Readers like you keep news free for everyone.

More than 5,000 readers have already pitched in to keep free access to The Journal.

For the price of one cup of coffee each week you can help keep paywalls away.

Support us today
Not now
Friday 1 December 2023 Dublin: 2°C

Psychologist Media coverage of Prince Harry's book is the perfect example of 'bad news sells'

Dr Jolanta Burke looks at the media’s handling of the new autobiography by the British prince.

BRITAIN’S PRINCE HARRY has a bee in his bonnet about the media.

His consistent message through the Netflix series, ITV interview and the book are that the British media and the royal family’s manipulation of the media led to his wife’s mental health decline and Harry’s subsequent departure from his royal role. 

While we can only debate the accuracy of news coverage about Meghan and Harry, a more critical question is whether the issue of media bias that Prince Harry tries to highlight impacts not only him but also your well-being as a reader, listener and viewer of the news.

the-duke-and-duchess-of-sussex PA PA

It is no secret that negative news sells. Our brains are attracted to the bad news as our main objective is survival. Anything that threatens our survival is red-flagged, so we pay attention to it first. However, is it possible that while the papers sell, we are the ones who pay the price of the negative news we watch, listen to and read? 

Grind of daily news

Let’s take as an example the Covid-19 pandemic. Depending on the media outlet, the news about it was presented as negative (resulting in feelings of despair), neutral (facts) or positive (offering hope).

In an experiment conducted at the height of the pandemic, people watching negative news reported a significant decline in positive emotions and resilience. Yet, at the same time, those watching the same news presented positively increased their experiences of positivity. 

Even though positive emotions are fleeting, they are essential. They create an accumulative effect which helps us spiral up or down. It impacts our long-term outcomes, resulting in better problem-solving, motivation to connect with others, and less worry 24 hours later.

This is why decreasing positive emotions offers a temporary benefit and has a potentially significant long-term impact on our mental health.

Last week, from the leaked Spanish version of Prince Harry’s book “Spare”, the media selected a handful of controversial stories to report. One of them was the number of people Harry killed during his deployment in Afghanistan.

duke-of-sussex-autobiography-spare PA PA

It drew criticisms from his former friends, military authorities and even the Taliban leaders. By the end of the next day, the media reported a national threat to the UK citizens’ security incited by Prince Harry’s comments. Regardless of the real threat, the headlines sold millions of newspapers, resulting in even more clickbait.

But how did the people reading the news feel that day? Even though I live in Ireland, I felt worried. The memories of past terror attacks flooded back, and the fear I experienced when visiting London during one such attack. Suddenly, I found myself speaking ill of Harry for ‘acting so irresponsibly’.

It was only then I stopped myself and realised that my emotions were spiralling down. I was increasingly upset about the situation, yet the threat was not real. Perhaps there is a threat and it may happen in the future, but it is not happening now. This was just speculation fuelled by the media in response to what Harry wrote in his book and I was being sucked in. So I turned the TV off.

prince-harry-in-afghanistan Anwar Hussein Collection The British royal took some heat for referencing his time in Afghanistan. Here, he fires a gun at Taliban fighters while posted in Helmand Province in Southern Afghanistan in 2008. Anwar Hussein Collection

My experience is similar to the research findings showing that women, in particular, may experience higher stress levels when exposed to negative news. The actual news piece did not increase their stress hormone, cortisol. However, when they were exposed to stress later that day, their cortisol levels shot up higher compared to those not exposed to the negative news, leading them to experience more physiological stress overall that day.

Mindful of impact

While we need more research with larger groups of participants showing us similar results, the preliminary findings suggest that watching the negative news dampens our psychological and emotional strength making us more vulnerable to adverse outcomes. At the same time, we know that positive news does not have the same effect on us.

Is there another way for news outlets to sell the news and protect us from the adverse effects of what they present? The answer is yes.

Increasingly more outlets focus on presenting news positively in a way that inspires and enthuses people rather than focusing on the harmful outcomes that threaten them. As such, researchers found that presenting news in a positive way increases their positive emotions.

britain-prince-harry Kirsty Wigglesworth The disintegraiton of family relations in the British Royal family has played out in the media for years. Kirsty Wigglesworth

At the same time, some news is hard to present positively, given they are about very adverse events or issues. So, to soften the approach and help readers, listeners and viewers experience more positive emotions, negative stories with silver linings are shown to do the job. 

Thus, it is not enough for the media to report Prince Harry’s unnecessary mention of the number of soldiers he killed and develop the story into a serious threat to public safety. Instead, considering how what he said can help us inform future communication from veterans might offer that silver lining needed to soften the message.

Harry’s book has caused a stir in the media. To balance the negative news, it would be good to see how his family discord that has played so publically may have helped other families connect.

It would be good to consider the importance of forgiveness amid this bitter conflict. It would also be good to hear how sibling rivalry gets resolved in other families rather than writing about how bad the relationship between Harry and William is. It is time to see the other side of the news.

Dr Jolanta Burke is a Chartered Psychologist with the British Psychological Society and a Senior Lecturer in the Centre for Positive Psychology, RCSI University of Medicine and Health Sciences.


Your Voice
Readers Comments
This is YOUR comments community. Stay civil, stay constructive, stay on topic. Please familiarise yourself with our comments policy here before taking part.
Leave a Comment
    Submit a report
    Please help us understand how this comment violates our community guidelines.
    Thank you for the feedback
    Your feedback has been sent to our team for review.

    Leave a commentcancel