Credit: Photo by Nik Shuliahin on Unsplash

New research led by the Bournemouth University reveals that two thirds of UK audiences switch off from covid-19 news to protect their own mental health.

The findings are based on 59 in-depth interviews as well as a survey with a representative sample of 2015 UK citizens that took place between 15 February and 3 March 2021, marking the anniversary of the pandemic arriving in the UK.

The rise and fall - and second rise - in news consumption

It discovered an "inverse bell curve" in news consumption: rising, falling and then rising again. It means that readers have rushed for updates around key lockdown announcements and fell away quite quickly only to come back for the next update.

"It follows the severity of the pandemic restrictions," explains Dr An Nguyen, principal investigator of the project, and an associate professor of journalism at the Bournemouth University.

"But the key thing is that [audiences] don't switch off forever; they switch off temporarily, for a few days or a few weeks."

Throughout the pandemic, people needed basic information on lockdown measures. The study refers to this as 'personal surveillance'.

For this reason, demand for news from other sources has been relatively high; 53 per cent accessed information from health authorities (like NHS or WHO), and 44 per cent from government sources. This is a typical reaction in a crisis situation, but the popularity of the UK government news briefings, for example, has been a significant factor.

Despite that, mainstream news media remained the main source of news for roughly three quarters of respondents, and the "most important source" for just over half. Pandemic news also has the potential to reassure people they are following the measures correctly (53 per cent), but is split evenly whether it helps to clear people's thinking (30 per cent agreed and disagreed; 40 per cent neutral).

But the third and significant reason people switch off is to safeguard their mental health: two thirds of respondents say they at least sometimes switch off from the media to avoid negative feelings.

Anger, despair, anxiety and fear

Deeper motives for switching off range from sometimes or often being "disgusted by the action of some people in the news" (92 per cent), "angry because of something mentioned in the news" (80 per cent), "despair at the current situation" (79 per cent), "anxious about things that might happen to me” (71 per cent) and "fearful about what might happen to me" (68 per cent).

The cases are rising, but how often do we hear about people recovering?

It amounts to feeling overwhelmed and clocking out until the next big announcement comes along. Some people even closed down social media accounts to get media detox.

Ultimately, audiences said they felt the news has shown a negativity bias, it has been repetitively pedalling similar figures, and importantly, has lacked focus on what can be done about the crisis.

One interviewee said: "We have covid news... well the cases are rising, but how often do we hear about people recovering? To give a little positive, like it's not only the grim reaper walking through the streets. There are people recovering and the recovery rate is great, but nobody's talking about it."

And another one: "If there are problems somewhere, what's happening? What's the way out? So, the NHS is overwhelmed what's the way out? How do we build a new hospital? Are we putting in applications to build new hospitals or we're recruiting more staff? So it might be bad news now, but is there anything beyond that ... to put a smile on our faces [...] as well as the facts?"

Balancing hard news and escapism

Finding positive stories in a pandemic is challenging but necessary to keep the morale up. One example was the coverage of Sir Tom Moore, a retired British Army officer who raised money for charity in the run-up to his 100th birthday. But inspirational human stories are not enough to help communities combat pressing issues.

We all want to escape sometimes and that's what the audiences are saying to us.An Nguyen

"Many of us feel sad or depressed when we read the news. We all want to escape sometimes and that's what the audiences are saying to us," explains Nguyen.

"They already mentioned something with the same ideas as constructive journalism without referring to it: news that offers people hope, a way out, rather than just talking about all these problems, like 'What is the local business doing to get out of the pandemic?'"

Solutions journalism would cover responses to issues and scrutinise whether effective measures in one area could be replicated elsewhere. The takeaway for any journalists reporting on coronavirus is to seek out a solution to the issue and interrogate its effectiveness.

Solutions in the US

'The secret weapon',a study commissioned by the Solutions Journalism Network (SJN) looked at 638 responses to solutions journalism across six US markets.

The top line is that more than half of respondents preferred solutions-focused news stories, as opposed to just problem-focused stories (one third), and no preference (17 per cent).

Interestingly, solutions stories also transcended political divides and were much more of a hit with younger audiences, which suggests they can play part in renewing public trust in news.

Roadtesting solutions journalism in UK local news

Newsquest has had its editors debriefed on solutions journalism by Emily Kasriel of BBC News, who leads the Crossing Divides initiative, and Nina Fasciaux and Alec Saelens of the SJN.

The project will be formally kicking off in May with SJN training 50 Newsquest journalists, directly informed by the research. After that, the reporters will be mentored by solutions journalists from the BBC News, Guardian and The Bureau of Investigative Journalism.

In September, the editors who participated in the campaign will be interviewed for another report, gauging their thoughts on the practice, and using data to show how their readers have responded to the solutions-focused stories.

After the project ends, Nguyen plans to create a "network for constructive journalists in the UK" with participating mentors and mentees.

Those training webinars - but not the mentorships - will later become available to all journalists and journalism students in the UK. Nguyen plans to work with UK universities to include videos in their course materials.

"There's not a lot of research about what effect news has on mental health and emotional wellbeing. What our research is showing in a time of crisis, is that news is important, a lifeline for many people and to their relatives and loved ones.

"At the same time, they find a lot of stress. That's why they sometimes switch off from the news to avoid negative feelings. One of the reasons for that is the negative bias, and that's why news needs to move in a new direction.

"News is negative, you have to hold people to account. Problem-focused journalism is important. But it must also focus on the good which is going on; not just focus on what's going wrong, but what's going well."

The CoJo Against Covid is an an18-month project funded by the UK Research and Innovation government body via the Arts and Humanities Research Council. It is led by Bournemouth University, in collaboration with the Solutions Journalism Network (SJN), Newsquest media group, and the Association of British Science Writers.

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