Knocking Down the Negative News Bias Choosing to see possibility in the face of crisis

By Amelia Buckley and Kristy Jansen   |   August 5, 2021

The old news mantra, “If it bleeds, it leads” has long steered traditional media outlets towards the violent, the negative, and the shocking. It’s hard to blame them when evidence repeatedly shows that negative news stories garner higher viewership, but it also begs the question: How does perceiving the world as largely negative affect how we interact within it? 

A recent New York Times article clarifies this concept and confirms what we at The Optimist Daily already know: That mainstream media outlets, specifically U.S. media companies, carry a disproportionate negativity bias in the stories they report.

Looking at the coronavirus, Bruce Sacerdote, an economics professor at Dartmouth College, built a database of COVID-19 coverage from hundreds of news sources including CNN, Fox News, Politico, and The New York Times. Then, he analyzed it using a social-science technique that classifies language as positive, neutral, or negative.

Sacerdote’s research confirmed his suspicions. He found that about 87 percent of COVID-19 media coverage in national U.S. media last year was negative. In comparison, the share of negative coverage was 51 percent in international media, 53 percent in U.S. regional media, and 64 percent in scientific journals.

Unpacking this issue, Sacerdote points out that while many prominent international media outlets, like the BBC, receive government funding, most U.S. news outlets rely solely on viewership numbers for financial viability, therefore they cater their content to what they know audiences will eat up: negativity. 

Coming back to our COVID-19 example, overwhelmingly negative news not only left many people feeling hopeless and dejected about the pandemic, but it also failed to recognize the multitude of breakthroughs, discoveries, and efforts that arose to manage the current crisis and better equip us to deal with the next. 

For example, while 87 percent of U.S. national news media coverage about the pandemic was negative, there were some neat solutions coming onto the scene.

Early in the pandemic, before we had vaccines, or even a full understanding of how this disease works, communities rallied together to support each other by filling lending libraries with essentials and offering financial resources to those in need. Community fridges also emerged as a strategy to fight food insecurity that will likely stick around even after the pandemic. 

The city of Phoenix launched an entire food security program, called Feed Phoenix, which hired local restaurants to cook regionally sourced food for those in need, essentially creating a three-pronged symbiotic community support system. 

The program buys wholesale produce from local farms and then hires restaurants, chefs, and caterers to turn it into meals for those in need. These meals are distributed to shelters, food banks, and refugee housing. 

Feed Phoenix is being orchestrated by the nonprofit Local First Arizona, a coalition of 3,000 local businesses. So far, they have churned out 50,000 meals and helped keep 16 farms and nearly 45 restaurants and caterers afloat. 

The pandemic has changed our everyday lives and prompted real breakthroughs in our understanding of community. Nowhere have these breakthroughs been more pronounced than in the field that gives us a clear path out of the pandemic: medicine and public health. 

The development of mRNA vaccines, often skimmed over by mainstream media, is a truly revolutionary accomplishment in the field of medicine. Katalin Karikó spent her entire life researching this medical technology and had her work ignored and underfunded for decades. During the pandemic, mRNA research finally got a chance to prove its value during what has been the fastest vaccine development and rollout process in human history. 

Now, this same technology is being used to create vaccines for other diseases that mutate too quickly for traditional vaccine efficacy. Moderna is using this technique to develop a vaccine for HIV and Yale Medical School has released initial reports that mRNA could be used to create a more effective malaria vaccine.

With a heightened emphasis on health in society, other public health initiatives saw unexpected boosts as well. One million smokers in the UK kicked the habit during the pandemic and as more pregnant women worked from home, premature births plummeted. In one neonatal intensive care unit in Copenhagen, the rate of babies born before 28 weeks dropped by 90 percent, prompting new discussions surrounding professional flexibility for mothers. 

For those who don’t regularly read The Optimist Daily, the sheer volume of pandemic innovations may be surprising. Amplifying solutions and recognizing the forward progress that accompanies the crises we face is critical for building a collective consciousness that not only sees solutions but fights to implement them and share them with others. 

News media plays a major role in influencing our perception of the world. Whether we realize it or not, it determines how we feel about the future and our sense of autonomy over building better prospects for our children and grandchildren. In “Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities,” historian Rebecca Solnit elaborates on the radical nature of hope in the face of challenging times, and how in fact, it is often in the face of despair that hope becomes the most powerful collective force that brings humanity together to take productive, positive action in the aftermath of disaster. Solnit writes, “This is an extraordinary time full of vital, transformative movements that could not be foreseen. It’s also a nightmarish time. Full engagement requires the ability to perceive both.”

She is writing about natural disasters, and about the stories we tell ourselves about these moments of transformation. Do we descend into despair and give up, or do we rise to the moment and take action? The choice is ours. 

The possibilities embedded in moments of crisis are just some of the many advancements that routinely go overlooked in our modern media landscape. Join us in shifting the narrative.


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