Coronavirus: The Impact of Bad News
Published April 2020
The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic will not abate anytime soon. Neither, we can safely assume, will the news about it. So, it’s more important than ever that journalists understand the long-term effects of negative news on their audiences. By learning about the psychology behind news consumption, journalists can help their audiences deal with a deluge of information and remain engaged, not discouraged, over the long haul.
What happens when we see a lot of bad news?
Ideally, and in many cases, our reporting on the problems of the world inspires audiences to act, to fix problems or to seek solutions. But that isn’t always the case. Psychologically, when audiences engage with a high volume of bad news, they may experience the following effects and instead fail to act.
- Adaptation & desensitization.
Regularly consuming news like that of an ongoing pandemic could desensitize individuals to the extreme nature of these events as they adapt to a “new normal.”1 That may make them slower to react.2
- Learned helplessness.
Negative news stories in which a problem is framed as unsolvable, or in which solutions are never discussed, can make us feel helpless3 and anxious.4 That learned helplessness, in turn, can make us depressed, pessimistic,5 and less likely to help others.6
- Tuning out.
The firehose of news updates available at our fingertips can backfire by overwhelming us with choices7 and some audiences actually avoid the news when it negatively impacts their mood.8
(To learn more about how our media diets affect our mental health, check out You Are What You Read by Jodie Jackson.)
What can journalists do to help?
Be intentional about how you assign and structure your stories. Understand that the punishing pace of our 24/7 news cycle can take a toll on audiences and may make us all less willing and able to act on the news we consume.
Slow it down.
Live blogs are great for emergency situations. But during a news event that will have long-term repercussions, we must question the efficacy of near-constant updates. Fewer, more substantive updates can help audiences take in the news at a more digestible pace.
- Consider creating products that, at their core, promote more intentional consumption (because they end), like newsletters and podcasts.
- Choose which stories to promote on social media carefully. News apps may feel like the right place for brief updates, but audiences will see them out of order and out of context in their feeds.
- Be thoughtful with your push notifications. Relentless alerts that flatten everything into “Breaking News” can easily become overwhelming or have a “Boy Who Cried Wolf” desensitizing effect.
Focus on solutions.
Solutions journalism is rigorous, compelling coverage of responses to social problems, how they work, their effectiveness, and their broader applicability. It heightens accountability by exposing solutions where they exist and examining barriers to change. It also empowers communities to learn from each other. When audiences are presented with solutions-focused stories, they see problems as solvable,9 and are more likely to contribute and take action.10 (They also engage with pages longer. Wink wink.11)
The Solutions Journalism Network works to spread the practice of investigating solutions. They define this as reporting that:
- Focuses in-depth on a response to a social problem. Describing a problem is not enough.
- Examines how that response works in meaningful detail. What does success look like? Does it actually work?
- Focuses on effectiveness of a solution, not just good intentions. It presents any available evidence of those results.
- Provides not just inspiration, but insight that others can use: how a response works, how it could be better, how it can be applied elsewhere.
- Discusses what’s not working about the approach. Explain the limitations, risks, and caveats.
SolutionsJournalism.org is the best resource for learning about SoJo.
- Visit SolutionsJournalism.org/HUB for training materials.
- The StoryTracker.SolutionsJournalism.org provides great models of solutions coverage and case studies to include in your own solutions reporting.
- Check out their COVID-19 Story Exchange for coverage you can republish under a Creative Commons license.
What solutions journalism is NOT: Empty advocacy, “fluff” pieces, “good news,” hero-worship, thinly-veiled PR, giving/donation campaigns, or silver bullet theories.
Especially in the midst of a pandemic, all journalism should not be solutions-focused. We need to continue to rigorously report on the problems facing our communities. But if we’re not presenting solutions, we’re not presenting the whole story.
How can this apply to COVID-19 coverage? SJN has compiled 24 questions to kick off solutions-focused reporting, including:
- What’s working to help the elderly stay healthy?
- What’s working to provide health and safety resources for people experiencing homelessness?
- What’s working to ensure the health and safety of people who are incarcerated?
- What’s working to connect people with disabilities to health and safety resources?
- What’s working to feed children dependent on school lunches?
Use explainer journalism techniques.
You can’t over-explain a pandemic. Breaking down massive, complex stories into manageable, context-rich slices is a great way to keep your journalism engaging without contributing to information overload.
- Create “Start Here” posts that dive into the context, and link to them early and often. Learn more.
- Use lists. Our brains love them because they help us understand and remember information.12
- Create a glossary for medical jargon. Learn more.
- Build “character” maps to put faces to names of recurring sources, like heads of departments or city services the public might not encounter frequently.
- Use subheads, sidebars, break-out boxes, and infographics. We all skim when we read online.13 Take advantage of it and provide audiences with visual signposts and pit stops.
- Scharrer: Media Exposure and Sensitivity to Violence in News Reports: Evidence of Desensitization?
- Eisenberg, Fabes: Empathy: Conceptualization, measurement, and relation to prosocial behavior
- Levine: “Learned Helplessness” and the Evening News
- Davey: The psychological impact of negative TV news bulletins: The catastrophizing of personal worries
- Seligman: Learned Helplessness
- Veitch: Radio News Broadcasts: Their Effects on Interpersonal Helping; Veitch, Griffitt: Good News‐Bad News: Affective and Interpersonal Effects
- Iyengar: When Choice is Demotivating: Can One Desire Too Much of a Good Thing?
- Reuters Institute: Executive Summary and Key Findings of the 2019 Report
- Solutions Journalism Network: Here’s some engaging news: Solutions journalism increases optimism, builds self-efficacy — and lasts longer, too
- Jackson: Publishing the Positive: Exploring the motivations for and the consequences of reading solutions-focused journalism
- Center for Media Engagement: Solutions Journalism & News Engagement
- The New Yorker: A List of Reasons Why Our Brains Love Lists
- The Guardian: Skim reading is the new normal. The effect on society is profound