| 1.1°C Belfast

A healthy media is one that gets the balance right


Nelson McCausland MLA is chair of the Assembly’s culture, arts and leisure committee

Nelson McCausland MLA is chair of the Assembly’s culture, arts and leisure committee

Nelson McCausland MLA is chair of the Assembly’s culture, arts and leisure committee

Recently I have had good reason to be grateful to our health service.

Earlier in the year I had a bad fall, which resulted in a visit to the accident and emergency unit at the Mater Hospital. This was my first experience of A&E in many years and it was a good experience, insofar as such an experience can be good.

Then a fortnight ago my wife broke her right thumb and fractured vertebrae in her back.

This was more serious, and after initial treatment in the accident and emergency unit at the Royal Victoria Hospital, she had to spend 10 days in the fracture ward.

Again, I can only speak well of both the A&E unit and the fracture ward.

As I came out of the hospital I was thankful that we have a health service and grateful to those who staff it. On both occasions the staff were excellent and on both occasions there was no prolonged wait in the A&E unit.

If I were to base my assessment of the health service on those experiences I might easily conclude that there are no problems at all in the system.

On the other hand, if I were to base my assessment on some newspaper articles and television programmes and especially on some radio phone-in programmes, I might easily conclude that the entire health system has ground to a standstill and is on the verge of collapse, with no positive outcomes.

Of course neither of these assessments is correct, but why is it that some sections of the media concentrate to such an extent on the negative rather than the positive? Why is there a 'negativity bias' and what effect does it have?

Researchers at McGill University in Canada have been examining the reasons for the preponderance of negative news, but the fact is that a constant diet of negativity can be corrosive.

Of course the media world is becoming increasingly competitive with new technologies and more opportunities to access information.

Gone are the days when most homes purchased a daily newspaper. Gone are the days when the BBC dominated the airwaves and was unchallenged.

Newspapers, radio stations and television channels are not only competing with each other, they are also competing with on-line news sources and they are fighting for a share in an ever-more diverse and competitive market place.

Such competition can drive journalism downward towards ever greater sensationalism, and the phone hacking scandals in England have shown us just how far some journalists will go in their search for the sensational and the shocking, in the belief that this is what sells newspapers or gains listeners and viewers.

Stories can be negative, positive or neutral, and indeed the same story can be reported in different ways.

Some years ago a survey of public opinion in Northern Ireland was published.

I was encouraged by one figure that showed the level of public interest in a particular subject, let's say 25%, and looked forward to positive coverage in local newspapers. Most of them ignored the report altogether, but the one that did cover it turned the positive story into a negative with the main point being that 75% had no interest.

Subsequently I asked the journalist about it and said: "When you quote the readership of your newspaper, you present it in a positive way and say that 50,000 people read your paper.

"You don't say that 1,750,000 don't read it."

So, can I respectfully suggest that the media present all the news and present it in a balanced way; the good news as well as the bad news, the positive as well as the negative?

Can I also suggest that stories are set in context, and especially can we have some coverage of the good news from the health service?

I like my car battery to have a positive terminal as well as a negative, and I like positive news as well as negative.

Nelson McCausland MLA is chair of the Assembly's culture, arts and leisure committee

Belfast Telegraph