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From helpless to hopeful: How journalists can inspire audiences to feel more empowered

How to do journalism that fosters hopefulness and informed action — plus, special tips for climate reporting. Part 8 of the article series "Psychology for Journalists".

By Margarida Alpuim and Katja Ehrenberg

Figur in hoffnungsvoller Pose


We want to hook people on hope, not on fear (Nanette Braun, UN, Chief Communications Campaigns)

In the Elements of Journalism: What Newspeople Should Know and the Public Should Expect, journalists Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel argue that one of the functions of news is to be an “empowerer: providing audiences tools and information so that they can act for themselves. This involves making information interactive, providing dates when action needs to be taken, explaining how to get more involved” (1).


  • the Reuters' Digital News Report 2023 (2) shows that more than 3 in 10 people (36%) avoid the news, just slightly better than last year's all-time high (38%) (the data goes back to 2017).
  • the Reuters' report from 2022 (3) found that people avoided the news because they felt it has a “negative effect on mood” (36%) and that “there is nothing I can do with the information” (16%).

For people to feel empowered and to believe they “can act for themselves”, reporting needs to boost the perception of self-efficacy, promote hopefulness, and help people understand how to cope with the uncertainty of ambiguous situations. This is particularly true in climate journalism, a challenging topic because of its abstractness and complexity (4).

In this article of the series “Psychology for Journalists”, we will:

  • explain why people sometimes become passive or apathetic when it comes to changing adverse circumstances in their lives.
  • show you ways to enhance the audience’s perception that things can change and there is something they can do.
  • introduce the concept of “tolerance of ambiguity” and describe how it might affect you and your audience.
  • dive into why hopelessness is sometimes developed in the context of climate change.
  • offer a set of tools for a more impactful climate reporting.

Learned helplessness: I give up.

In a nutshell

Learned helplessness is the belief people have that there is nothing they can do to change the adverse circumstances affecting them (5). When people repeatedly experience a lack of control over stressful events, they learn that their behaviours don’t affect the outcome. Generalising this belief to future situations undermines their motivation to act, leads to a difficulty in learning new responses that would be successful, and causes emotional vulnerability (5).

Learned helplessness can be personal, when someone believes that the situation can be changed (by others) but the person themselves doesn’t have what is necessary to change it; or universal, if the person has low expectations that anything can be done, either by themselves or others (6).

A global example of learned helplessness was the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic — even though the pandemic was not experienced the same way by everyone around the world. Some people felt “little control over the outcome of the pandemic and over lives in general”; “constant uncertainty surrounding whether measures would change, and ultimately how long some combination of measures would be in place”; and “the feeling of there being no defined end point” (7). One of the consequences of this learned helplessness was that many people started feeling pessimistic and hesitant about following the rules (among other more profound emotional reactions), since they felt like their actions wouldn't have an impact on the outcome of the pandemic (7).

Lack of action toward climate change also might come from learned helplessness (8) — the belief that it is impossible to stop global warming, regardless of what is done. Constructive journalism can help combat this by presenting measures and actions that can be taken.

However, such actions will only be taken if people believe there is a chance they will be successful. That leads us to self-efficacy.

Self-efficacy: I can do it!

In a nutshell

Self-efficacy is the expectation people have of being able to perform a certain task, achieve a particular goal or overcome a challenge, using their own abilities (9). In other words, the belief of having what is necessary to be successful when engaging in a given activity. Self-efficacy is central to human motivation and behavioural change. It is not a personal trait generalised to all areas of life; it is rather related to specific behaviours or domains (10).

Where does the perception of self-efficacy come from and how can it be improved? Albert Bandura, renowned psychologist responsible for the social learning theory, suggested four sources for self-efficacy (11):

  • the most powerful one is people’s own personal accomplishments, past experiences that show the person is able to perform the behaviour;

  • the second one is vicarious experience, in other words, learning by observing others‘ attempts and successes;

  • then, not as strong, verbal persuasion, people having someone telling them they can do it;

  • finally, physiological arousal. Our body signals serve as a valuable, often subconscious, source of information when we need to assess a given situation. Symptoms of physiological arousal — such as increased heart rate or blood pressure, sweaty palms, uneasy stomach or wobbly knees — may tell us we are under stress and feel overwhelmed, which comes along with lower perceived self-efficacy (11). Relaxation techniques, in contrast, can enhance self-efficacy and confidence, because normal pulse and breathing, low muscle tension and the like tell us that everything is okay, nothing to be afraid of, we are fine.

