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In their recent publication “News Consumption and Its Unpleasant Side Effect: Studying the Effect of Hard and Soft News Exposure on Mental Well-Being Over Time” Mark Boukes and Rens Vliegenthart investigate how individuals’ consumption of current news impacts their well-being over time. Their article was featured in the Washington Post in the on January 4th . Read on to learn more about the study.

About the research

While following the news is generally understood to be crucial for a functioning democracy, the focus of news on negative events in the world raises the question how regular consumption of crime and crises affect an individual’s wellbeing. The effect of news consumption is studied by using a three-wave panel survey in combination with latent growth curve modeling (n = 2,767), while distinguishing between “hard news” and “soft news”. “Hard news” programs are considered more negative news, like crime and crisis which is portrayed as impacting society as a whole. While “soft news” programs, on the other hand, can also deal with crime and crisis, but lighter and less serious news issues are mixed in as well. To measure news consumption, the study reported how often respondents watched hard news programs and how often they watched soft news programs. Further, mental well-being was assessed on a mental well-being scale measuring often respondents felt nervous, sad, calm and peaceful, happy and downhearted.

Hypotheses

The study names three reasons to why the characteristics of traditional news coverage will negatively impact mental well-being. First, the focus on negative events such as crime, poverty and crisis will cause negative affect in the consumer. Second, news stories often deal with rather abstract topics that are independent from an individual’s personal circumstances. This can lead to a feeling of powerlessness regarding as no solution for societal problems is provided. Third, hard news does not have the capacity to distract people from their everyday concerns as entertaining content. This results in further exhaustion of psychological resources instead of recovery. Therefore, the authors draw hypothesize the following.

H1:  Consumption of hard news negatively affects developments in mental well-being.

Soft news differ from hard news according to three dimensions. While soft-news can also cover high profile issues like scandals, serious issues like war and crime are not on their agenda. Further, the mix with lighter stories allows for relaxation. Also, the framing of soft news stories follows more human interest manner, which focuses on the individual, while hard news tend to provide a societal perspective. Therefore, soft news may less strongly evoke the feeling of powerlessness than hard news does. Lastly, the sensationalism of soft news more often provide a distraction from an individual’s daily concerns. These distinctions between soft news and hard news result in the second hypothesis:

H2: Consumption of hard news has a more negative effect on developments in mental well-being than the consumption of soft news.

What are the findings?

The study found that respondents’ well-being overall increased between the three survey waves, but the growth was significantly weaker for those who consumed more hard news. By contrast, for every soft news program individuals consumed, increase in mental well-being was amplified. This found support for both hypotheses, as news consumption only affected well-being negatively for hard news programs. The authors discuss that these findings urge individuals to be aware of their news consumption and the potentially negative effects it may have on their well-being. Further, journalists should pay attention on how they portray negative events and possibly adopt a rather soft news frame and style.


What do you think about this topic? Let us know in the comments.

For more information check out the article in Journal of Media Psychology and get acquainted with the details of the research.