In an age where misinformation is thriving online, and trust in the news is under a growing threat, news literacy has emerged as a crucial and indispensable skill. News literacy programs, that help young people develop the skills to navigate the news, are primarily designed to help young people stop and spot false information.
Whilst tackling this remains crucial, it is important to recognise another significant contributor to a misinformed worldview: the negativity bias.
The negativity bias describes the disproportionate prioritisation of problems over positive developments. This skewed representation in the news cycle creates a distorted perception of reality and fosters a false understanding of the world. Organisations such as Gapminder (a data visualisation organisation) demonstrate how wrong most of us often are about big global trends – and how we commonly perceive the world to be in much worse condition than it actually is.
This chronic feeling of the world being in a perpetual state of decline, is not only inaccurate but it has been shown to contribute to feelings of anxiety, depression and hopelessness. The Good Childhood Report finds that only 36 per cent of children felt positively about the world. While the primary goal of news is not centred around how it makes us feel, it is essential to incorporate emotional understanding into news literacy education.
After dedicating twelve years to researching the profound effects of news consumption on our mental well-being, I founded News Literacy Lab and developed a school curriculum that fully incorporates these critical insights.
As I explain to my students: "The news isn't just a tool for learning about the world – it's a tool for building a relationship with the world. And in any relationship, feelings matter. Not least of all because our feelings influence our thoughts, our judgments, and our behaviour. So, it’s crucial that we recognise they are an important part of our news experience rather than an unexamined side effect."
Whilst high levels of news literacy have been shown to offer some protection against false information, research has shown that it does not protect us from the impacts of the negativity bias.
Rather, this bias has been shown to be effectively mitigated when solutions are made available. These insights have been integrated into our curriculum at News Literacy Lab whereby students are introduced to the principles of solutions journalism as well as being asked to seek solutions for themselves. This is why it is important for news reporting to go beyond an initial problem and explore potential progress and the efforts being made to create solutions.
Students who took part in this curriculum demonstrated that the value of including solutions into their media diet extended beyond helping them develop a more balanced and accurate picture of the world, it helped students feel more hopeful about society and the world, and their role within it. This hope is a critical ingredient for civic engagement and has a profound impact on driving positive social change.
When individuals believe in the possibility of a better future, they are better equipped to engage with negative information constructively. They develop active coping strategies and are more likely to take action, even in the face of adversity.
Conversely, if we are hopeless, we become less inclined to make efforts towards desired outcomes. The real drawback of lacking hope, therefore, is not just feeling depressed; it lies in the practical consequence that without hope, we will not actively pursue the positive changes we want to see in our lives and the world around us.
It is essential to emphasise that these findings do not advocate for the artificial manipulation of news to create a sense of hope. Likewise, this approach does not involve turning a blind eye to problems or negative information. Hope does not require us to dismiss the existence of challenges or problems. Instead, it asks us to not dismiss the existence of positive development.
Hope occurs as a natural side effect from having a more accurate understanding of the world, by learning from both problems and solutions. These stories of solutions, that offer hope, do not soften our understanding of an issue; they can help strengthen our engagement with it because progress and possibility makes inaction towards a problem unacceptable.
At a time when we are facing enormous problems, we cannot afford to deprive ourselves of solutions and hope. As one of my students said: "If people read more positive news about the environment, it might encourage them to support the cause rather than just feel defeated."
While false information remains a grave concern for our society, we must not underestimate the impact of the negativity bias on our worldview. News literacy programs must evolve to address this bias and its associated feelings of hopelessness. Solutions journalism is a powerful antidote, offering a more balanced perspective on the world's challenges and inspiring young people to be active participants in shaping a better future.
In the words of Natalia Vega-Berry, the Founder of New Zero World, whose expertise lies in the realm of climate communication and its role in promoting or preventing action: "Are we telling a story of despair and inevitability? Or are we telling a story of hope, possibility, and human agency? More importantly, are we making it clear that there are choices that we can make, which will determine what kind of future we are going to have?"
Jodie Jackson is founder of the News Literacy Lab, and author of You Are What You Read: why changing your media diet can change the world. Jodie has devoted more than a decade to researching solutions journalism as an antidote to the damaging impact of the negativity bias in the news on our mental health and the health of our society. Jodie spoke about this at TEDxLondon with her talk titled, "Beyond Fake News: How to Heal a Broken Worldview".
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