The cost of negative bias when good news is not newsworthy

The cost of negative bias: when good news is not newsworthy

2012-06-24 11.57.54

Lindsay Williams (the only blonde head) in rural Ethiopia where she was visiting land management projects

Every now and then someone wants to hijack a media training session with a detailed discussion about why journalists are as they are; why newspapers and broadcasters obsess about celebrity and the royal family, for example, when there are more important things to be writing about. Another often-heard complaint is that so much journalism is negative, whining, knocking or finding fault. My stock reply to this is ‘All planes land safely at Heathrow today’, is not a headline or a news story because this is what happens almost every day and it is what the public would expect. One plane crashing is out of the ordinary, shocking even, and therefore is to be written about. In fact, I see news as the professional and hopefully trustworthy version of gossip.

But the negative bias in news does sometimes have ‘unexpected consequences’. As many of you know I work a lot with one major UN agency, which is very close to my heart. As a team we have almost a dozen humanitarian clients (Laura has a lot more of this in Brussels than we do in London, and Oliver Wates knows more about international development than most professional aid workers).

Oliver wates Addis training

Oliver in the classroom in Addis Ababa

As a result we are aware of the huge progress that is being made across the globe in ending poverty, fighting hunger, promoting equality and health and getting children into school. There are of course huge exceptions. Anywhere where there is a war, everything goes backwards, from Syria to South Sudan. The problem I see is that most people don’t realise how much progress is being made. The negative bias in the reporting means most people think the global situation is dire and getting worse. How many people know for example that Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, now has a modern light railway or tram system. On the bigger picture, here is a piece from the BBC reporting on this week’s World Bank figures showing extreme poverty across the globe has fallen to below 10%. And here is another piece from the Guardian, which is more mixed but tries to audit the success of the international Millennium Development Goals. They were set in 2000, signed up to by all member countries of the United Nations and 23 international organisations and end this year. Although not all goals have been met, there are some spectacular successes. The MDGs, as they are affectionately known, are about to be replaced by the SDGs – or Sustainable Development Goals. And there is plenty of negative reporting about those. The negative news bias means the good news on development is almost hidden. Meanwhile all those agencies raising money for development projects feel they need to emphasise the bad. I think this is a worldwide strategic mistake. We in the developed world mostly suffer compassion fatigue and feel the situation is hopeless. Whereas if everyone realised we are nearly there – it is entirely possible to have a world in which no one dies of starvation, most children survive beyond their 5th birthday and every child goes at least to primary school –  we might all feel more energised for the last big push. The solution: I recommend all videos by one of our heroes, the Swede Hans Rosling. They should be compulsory viewing for all of us who care about current affairs. If you have never watched a TED talk by Rosling, start today with this one and work backwards.

Journalists will continue to write “interesting” stories about disaster, suffering and conflict and less often highlight the dull reality of constant improvements and gradual progress. That is not going to change in our lifetime. But we as consumer of news need to remember that is not the whole story.

1 reply
  1. David Nelson
    David Nelson says:

    The negative bias you refer to is particularly corrosive in the reporting of business and corporate affairs. I recall one example in particular during the early 2000’s when Shell announced their annual profits of however many billion pounds. Cue knee jerk reaction from journalists in the morning news conference: “They’re just screwing profit out of the motorists… etc.”
    Shell’s PR department though had got their positive in place, pointing out that every pension fund in the UK (every person sitting in that morning news conference) received one eighth (£1 in every £8 was the way they phrased it) or the growth in their pension fund assets from Shell. They also pointed out, as they did every year, that c. 75% of the cost of petrol goes to the Treasury in tax, also that oil requires huge capital investment etc etc.
    Unfortunately, a couple of years later Shell has to fess up to overstating their reserves, which was a negative!
    But the long term negative reporting of business, has, I believe, engendered and supported a culture of distrust in business amongst the population. That in turn encourages further negative reporting from journalists reflecting their audience’s bias, and you get into a vicious circle. And when search algorithms take account of numbers of views when ranking stories they return, and when most people only ever look at the first page of search results, the negativity is reinforced even further.


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