Best Practices: “Bad News Bias”

The Best Practice column is an occasional look at foundational best practices in journalism ethics. In this post, we define “bad news bias” and explore how to avoid perpetuating this practice in news reporting.

Humans, according to social psychologists, usually pay more attention to negative events than to positive ones. This “bad news bias” can affect what stories journalists choose to cover and how they cover them,  and is likely a reason that much news tends to skew negative. Add to that the clickability of dire headlines, and you end up with what we see in the news today.

And, as David Leonhardt writes in the New York Times, this is also an ethical issue for journalists. “If we’re constantly telling a negative story, we are not giving our audience the most accurate portrait of reality. We are shading it.”

Understanding and watching out for this bias can help journalists avoid focusing only on pessimistic stories, and instead choose to share a truer reflection of the world that may be more optimistic, inspiring, and positive. 

Leonhardt’s column in the Times examines news coverage during the COVID-19 pandemic. Every day, news outlets reported rising numbers of cases, deaths, and other grim impacts of the global epidemic, even when there was positive news, like the success of vaccines. U.S. national news coverage in particular was even more bleak than other countries, according to the column. 87% of COVID-19 coverage was found to be negative in the U.S, compared with only 51% internationally. 

While this type of coverage keeps people reading and engaging with the news, it also leads to feelings of despair, cynicism, and resentment toward the media and society. And, it can present a false version of what’s really happening.

Some argue that negative news coverage is just a response to consumer demand; more people are interested in reading when something negative happens vs. positive. But, the job of a journalist is, importantly, to act as a filter, informing people with news that they need to know and that accurately portrays the world, both good and bad. 

How can bad news bias be counteracted? Here are the best practices:

  • Be aware that bad-news bias exists and ask yourself if the news you are reporting is really that bad or if there are facts you are missing or avoiding that shed a more nuanced light on the situation. In other words, be skeptical of your bias.


  • Put seemingly bad news in historical context: If crime is higher than before the pandemic, is it also lower than it was 10 years earlier? If the stock market is down this week, how much has it risen over the past year? If a certain number of people have died from a side effect of a drug, how many people’s lives were also saved by that drug?


  • Expand your sources. Having diverse sources, especially in communities about which you are reporting, protects against a tendency to cover unfamiliar or marginalized communities only when something bad happens there. Learn about constructive things happening in the community and develop sources who are doing positive things.


  • Make an effort to seek out positive news – real news, not just soft-focus features – that is happening out of sight of the media. It could be a scientific development, a healthcare advance, an education success story, a philanthropic initiative, a triumph against bureaucracy, a reclaimed river or forest. It’s just as valid as bad news and helps provide a view of life that is at the same time more accurate and more encouraging than relentlessly negative headlines.