How ‘Good News’ and ‘Bad News’ Impact Our Health

October 26, 2016Posted by Helaina Hovitz

Guest Editorial: Jodie Jackson, MSc in Positive Psychology.

There are thousands of events happening daily, and only a select few are considered ‘newsworthy.’ 

Chances are, most of those are depressing, upsetting, or, at the very least, foreboding—and multiple studies show that it can have a severe impact on both our mental and physical health. I set out to find out what would happen if we focused on the positive instead, and what I found may surprise you. 

In my work with the Constructive Journalism Project, I found that positive news can indeed have a positively enormously impact on your health and your state of mind, and that’s a scientific fact. That’s why we need more of it: never before have our minds had so much influence on our happiness as now, when we live in an information-based world with an increasingly virtual existence. 

What led me here in the first place was my experience as a regular, everyday news consumer.

I found that my opinions and beliefs about the world around me were becoming cynical, mistrusting and even paranoid at times due to the media’s relentless focus on problems, and continuous depiction of humanity at its worst. The realization that the news produced such a strong emotional experience led me to pursue a master’s degree in positive psychology.

My initial understanding behind the psychological impact of the news world was in line with the findings of Shana Gadarian, Associate Professor at The Maxwell School of Syracuse University, who has studied extensively the affects on political reporting on peoples’ mental health, publishing those studies in The Washington Post.

I was not surprised to learn that Mary McNaughton-Cassill, a professor at University of Texas–San Antonio, also conducted research about the relationship between news consumption and anxiety, and concluded that that negative news leads to increased levels of helplessness, hopelessness, depression, isolation, anxiety, contempt and hostility towards others, desensitization to the information presented and eventual disengagement.

Charlie Booker recently suggested that negative news is more dangerous than drugs, and Oliver Burkeman, author of the Antidote, supports psychologist research that a significant number of people tend to switch off from the news altogether, citing its depressing nature as the cause.

I’ll admit that I was tempted to succumb to the philosophy that ‘ignorance is bliss.’

Instead, I embarked on a search for positive news stories, ones that still kept me connected with current affairs.

The more I sought them out, the more I found that there were glimmers of hope poking through the news cycle, and there were even sites that focused on positive news, like Headlines for the Hopeful. 

I felt empowered and inspired by all of the positive news I was reading and had an urge to use this newfound power to address some of the problems I was continually confronted by. What began as emotional reprieve became something bigger. I became excited about the world and its possibilities, including the creative initiatives that were making it a better place day by day.

In conducting my additional research (soon to be published) it became clear that reading news stories that focus on solutions, achievements and peace building can lead to increased levels of optimism, hope and self-efficacy, where people believe the world can get better and they feel empowered to contribute. 

It has also shown that people have improved mood levels, better perspective, a restored faith in humanity, higher levels of active coping and increased engagement. Harvard professor Steven Pinker has long advised that the world, despite what we read in the news, is, in fact, actually in an upwards spiral.

It is important to note that reporting positive news does not require that we ignore negative news; rather, it requires that we not ignore positive news and that, where feasible, we include it into the wider narrative. Negative news still serves a purpose in shining a light on many of the world’s ills, forcing them onto the public agenda. But, there is a need to address the potentially harmful psychological effects of excessive negativity; especially when the negative news presented is not really serving this noble function but instead a commercial decision made to grab our attention rather than truly inform us on an issue of importance.

Positive and negative news stories should not compete, but co-exist. We need to notice the world’s achievements alongside its failings in order to report on and understand the world more accurately.

Media institutions should report on strength as it does weakness, successes as it does failures, human excellence as it does human corruption and scandal, solutions as it does problems, and, above all things, progress.

Jodie Jackson is a research associate for the Constructive Journalism Project and holds a MSc in Positive Psychology. Jackson has given talks on the psychological impact of the news around the UK to journalism students and at conferences internationally to news organizations.


Featured Photo by Harsha-K-R, CC

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