As people retreat from news of doom, hope is more gripping than fear
January should be a time for fresh starts. But this year, with apocalyptic headlines barely letting up, many people are finding it hard to stay hopeful. When it all gets too much, some people may be tempted to simply switch off from the news. It’s our job to win them back.
This news fatigue is a growing problem for journalists around the world, with critics blaming their bias towards negative news. Reporters are less likely to get a good news story commissioned than a negative one. “If it bleeds, it leads,” the newsroom adage goes.
There’s a reason for this. Humans are hard-wired to pay attention to alarming stories that may contain information vital to our survival. But while negatives stories grab our attention, over time we struggle to stay focused, especially when they begin to damage our mental health.
There’s a limit to how much fear people can take. Viewers and readers flocked back to news outlets when COVID first hit, but numbers quickly fell again, a recent survey from the UK found. People just switched off when the bad news got too much to bear.
Digging down into their reasons, respondents said they had turned off to protect themselves. Confronted with a list of never-ending disasters, they felt overwhelmed by despair. They had chosen to prioritize their well-being over staying informed.
So where does that leave us communicators? If we want to spur change, we need people not only to be informed, but to care. Only then will they act. But we can’t reach audiences who are too depressed to listen. We need to find another way.
My job at the UN is to communicate the state of the world. To do so I could tell any number of terrifying and attention-grabbing stories. But in the long run, I’d begin to lose people. I’m increasingly working on the premise that gloom doesn’t keep people gripped. Hope does.
And there’s a growing body of evidence to back that up. A group of journalists say they have found a way to communicate problems without causing audiences to throw their hands up in despair. And this isn’t whitewashing, we can do so without shying away from reality.
The premise goes that news of an unfamiliar problem is easier to digest if it comes alongside a solution. Even better, by offering audiences concrete ways to help, we give them tools to fend off feelings of futility and apathy that problem-focused news can spark.
This solutions approach has even been shown to rebuild audience trust. That’s because it isn’t about putting a positive spin on stories or omitting the negative parts. It’s about redressing the positive-negative balance and seeking to tell the whole truth, warts and all.
Taking our cue from the Solutions Journalism Network, we’re introducing these methods at the UN, starting at the top. When UN Secretary General António Guterres speaks, he highlights solutions while explaining problems, and then appeals to the world to join the response.
So, if we want to win back audiences, let’s start treating them with compassion. Let’s give them a reason to stay informed rather than hiding from the state of the world. By showing there is no problem without a solution, we can get them gripped on hope, rather than fear.