Research has shown that perceived self-efficacy has a real impact on people’s intentions to act and on highly relevant behaviours, namely political and health-related ones (10). For example:

  • the perception of political self-efficacy — “people’s beliefs that they can influence the political system” (12) — have a positive effect on political participation (13).

  • high self-efficacy was found to be one of the mediating variables leading to lower paediatric COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy (14).

We had already seen that constructive journalism can play a role in helping to combat learned helplessness. But we can take it a step further: constructive journalism can also increase feelings of self-efficacy in the audience, counteracting the feeling that "there is nothing I can do with the information" (3).

But what can journalists do when an event is unpredictable or unclear and they can't provide clear-cut information? Next, we will look at a concept that sheds light into these situations and how people feel and react depending on how much they tolerate ambiguity.

Ambiguity tolerance: Who needs closure?

In a nutshell

Ambiguity tolerance refers to the degree to which someone accepts and feels comfortable in contexts of uncertainty, unpredictability, and with multiple or conflicting interpretations (15).

Tolerance of ambiguity is often described as a relatively stable individual trait, and it happens in a kind of spectrum: from people who have a strong desire for structure and clear-cut explanations, and present higher levels of anxiety when a situation is not clear (intolerance of ambiguity) to those who easily embrace complexity and function with no distress when they don’t have all the information to make sense of the situation (16).

Usually, ambiguous situations derive from lack of familiarity with a certain context (e.g. impact of artificial intelligence on everyday life), the complexity of the subject (e.g. climate change) or having insufficient information (e.g. first weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic) (17).

A person's tolerance of ambiguity can affect their emotional experiences, as well as behaviours (17).

As far as emotions are concerned…

  • For people who are more ambiguity intolerant, uncertain situations are associated with an experience of discomfort, anxiety, stress and anger, and can even be perceived as threatening. Research has also found an association with authoritarianism and conformity to traditional norms, i.e. with a preference for clear to rigid rules for what is right or wrong and for ensuring their implementation through leadership or law (18, 19).

  • For those with higher levels of tolerance, ambiguity can be “perceived as desirable, challenging and interesting” (16). Findings suggest that for those people ambiguity sparks curiosity, creativity, complex thinking styles and positive affect, among other effects (19).

Consequently, behavioural responses to ambiguity differ as well:

  • People who are less tolerant to ambiguity have a tendency to avoid risk-taking situations, are more rigid about engaging in new experiences, and try to find closure as early as possible when assessing an uncertain situation.

  • On the contrary, those who are more tolerant to ambiguity usually seek new experiences, reveal higher levels of cooperation and trust in other people, and find it easier (or, at least, not stressful) to make decisions when there isn’t much information available (16, 20).

Just as with anyone else, journalists themselves have different levels of ambiguity tolerance, which has implications for their psychological well-being and in their work. In journalism, ambiguous situations can occur when professionals are assigned a topic they know nothing about (or know very little); when they are working on a new project (e.g. a podcast) and don’t know who they will work with and how much time they will need to spend on it; when they are conducting research in which there’s lack of essential information; or even when they face job insecurity, for example.

Because tolerance to ambiguity is generally linked to higher levels of well-being, it might be helpful to know how someone can work on being less averse to uncertainty. Even though there isn’t much research on how malleable ambiguity tolerance can be (21), some strategies have been mentioned in the literature to enhance it (19), such as cultivating awareness of our reactions to ambiguity, reflecting about those situations, and accepting that some contexts are intrinsically ambiguous.

In the tools and tips section, we identify more strategies journalists can use when they feel insecure when facing unclear situations. We also talk about how to report information charged with uncertainty in a way that promotes trust in the audience.

Relevance for climate journalism

All three concepts explained above are highly relevant for all journalism that aims to make the audience feel hopeful and empowered to act. In this article, we want to focus on climate journalism for several reasons.

Climate change is one of the top concerns in society and, accordingly, in newsrooms around the world. In the Journalism, Media, and Technology Trends and Predictions 2023 report (22), almost half (49%) of the publishers and other media decision-makers from 53 countries say “they have created a specialist climate team to strengthen coverage, with a third hiring more staff (31%)”.

Combating global warming involves measures that threaten major economic systems, with extensive implications in global politics (4, 23).

