when they can least handle it.

Psychological and social effects

We inevitably observe most of the outside world via the media, resulting in a tendency towards various misconceptions and psychological biases. Perhaps the most fundamental is what is known as the Mean World Syndrome, a phrase coined by the American communication professor George Gerbner to indicate a belief that the world is a worse place than it really is.

A cursory glance at the media suggests that almost everything happening in the world is negative; this is due to a lack of positive balance, context and insightful statistics. We hear about the problems but are rarely told how they were resolved because the news media has already moved on to the next drama or tragedy.

In reality, despite the many problems the world faces, over the past 50 years democracy has made huge gains. At the time of writing, no two countries were at war and the number of civil wars was limited to just a handful.

Mean World Syndrome inevitably affects human attitudes. For Christians, negative news appears to reinforce the doctrine of Original Sin, the idea that humankind has occupied an intrinsic state of sin since the Fall. Another likely consequence is a negative social engineering towards desensitisation and slightly more cynical, selfish and callous behaviour. Humans have a natural tendency to be gregarious and sociable but negative news fuels mistrust, causing us to become fearful of crime and less community-minded and to live in our own boxes.

In 1997, the American magazine Psychology Today carried out a study looking at negative news, finding some tangible effects. Three news bulletins were produced, one predominantly negatively orientated, one largely positive and the third neutral. Those exposed to the negative news became more anxious and sad and these feelings exacerbated personal worries and concerns, with an increased tendency among participants to anticipate negative outcomes.

Then there are the misconceptions connected to risk. We tend to be worried about spectacular and horrific events that are very rare, such as shark attacks, rather than something far more likely, such as heart disease linked to obesity.

The drama of negative coverage can encourage copycat behaviour and for this reason the media avoids reporting many suicides and bomb scares. Criminologists have warned about the likelihood of visually spectacular bushfire coverage encouraging arsonists but this has so far failed to deter TV stations. Research has found that exposure to violence perceived to be real generally prompts more aggressive behaviour among children than violence portrayed as entertainment.

The power of insecurity

Back in the hunter-gatherer era, we were obliged to pay immediate attention to novel situations, particularly dramatic ones, to ensure our own survival. Today, one key motivator in following the news is the unconscious drive to monitor possible threats in the unpredictable wider world outside one’s living room and their potential impact on the family’s security. This psychological ritual is similar to checking that the doors are locked before going to bed.

Under Timothy Leary’s eight-circuit model of consciousness, biological survival is the most basic, at number one, while intellect is number three. In Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, security belongs on the second-lowest rung, while problem-solving occupies the top level. Essentially, if the more primitive aspects of our existence appear to be forever unresolved, this drains energy and attention away from addressing life in a conscious manner and following more advanced pursuits and projects.

Similarly, it is impossible to ignore the political dimension: the more scared a population becomes, the more likely it is to elect a right-leaning government with tough “law and order” policies and agree to anti-terrorism laws that curtail freedoms while supporting widespread camera surveillance. The shift towards insecurity in America can be traced back to a decades-long trend towards increasingly violent and sensational TV news, which today is still intensifying as crime rates continue to fall.

In Australia, statistics released in March 2012 showing a drop in the crime rate were largely ignored by the news media, which it seems would prefer to scare us and pamper our preconceived ideas.

No news is good news

Understandably, many people get so disheartened by this tide of negativity that they generally choose to ignore the news, the cartoonist Michael Leunig being one better-known example. This can lead to gasps of surprise among co-workers who are all getting their daily fix of misery.

As a means of recharging one’s psychic batteries, some natural healing practitioners, including Dr Andrew Weil, recommend a periodic “news fast” lasting from a few days to a week. This is particularly useful when we feel that things in our everyday lives are getting on top of us or when we just want to empty out the mental clutter. Good at helping to relieve anxiety and depression, it is likely to enhance optimism and wellbeing while allowing space for creativity. Sometimes such fasts have been known to continue for decades.

A breath of fresh air

Another avenue is to “become the media” and establish a positive media outlet. Probably the most influential of these is Positive News, a British paper that was launched in 1993 by Shauna Crockett-Burrows, a remarkable woman who remained the editor right up until her death at the age of 81 in early 2012.

Because positive news is, like healthy food, less addictive, a different economic model is needed. In addition to its subscription system, Positive News has a “sponsor a bundle” distribution option where readers can receive 200 copies and only pay the postage cost. These issues are then given away or sold for a nominal price.

The UK edition has inspired sister papers, including Noticias Positivas (two different publications under the same name, in Argentina and Spain), Positive News US and Positive News Hong Kong. Another encouraging initiative is Images and Voices of Hope, a network of journalists and other individuals keen to harness the media’s potential as an agent of positive change.

Positive media could be summarised as a focus on what is breaking through and not on what is breaking down. This includes solutions, new initiatives, hope and encouragement, with an emphasis on the grassroots. An exclusive fixation on negative news is an insult to the people quietly working behind the scenes to improve the communities in which they live.

Areas given special attention include local food-growing, the global shift towards renewable energy, eco-villages, peace initiatives and proposals to reform existing economic structures. There is frequently a holistic rather than fragmentary way of looking at the world. Instead of feeling like a biological accident on an indifferent planet, we can take a more spiritual view and feel that the world is evolving, that it has a destination and we are one small part of this process.

People are frequently looking for something to believe in, support and feel passionate about. At its most ambitious, positive news has the capacity to raise consciousness to a higher level, encouraging the development of more optimistic attitudes that can filter throughout society via a ripple effect.

As with most things, there are pitfalls in the positive news field. Definitions of “positive” are highly subjective, so starting out with a clear editorial direction is essential. Governments can use it as propaganda, companies with largely unsustainable practices can draw attention to one sustainable project intended as window dressing and there is a risk of being too politically naïve.

No more dead lemon trees

Obviously, the best news balance would be to present a mix of the positive and negative that comes far closer to reflecting the world as it really is. In the meantime, titillating and pandering to humanity’s most primitive aspects are not going to contribute towards a healthy society. Instead, these approaches are putting a brake on our collective evolution when we need to be taking a bold, transformative leap. Negative news could be viewed as an instrument of control standing between us and our collective self-realisation.

In The Age newspaper, Michael Leunig poignantly drew the attention of readers to a dead lemon tree belonging to a trendy Melbourne café, which was put out on the footpath day after day. He views the news in a similar way. Among the questions he asks is, who determines what is “news” and what is not? Is there a committee and, if there is, where does it meet? What about the many personal moments and experiences that are highly significant to us as individuals but which have no news value to anybody else?


Positive News (UK) www.positivenews.org.uk
Positive News Trust www.positivenews.org.uk/about/positive-news-trust
Positive News US www.positivenewsus.org
Noticias Positivas (Argentina, in Spanish) www.noticiaspositivas.org
Noticias Positivas (Spain) www.noticiaspositivas.net/en
Positive News Australia Association www.positivenews.com.au
Images and Voices of Hope www.ivoh.org


Martin Oliver is a writer and researcher based in Lismore, northern NSW, Australia.

Martin Oliver

Martin Oliver

Martin Oliver writes for several Australian holistic publications including WellBeing on a range of topics, including environmental issues. He believes that the world is going through a major transition and he is keen to help birth a peaceful, cooperative and sustainable reality.

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