A panel led by associate professor Chris Barrington-Leigh of McGill’s Department of Equity, Ethics and Policy, and the Bieler School of Environment has concluded negative news reporting harms wellbeing. 

Consisting of experts in economics, psychology, and public policy, the World Wellbeing Panel found that while the media was overly negative and had undesirable effects on wellbeing and societal functioning, some worried about the effect on the quality of news if stringent editorial guidelines were to be applied. 

“I agree that the press should turn a little bit towards positive news, but not because they have the mandate to improve wellbeing, but simply because it better represents reality. It’s just to correct the bias that we have now on negativity — shock and fear,” Barrington-Leigh said.  

The panel’s conclusions partly echo a 2020 study published in the British Journal of Psychology titled ‘Is the news making us unhappy? The influence of daily news exposure on emotional states.’ That analysis found that, “When exposed to news facts, primary appraisal takes place, wherein someone assesses the severity and relevance of the news facts that in turn affect the emotional response.” The findings showed the more severe the news was perceived and the higher perceptions of personal relevance, the stronger the affective response. 

Barrington-Leigh advocates a richer balance in news reporting beginning with public broadcasters’ efforts to provide positive news to improve national wellbeing. “Aside from not wanting to hurt people by being too graphic and traumatizing, the question is about a balance, believing that there is as much good and as much collective empowerment that could lead to improving life over time. If the public come away instead with the opposite, then they are likely to have lower wellbeing in the long-run.” 

Barrington-Leigh is building a database aimed at resolving collective action challenges, consisting of positive stories where people have cooperated to solve problems. “It seems to me every day, in so many contexts, that people are not aware of how to go about this. Almost everything good that we call civilization is the result of us having solved one of these things in the past. The current state of people around the world is they are forgetting the value of governments and don’t understand, or are forgetting the value of collective solutions, and that’s the most dangerous thing I know about the world right now.” 

While agreeing that negative reporting often warns the public about conditions that they may want to mitigate against, Barrington-Leigh reiterates the need for balance in the media. “If you need to have the negative warnings to act on them collectively, and maybe individually, then absolutely. But if you’re also blind to the positive opportunities, or if you live in fear in a state of maladaptive anxiety, you will miss out on positive opportunities. So that just gets back to us having a realistic assessment of the world.” 

Ultimately, Barrington-Leigh says, the issue may come down to whether or not the media has a responsibility to foster wellbeing, as several panellists agreed it does, saying positive news should be pushed out more, especially in terms of successful cooperation. Others hold the view that wellbeing is not the media’s job and that negative stories engender better decisions collectively and individually. 

At issue, says Barrington-Leigh, is the media waters may already be too murky for the general public to navigate. “Maybe more important than achieving short-term wellbeing is the phenomenon that the population no longer has a realistic view of the world. People talk a lot about truth having disappeared as a concept, it’s individualized or fuzzy, or polarized.”