At the same time, climate change is a very challenging topic to communicate about. Many climate phenomena are not easily observable, given their large-scale nature in time (climate is an average weather over at least 30 years) and space (it reports to extended geographies, sometimes continents or even the whole world). It is also difficult to picture some physical occurrences, like the rise in sea levels, as well as the indirect social impact and the consequences in other regions of the earth (4). This is not the case, of course, for severe weather events, such as floods and fires.

Additionally, climate information and research is often associated with what is called epistemic uncertainty — uncertainty due to scientific methodological limitations, for example (24, 25, 26). Some studies suggest that the fossil fuel industry followed a myriad of strategies to undermine public knowledge about climate change. Oil companies are accused of leading a “coordinated effort to spread disinformation to mislead the public and prevent crucial action to address climate change” and protect their business interests (27).

Finally, despite the statistics on news avoidance (29% in 2017, 36% in 2023) and distrust (average level 60%) (2), some international studies also show that television and newspapers, among other mass media, are some of the most important sources of information about climate change for the public (4).

Thus, journalism has the great responsibility to communicate efficiently and clearly not only about the facts, but also “potential solutions and options for (individual) action” (4) to the crisis. However, the media “are routinely criticised for covering these stories breathlessly, without joining up the wider dots” (22).

How journalists can help to connect “the wider dots” is what we will address in the tools and tips section. First, let’s consider some scientific findings that can support and inspire such reporting.

Hope, uncertainty and reporting

“Hope is not always good, and doubt is not always bad”

This quote is from a 2019 study conducted in the US (28) in which researchers found that the motivation to act in face of climate change concerns is a result of combining:

1) “awareness of the seriousness of the risks”;

2) “doubt that the problem will resolve itself without action”;

3) “hope that solutions exist and can be implemented”.

Higher levels of policy support, political engagement and intentions to engage in climate responsible behaviours seem to be associated with “constructive hope”, the belief that awareness and human efforts can lead to change (as opposed to “false hope” — when people trust, for example, that the problem will solve by itself), and “constructive doubt”, believing humans are not doing enough (28).

At the same time, results from a one-year study in New Zealand (29) suggest that knowing more about climate change increased people’s concerns about the threats of global warming, which, in turn, led to “greater perceived efficacy and responsibility to help solving them” (29).

For journalists these findings could be seen as an incentive to address and enhance people’s self-efficacy by, for instance, focusing climate change communication on action-related knowledge (knowing what can be done to tackle the problems) and effectiveness knowledge (which actions bring the greatest benefits) (29).

However, many times communicating this type of information is far from simple. In the process of reporting about climate change (as well as other subjects), journalists often find themselves with information that is incomplete or ambiguous, which makes them feel they might be contributing to fostering confusion in the audience.

Communicating uncertainty: yes or no?

The answer itself is not clear cut, and research points in various directions. Nevertheless, journalists might want to consider the following findings when making their reporting decisions.

  • Overall, it seems that uncertainty related to the scientific methods (e.g. limitations of sampling or methodology), so-called epistemic uncertainty, tends to be easier to accept by the audience (leading to no decrease in trust) than reporting that focuses on ambiguous descriptions about the future (e.g. randomness, inability to know what will happen tomorrow) (24).
  • Some studies, including one with the BBC, found no increase in trust when numerical uncertainty was communicated, but they also found no significant decrease in trust (24).
  • At the same time, some research suggests that people might find it more trustworthy when journalists disclose uncertainty (25; also see the project Trusting News, which provides several resources for how to do it soundly).

Responding to news avoidance and boosting climate change action plans

  • According to the report Journalism, media, and technology trends and predictions 2023 (22), publishers are planning on countering people’s turning away from the news by investing in “explainer content” (94%), “Q&A formats” (87%) and “inspirational stories” (66%).
  • Besides expanding their climate change teams, many publishers also say they are “integrating dimensions of the climate debate into other coverage (e.g., business and sport)” (22)
  • The same report says that solutions journalism approaches are being increasingly used to report on climate change (22). Another report from the Reuters Institute — Digital News Report 2022 — says that this type of approach gives people a greater sense of “hope or personal agency” (3).

Tools and tips

Could this be the year when publishers rethink their offer to address the twin challenges of news avoidance and disconnection – to offer more hope, inspiration, and utility?

Nic Newman, 2023 [22]

There is a lot that journalists can do to help audiences — and themselves — feel less helpless and more empowered to action, even in the face of discouraging news.

