If it bleeds, kiss it better

3 minute read

BREAKING: Bad news makes people feel awful. Nice news makes them feel better.

For years your Back Page scribe toiled at a broadsheet newspaper, where due attention was always given to getting the right mix of stories on a page.

The importance of a “change of pace” or some “light and bright” amid a wall of otherwise dire stories has been somewhat lost in the more bitsy world of digital news.

But at TMR we honour the tradition, balancing stories of AHPRA overreach and government neglect with light relief in the form of the column you’re reading now, our finely curated weekly medical memes and the surreal stylings of Humoural Theory. A spoonful of sugar, and all that.

If this study is to be believed, if we really want to make you feel better about the world, then as well as humour we should be bringing you a daily story of human generosity and inspirational kindness.


Previous researchers have documented the effects of bad news, not only on mood and mental health – coverage of things such as covid and terror attacks has been associated with shock, fear, anger, catastrophising and even PTSD – but also on compassion fatigue, reinforcement of racist stereotypes and “a belief that the world is a dangerous place where people cannot be trusted”.

Less is known, the authors of this paper write, about the effects of media exposure to others’ benevolence.

The team tested this in a series of studies, first randomising their sample into four conditions – “Immorality, Kindness, Immorality+Kindness, and Control” and exposed to footage about a terrorist attack and/or footage of kind acts carried out in its wake, or something neutral. They repeated this study replacing “Kindness” with “Amusement”, using some unspecified light-hearted material.

Those in the Immorality+Kindness condition “reported significantly lower reductions to positive affect, significantly lower increases to negative affect, and significantly more positive perceptions of humanity than participants in the Immorality condition”.

Those in the Immorality+Amusement condition also had significantly smaller reductions to positive affect and smaller increases in negative affect and greater levels of elevation – defined as “a multifaceted construct comprising emotional, cognitive and physiological responses that involves feeling uplifted, experiencing warmth in one’s chest, wanting to be a better person and feeling optimistic about humanity”.

However, despite that last part of the definition, “they did not differ on perceptions of humanity”.

Amusement was less effective in alleviating the negative effects of exposure to others’ immorality than seeing others’ kindness, in other words.

In further tests, with variations to conditions, stimuli and outcome measures, they found amusement was better at mitigating the increase in negative affect, while kindness was better at maintaining positive affect, inducing elevation, promoting positive perceptions of humanity, and promoting pro-sociality.

The authors “seek to encourage further consideration of alternative ways to cover serious topics without inciting aversive reactions through intentionally provocative and emotive sensationalism. For instance researchers have begun to explore the pros and cons of constructive journalism where news stories use solution-oriented framing.”

This hack earnestly wishes them good luck while offering the worldly reminder that the business of news is largely that – a business. As long as it’s what people read, what bleeds will most likely continue to lead.

Send story tips to penny@medicalrepublic.com.au so she can publish and be damned.

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