“Turn it off. It’s too depressing.”
If that is sometimes your reaction to the evening TV news bulletin then you are probably not alone. Us journalists in the broadcast, print and digital media, the criticism goes, are obsessed with doom and gloom and by concentrating on all the bad stuff in the world we’re bringing everyone else down with us.
At first glance, it is not hard to see why journalists do it. Natural disasters, wars, shouting matches between politicians, injustice, wrong-doing – these are what the media thrives on. They are extraordinary events that elicit a strong emotional response in readers/viewers – and they often provide the best TV images too. As the American commentator Armstrong Williams put it: “if it bleeds, it leads”.
But could all this relentless negativity actually be driving the audience away? A growing movement behind so-called constructive news (not to be confused with this) believes that it is.
Last week I was invited to a meeting to discuss the idea of actively turning the editorial dial away from the bad stuff. The meeting was organised by the National Council for Voluntary Organisations’ Constructive Voices project and was attended by the UN Director General Michael Møller (more on what he had to say later) and chaired by the broadcaster Sir Martyn Lewis. Also present were some high level editors from major newspapers, TV networks and online news platforms as well as representatives from the voluntary sector. We were under Chatham House rules so I can’t quote who said but these are my reflections on an interesting and sometimes frank discussion.
So what is it? Giselle Green, an advocate for constructive news at the NCVO puts it like this:
it involves taking a more constructive approach to news coverage, not only analysing problems but also exploring potential solutions. It’s about trying to examine what’s going right in the world – and why – rather than focusing purely on what’s going wrong.
There’s even a magazine for it – Positive News, edited by Seán Dagan Wood – which promises to “look at society’s challenges through a lens of progress and possibility.” And Huffington Post is doing it too.
Møller is supportive, I think, because he sees a way to educate people around the world more effectively about complex world problems. “The responsibility of the media, to me, is to inform, educate and to hold power to account. I think that on the educational part, a lot of media around the world has abdicated its responsibility. It needs to find its responsibility again,” he told Positive News.
I understand his motivation, but the average journalist’s first response to this agenda is sceptical at best. Most reporters get up in the morning motivated by seeking out injustice and exposing bad guys. Those are the stories that run, and that win awards and plaudits with their peers. They generally don’t see it as their job to document how to fix things. And by the time it comes to solving problems, journalism has generally moved on to the next story.
Another issue is that, let’s face it, journalists are in the showbiz game. To really grab the reader’s attention it helps if a story has an element of entertainment. A worthy you-really-ought-to-know-this approach is likely to be a huge turn off. In the Darwinian news marketplace these stories tend to die quickly so I fear that Møller’s appeal for journalists to act as educators will not get much traction.
There’s also resources. When I raised the constructive news agenda with one colleague his first reaction was, “when are we meant to do this and what should we stop doing to make space?” Journalists already feel overworked as it is.
So there are plenty of institutional and practical reasons against this catching on. And yet, I think there is something here of value for journalism and in the current crisis for the industry some smart thinking about what we do is required.
First though, let’s be clear about what we’re not talking about:
• “And finally” stories about tap-dancing dogs, water-skiing squirrels and the like.
• Puff pieces for NGOs and charities.
• Running “good news” or feel good stories for the sake of balance.
• Advocacy journalism.
All of those things sometimes get mixed up with constructive news. But leaving them aside, I think there is a class of high quality stories that are under-reported in the media at present but can still represent good journalism for which there is reader appetite. These are stories that look critically at where problems in the world are being fixed with innovative and fascinating solutions.
When the Guardian was deciding last year on which direction to take phase two of our climate change project Keep it in the Ground, we asked the hundreds of thousands of people who had signed up as supporters what they thought. The consistent answer was that they wanted to hear more about the projects around the world that are working – that provide some hope that the seemingly insurmountable problem can be overcome. They were asking for a more constructive approach and we changed editorial course to provide that in our reporting.
There’s also some evidence and anecdotes that suggest positive news is more shareable. That would of course be good for publications wanting to increase the reach and engagement of their content, although I don’t think it adds up to a cast iron case yet.
One study, from University of Pennsylvania researchers Jonah Berger and Katherine Milkman looked at New York Times’s list of most emailed stories (this was back in 2010) for six months. They discovered that articles with positive themes were more likely to be shared, as were those that inspired awe – particularly science articles.
Arianna Huffington says good news is more highly shared on Huffington Post:
“Increasingly our traffic online is driven by what people share. Content that is about good news, stories that reinforce our faith in human nature are shared 3 times more on Huffington Post than the combined average of all our other sections’ share rate.”
Her comments are from 9 minutes 50 seconds in.
And Chris Moody, Twitter’s Vice President of Data Strategy also says that positive news gets more reaction on that social platform. He talks about, “countless proof points on Twitter that positive messages have more engagement and obtain more reach on our global platform than negative content.”
Lastly, researchers at the University of Texas, Austin presented 755 adults with two versions of different news stories (one with solutions included and one without), and found that the strength of the subjects’ desire to share the news increased modestly when solutions were included. They also said they were more likely to read more from the same publication.
One last thought. I have heard suggestions that traditional journalism can be made more “constructive” by adding a few pars to a news story about, say, what voluntary organisations are doing to tackle the issue at hand. I have a feeling this is being proposed as a way around the resource issue – no need to do extra stories, just add some quotes into what the reporter is writing anyway.
That may be appropriate for some stories and could well give the news more context and depth in some cases. But I don’t think it is a blanket solution. It feels tokenistic and I think readers will notice that.
Doing this properly, I think, means making strategic editorial decisions to pursue journalistically interesting cases of people finding intelligent solutions to difficult problems. It means deploying good quality reporting, writing and editing. The end product should be stories that can compete on their own merits that people will want to read and share.