And now for the good news: why the media are taking a positive outlook
Increasing numbers of news providers are realising that in this grisly world, readers want to feel a sense of hope.
Political tumult, crime, terrorist attacks, poverty, tragedy: news always has a habit of erring on the grim side – and never more so perhaps than in the summer of 2016.
But gradually an increasing number of news businesses – including the Guardian – are investing in positive or constructive news operations, journalism that focuses on solving problems and encouraging audiences to take action.
Why? Where does this tendency come from? And more importantly, does it have a different impact on readers, and journalists, jaded by all the appalling things that happen in the world.
News has long centred on negative things because it engages our fear reflex and hence is generally more attention-grabbing, according to Tom Stafford, lecturer in psychology and cognitive science at the University of Sheffield
“It suggests there is something worth worrying about – something which might mean we should change course, or react to in some way,” he said. “That’s why we’re attentive to bad news, it means things aren’t going well, so we might have to act.
But too much bad news leaves the consumer with “a choice between perpetual vigilance (and anxiety), or tuning it out”, added Stafford.
Seán Dagan Wood, the editor of the magazine Positive News, believes the pendulum has swung too far towards bad news because the media presume there will automatically be an audience for it.
“The industry’s focus on bad news is often well intentioned, stemming from an important commitment to being society’s watchdog,” he said. “However, for the news media as a whole this mentality has gone too far.
“An important factor in what is driving the bad news bias is that we are hard-wired to pay attention to threats and alarming information, and the media capitalises on this.”
But he added: “It’s the big elephant in the newsroom: people are fed up with media negativity.”
People still read bad news, as the figures for international news websites show, but there are encouraging signs of an appetite for constructive or solutions-focused journalism.
Arianna Huffington has said content about good news on her website, the Huffington Post, is more likely to be shared than other stories. Elaborating, Jessica Prois, executive editor of its Good News and Impact sites, said: “A visitor to a Good News piece is twice as likely to share or comment versus an average HuffPost article … Sharing solutions-based stories creates a ‘we’re all in this together’ movement, especially at a time when countless studies tell us that technology and Facebook make us feel more isolated and lonely.”
Citing several examples where audiences have responded with donations to a cause or to the launch of campaigns on an issue raised in a story, Prois added: “My favourite pieces are any stories in which we drive our readers to take a concrete action.”
Research by Dr Denise Baden, an associate professor at Southampton Business School, the University of Southampton, has found that the more negatively people feel after consuming bad news, the less likely they are to voice an opinion or take action to improve the world around them.
A study by the Solutions Journalism Network and the Engaging News Project at the University of Texas into how audiences respond to solutions-based journalism suggested that, at the end of such an article, readers were more likely to seek out further coverage by news organisations that produced this type of reporting.
This demand, the positive brand association and the behaviours of sharing and taking action prompted by consuming constructive journalism, present an opportunity to build deeper relationships with an audience, said Wood, and potentially financial benefits for news organisations. A crowdfunding campaign by Positive News in 2015 raised £263,000 in 30 days, from 1,500 people in 33 countries.
Previous attempts by news providers to offer more positive coverage have faltered because of a tendency to treat these stories as purely lighthearted or hero tales, said Wood, who believes that more journalistic rigour is now being applied in this area.
Prois agrees. She said: “Within the traditional media sphere, writing about solutions and good news actually requires exceptionally high standards. It necessitates extremely sound reporting, research and writing since readers are sceptical and we are working against a longstanding narrative that the world can be a terrible place and the media should cover it as such.
“We of course have a responsibility to report the truth and we can’t discount the reality of the news, but I think we are also helping to normalise the idea that people are generally good in the world. Because they are.”