Embrace uncertainty — and help the audience make sense of it

For yourself

  • Being in new and unfamiliar territory — both physically and mentally — is often a part of the reporting process. It might help to remind yourself of past experiences in which you felt discomfort or anxiety during an ambiguous occasion and how, after some time, you were able to feel safe again when things got less uncertain, either because the situation was solved or because you figured out a solution — or both.

  • Try seeking out diverse sources and engaging in reflective practices — make the discomfort conscious and talk about it with people you trust.

  • Remember that it’s ok not to know everything and to still have open questions in your reporting. Stick to what you know and acknowledge the gaps.

  • Take small practical decisions — they will help you slowly walk out of “the fog”, and start seeing more elements to make sense of the situation.

  • But be sure to also ask yourself whether you are dismissing important information in order to rapidly reduce discomfort, or if you still need to consider more perspectives.

For the audience

  • Provide context when reporting on events about which there is not complete information (yet), particularly when dealing with complex or controversial topics.
  • Consider using a “what we know and what we don’t know” approach for stories in which there’s a fair amount of information still unclear.
  • If, on the contrary, there is a clear argument, don’t complicate: summarise the information in a simple statement; i.e. after providing the different perspectives you've decided to include in your reporting, try to keep the main idea of the story as clear as to-the-point and understandable as possible (24).

Explain the news better

  • Tell the audience why the story matters and what’s at stake, without falling back into doomsday scenarios.
  • Identify jargon and define or describe key terms (e.g. “’partygate’, a series of rule-breaking government parties during the pandemic”, on NPR; “ChatGPT - an online tool that can answer questions, including producing essays and emails, in human-like language”, on BBC; “carbon market, where credits to emit greenhouse gases can be bought or sold”, on Associated Press).
  • When summarising background information (especially for those who haven’t been following the news), include: 1) what happened before the news being reported now; 2) how it all started; and 3) what is expected from this point on.
  • Use Q&A formats and visuals.

* For more on how to better explain the news, consider taking the free course “Explain this! How explanatory journalism informs and engages audiences”, at the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas.

Specific tips for climate reporting

These are just a few tips. For a more comprehensive list of good practices, consult the documents mentioned in the box below.

  • Focus on the here and now, rather than on a distant future (30).
  • Avoid abstract facts, give context; for example, show how much a solution contributes to keeping global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius (30).
  • Use images of people in active roles rather than just as victims of events (30).
  • Use visual resources (graphics, images, videos, infographics…).
  • To convey scientific consensus, use a short, simple message that is easy to comprehend and remember (31).
  • Tell relevant human narratives to contextualise scientific facts.
  • Increase engagement by showcasing the people behind the science: for instance, tell their personal stories and work experiences (32).

Further reading for a successful climate communication

Before publishing, ask yourself…

  • Am I leaving the audience feeling hopeful?
  • Do I point out opportunities and reasons for hope in that situation?
  • Did I word it in a way that people feel they can take action?
  • Do I show small steps that can be taken by those with little financial means, little time, living in remote areas…?
  • Regarding uncertainties: did I disclose what is still unknown and make clear what we already know?
  • Do I show where or how one may find more information to dissolve some ambiguities in the future?
  • Do I give examples of potential solutions (if/when appropriate)?
  • Do I show the limitations of these solutions and open up the space towards helpful questions and quests to be explored in the future?
  • Am I providing aspects that are likely to encourage people to dig deeper and/or to take action on this issue?

As constructive journalists, we want our stories to leave the audience feeling informed, energised and hopeful. However, that seems to be a difficult task in a world where we frequently need to publish heavy-hearted news about large-scale conflicts, social hostility among different groups, natural disasters, etc. In this article, we have learned that understanding more about self-efficacy, learned helplessness and ambiguity tolerance can help us in this endeavour. Journalists can use strategies that address these three concepts to captivate their audiences, make them feel confident about both their actions and the future, and help them deal with uncertainty without feeling too confused.

About the authors

Margarida Alpuim is a Portuguese psychologist and journalist. She completed her master's in Community Psychology at the University of Miami, where she focused on issues of collective well-being. As a journalist, Margarida wants to explore more constructive ways to tell stories that consider both the audience and media professionals. Margarida currently works from Lisbon on innovative projects that unite psychology and journalism.

Katja Ehrenberg holds a PhD in psychology and is professor at Fresenius University of Applied Sciences in Cologne. For almost 25 years, she has conducted research, taught and published on topics of social, communication, organisational and health psychology. As a freelance systemic consultant, she advises teams and individuals and enjoys applying social science findings to the various challenges of everyday human (work)life.


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