MEDIA

As The Media Reaches 'Peak Negativity,' A Rallying Cry To Focus On Solutions

02/19/2015 08:39 am ET | Updated Feb 20, 2015
The Washington Post via Getty Images

It's a fact. Bad news stories dominate the media industry. Depressing topics, negative headlines, and stories about war, death and other horrific tragedies fill our news feeds more than upbeat, positive ones.

But a new discussion on BBC Radio 4 led by former news editor Charlie Beckett suggested that it doesn't have to be either/or.

"The choice is not between good and bad news or even positive and negative," Beckett explained. "We can have a networked blend of both."

It's possible, he said, to write critically about a negative topic, but still present solutions, empower readers to act, and offer tools to help turn the bad stories into good ones. In order to decrease the overwhelming load of negative stuff out there, Beckett called on journalists to exercise "choice" when writing, arguing that there are plenty of opportunities to show both the positive as well as the negative aspects of society in a way that still attracts readers.

Beckett spoke with Positive News editor Seán Dagan Wood, who said the problem of the media's focus on negative news is the worst it's ever been.

"I think actually that we're reaching what you could call 'peak negativity,'" Wood said. "I think the overall story that the media creates about who we are and how our world is, is no longer serving us."

"In mainstream news," Beckett added, "there is an ingrained, almost instinctive belief that a story isn’t ‘news’ unless it’s something broken, conflictual or disturbing."

Why, over time, has it become so engrained in newsmakers' minds that "good news is no news"?

Beckett said that our era of smartphones, when anyone can tell a story, may be fueling a new sense of "competition" between journalists and average citizens. The result is an added pressure on journalists to double down on negative news:

Journalists now have the technological power to show you the world in all its goriness as it happens. Citizens happily help gather and spread the news through their own efforts, taking smartphone photos -- often of appalling scenes -- and then they share it through social networks. As the competition increases with globalization, so the news fights ever harder to grab your attention with shock and awe. So we end up in a world where frightened, weeping Korean school children are filming themselves on smartphones as their ferry sinks. And that personal, intimate horror ends up on the evening news because it has to show it or otherwise you’d simply watch it on YouTube.

Former national newspaper executive Nick Buckley wondered if global events like the attacks on the Charlie Hebdo offices, the brutality of Boko Haram, the missing Malaysian Airlines flight or the horrific beheadings of hostages by the Islamic State militant group would be so widely reported on -- and so widely known by the general public -- without this rise in the use of the Internet and social media.

"Would we even have known about that 20 years ago?" he asked.

But a recent study at the University of Pennsylvania challenged the idea that good news is irrelevant in today's world, with the research showing that people actually prefer to share positive stories over negative ones, an idea that is now being fulfilled by some news outlets in an effort to change the direction of journalism.

In fact, several news organizations are embracing the idea that positive, solutions-based journalism can still attract a significant audience. The Huffington Post's What's Working initiative, The Washington Post's The Optimist, The New York Times' The Fix -- all of these platforms seek to deliver journalism with a solution. Other sites, like Positive News, have been running for more than 10 years on the principle that the era of "if it bleeds, it leads" has come to an end.

The Huffington Post's Good News section has grown 45 percent year to year, The Huffington Post's editor-in-chief Arianna Huffington told Beckett, and the positive content is "shared three times more on HuffPost than the combined average of all our other sections' share rate."

"It's really about the truth," Huffington said. "If we don't cover positive stories, ideally with the same relentlessness and the same resources that we cover negative stories, we are basically not giving our readers the full truth."

But "good news" doesn't have to be just kittens and puppies. Beckett argued that journalists have a choice to "create the kind of news we want" and present it in a way that provokes change. Negative news is not the same as critical journalism, Beckett said, and positive news is not the same as advocacy journalism. The same new technology that gives journalists the ability to be faster and more visual also gives them the ability to tell the whole story -- the positive and the negative -- to present a deeper, smarter and more solutions-oriented story.

It's the difference between writing a story on the achievement gap in California school systems and writing a story on the initiative that's being launched to fix that.

"It's not enough just to expose what's going wrong in the world," Wood said. "If we really want to inform people in an accurate and balanced way, we also need to expose what's going right in the world."

"Journalists do have a responsibility, I think, to expose solutions," he concluded.

Listen to the full discussion on the BBC here.

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