Tired of reading negative news? You are not alone. Media practitioners are taking notice of the effects news can have on individuals and communities. Jodie Jackson, a research associate for the Constructive Journalism Project, has dedicated her research to the psychological impact of news. Recently completing her master’s degree in Positive psychology, Jackson’s research looks into ways to investigate the current negativity bias in the media and what it is doing to our mental health and world views.
Jackson’s research, as stated on her site, “suggests that it is important for our wellbeing to have a balanced media diet and believes news organisation should include news stories of solutions and progress as part of their narrative.” Jackson, who is based in London, has worked in the field of Constructive Journalism for the past six years and has delved further into her research in the past two years.
Last spring, Jackson collaborated with filmmaker Julian Langham to produce a video of an original poem entitled “Publish the Positive.” Jackson has since encouraged others to join the #PublishthePositive movement by making a conscious decision to share more uplifting news.
ivoh recently interviewed Jackson via email to learn more about her work.
Gloria Muñoz: What led you to your research on the psychological impact of the news?
Jodie Jackson: I began researching the psychological impact of the news from the perspective of a consumer. I have always had a keen interest in the news but over time I began to find the news to be too depressing and I found that my opinions and beliefs were becoming cynical, distrusting and perhaps even paranoid at times, due largely to the relentless focus on problems and the continuous depiction of humanity at its worst. I then began to not want to watch the news. And this worried me, because if I am motivated to know but attracted to the idea of choosing ignorance, I wondered how many others feel the same, and what would it take to keep me informed in a way that kept me engaged? And since I first asked myself that question, I have become unstoppably passionate about the answer, which is what is now termed Constructive Journalism. So Instead of switching off because I found it too depressing, I began to read more widely to seek out some sort of balance. In doing so, I was inspired and I began a website called What a Good Week (no longer active), which was an aggregation of what I considered to be solutions-focused news stories published each week. The aim was not to advocate for a wholly good news newspaper but to provide myself the balance.
I was amazed by how many organizations were doing something similar and was keen to learn more about the impact this type of journalism was having on the reader so I enrolled in a master’s degree in Positive psychology to research the psychological impact of the news. I felt I had to do a master’s because it was very difficult to get people outside of the field to engage in the conversation; they assumed I was naïve or ignorant and although I had passion, personal experience and opinion, … could only take me so far, for the industry to listen and other consumers to become aware. I had to have something more substantial that was backed by evidence, science and statistics. I began by looking at the negativity bias and then looked at the impact of more positive publications and have gained a deeper understanding of the consequence and a much greater respect for the power of the news and the potential of Constructive Journalism. In the process, I have become the research associate for Constructive Journalism Project in the UK.
Muñoz: In what ways do you hope your research influences media practitioners and the stories they tell?
Jodie Jackson: Media practitioners are enormously influenced by the consumer demand. This is where I believe the real power of my research lies as it speaks to the consumer, not necessarily the industry.
A reason for the continued acceleration of the news’ negativity bias is a lack of accountability. The media is a powerful instrument in helping correct wrongdoing through investigating the problem and exposing it — and bringing it to the attention of the public to put pressure on the issue to bring about sustained change.
Whilst the media is a formidable force in holding others to accountable, [reporters] are … not very good at turning the lens on themselves. So we ask ourselves, who holds the media accountable? We do. This research has hopefully informed the consumer of the psychological consequences of the information stream we absorb so they are able to move from being consumers to becoming conscious consumers. This shift in demand will hopefully create a shift in supply.
It is very similar to the change in consumer demand for foods like quinoa and goji berries — with an increase in demand once we were aware of the benefits they have on our health. This demand moved these foods, once saved for wholefoods health stores, to mainstream supermarkets. Similarly, yoga was once considered a hippy pursuit steeped in stereotypical perceptions. However, once the benefits are proven on both our physical and mental well being, 20 million people in the U.S. now practice it regularly. I hope we can have the same shift in consumer consciousness with the news, forcing it into the mainstream.
Muñoz: How do you define empathy? Has your research changed your perspective on empathy and storytelling?
Jackson: I define empathy as being able to feel compassionately for another person. … My perspective on empathy has not changed so much as it has broadened. Traditionally empathy was thought to be stimulated by reporting suffering. For example, in a 2002 research report, Hal Himmelstein and Perry Faithorn … identified that the journalists interviewed shared a common characteristic to want to contribute to the improvement of the human condition and did so by reporting suffering as a way to counteract ignorance and stimulate empathy.
However, the one dimensional [approach] of primarily reporting on suffering has in fact led to a lack of engagement with the issue. The two dominating reasons for this lack of engagement correspond with the existing research. The first reason suggested was active avoidance; one reader said that they “skim read negative articles” or “avoid them altogether because of the way in which they dig up the worst of the worst.”
The second reason for this lack of engagement was suggested to be the result of desensitization. This limits the opportunity to feel empathy. However, my research suggests that by reporting in a more constructive way [that presents] bad news as well as … solutions-focused news content, makes the reader more sensitive to the stories reported and stimulates a feeling of empathy … and concern for the issue presented.
Muñoz: How can Constructive Journalism and your research on the psychological impact of the news change the way reporters interact with communities?
Jackson: It can change the way in which they approach a story. It is important to note that it is not enough to simply have positive and negative content to be considered constructive. It is very much about how we tell stories of problems and solutions in order to empower the reader. This refers to having empathy of compassion when reporting problems; pushing past the most obvious gruesome or tragic details of a story to include a more balanced reflection of what the reality looks like. Last January I interviewed Veronique Mistiaen, [who] was reporting on the Rwandan genocide and visited a village of children who were left parentless from an attack. Among the tragic and obvious stories of this suffering, she noticed that they were all so clean and when she questioned one of the boys about this he replied “they want us to live like dogs, but we are human beings and we have dignity.” What this reporter was able to uncover was a depth that illuminated the spirit of these children and humanized them in a way that people connected with and cared about. It was one of her most read articles that stimulated a considerable consumer response. When it comes to reporting solutions, Constructive Journalism refers to reporting critically on solutions; not overstating their importance and reporting more on the process of progress rather than the person instigating it.
Muñoz: The ivoh team thoroughly enjoyed your the video of your poem that summarizes your research. How have the video and the #PublishthePositive movement been received?
Jackson: My poem was created to try and reach a wide audience as well as connect with people who may be interested in my research. It has been received really well and has led me to run talks at universities across the UK, speak at international news conferences and connect with an international academic community interested in the same field. I am not the only person advocating for solutions journalism and there are many organizations campaigning for the same thing or practicing this kind of journalism. This movement has become an accelerating one that now has the funding, resources, [a] consumer base and research to support itself. The growing field of Constructive Journalism has helped move the conversation past negative vs positive [and] problem vs solution [to] widening the lens to recognize the importance of both. Problem-focused journalism and solution-focused journalism no longer need to be pitted against each other to decide which one is most important, but instead [we can] recognize both in their own right as serving an important informative function in the press.
Positive news cannot wait to be reported on in the absence of problems because if you are waiting for the world to be rid of problems before you start looking at what is good, you are never going to see it. We need to notice the world’s achievements alongside its failings in order to report on and understand the world more accurately. The research around Constructive Journalism therefore suggests that news organizations should report on strengthS as it does weaknesses, successes as it does failures, human excellence as it does human corruption and scandal, solutions as it does problems, and progress as it does recession.
Jackson’s research was published this week on constructivejournalism.org.
Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.