The Optimist View: Knocking down the negative news bias

“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” – Victor Frankel

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 clarified what we at The Optimist Daily know to be true: That mainstream media outlets, specifically US media companies, carry a disproportionate negativity bias in the stories they report. 

Looking specifically at the coronavirus, Bruce Sacerdote, an economics professor at Dartmouth College, built a database of Covid-19 coverage from major news sources including CNN, Fox News, Politico, The New York Times, and hundreds of other sources, then 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 media was 51 percent in international media, 53 percent in U.S. regional media, and 64 percent in scientific journals.

Molly Cook, a co-author of the study, told NYT, “The most well-read U.S. media are outliers in terms of their negativity.”

Unpacking this issue, Sacerdote points out that while many prominent international media outlets, like the BBC, receive government funding, most US 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 not only manage the current crisis, but also to better equip us to deal with the next. 

That’s the exact foundation that The Optimist Daily and other solutions journalism networks build our content on. We’re not pretending the global issues don’t exist, but rather pointing out that there are far more solutions to these issues than mainstream media gives credit to. 

For every single global crisis you see on the five ‘o’ clock news, there is at least one, if not hundreds of, dedicated organizations, scientists, advocates, and public servants working hard to promote potential solutions to the problem. For example, while 87 percent of US national news media coverage about the pandemic was negative, we found some pretty neat solutions. 

Early on 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. 

New York chefs Jeremiah Stone and Fabián von Hauske

Although most restaurants were forced to close their doors, ghost kitchens allowed some chefs to keep cooking without the overhead costs of an entire restaurant space. Celebrity chefs stepped up to feed the most vulnerable and commercial kitchens turned into centers for justice and support. 

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

Speaking of food, Covid-19 has highlighted the fragility of some global supply chains, encouraging consumers to think locally for the good of the planet and to support their fellow community members. Because of anticipated food chain disruptions, demand for community supported agriculture (CSA) has never been higher, and now that more people have experienced the nutritional and environmental benefits of sustainable, locally-sourced produce, many families will likely never go back to buying their vegetables from the grocery store. 

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 gave 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. We wrote a whole View about Katalin Karikó, the amazing woman who has spent her entire life working on this medical technology. Ignored and underfunded for decades, mRNA research finally got a chance to prove its value during what has been the fastest vaccine development and rollout process in human history. 

These new vaccines utilize synthetic mRNA to teach our cells how to make a protein to fight the disease. The mRNA strand never actually enters the cell’s nucleus, but once the protein or antigen is displayed on the cell’s surface, it triggers the body’s immune system to produce antibodies and T-cells which fight off essentially an imagined infection. This way, the body is ready to fight the virus should it be exposed, even though it has never actually been encountered. 

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. 

Pregnant women aren’t the only ones experiencing a momentous workforce shift. The pandemic has proven that many workers can be as productive at home as they were in the office, allowing them to prioritize work during their chosen hours of focus as well as spend more time with their family members and eliminate costly commutes. 

As more companies announce all-remote futures, we’re also offered the opportunity to rethink how we use our office spaces (like turning them into schools) and cut down on resource use in buildings which contributes to climate change. 

Throughout the pandemic, our team at The Optimist Daily has remarked how some of the changes brought on by the pandemic are actually silver linings. We enjoy more flexible work hours and the opportunity to reconnect with our families. We’ve enjoyed innovations across all sectors that will continue to push us towards forward progress in this world. 

We witnessed the largest drop in emissions in human history and plummeting demand for gas finally persuaded some of the staunchest oil-supporters to finally recognize that renewables are the way of the future.

For those who don’t regularly read The Optimist Daily, these multitudes of pandemic innovations may come as a shock. Although mainstream media hasn’t shed a light on many of these stories, the research and resilience that has underlaid this last year will continue to advance our world long after the pandemic ends. 

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 globe. 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 in fact on how 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 also about the stories we tell ourselves about these moments of transformation. Do we descend into despair and give up, or do we rise up to the moment and take action?  These pandemic-focused solutions are just some of the many advancements that routinely go overlooked in our modern media landscape. Join us in committing to making these, and all solutions, more widely known. 

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