Are you sure you want to read that good-news story? I'm positive

Sat, Jan 5, 2013, 00:00

A number of news outlets are publishing only positive stories. But in an industry where bad news can do us good, defining positivity and negativity is tricky

Have you ever felt in need of an antidote to bad news? Some Dubliners have recently been reading the Champion, a publication of positive stories created by central Dublin’s Lourdes Youth and Community Services (LCYS), whose members were eager to address the issue of “bad press”.

“The reaction has been fantastic. People are delighted to see the positive side of young people’s lives as opposed to the other side,” says Trish Martin of the LCYS.

In the UK, the print edition of “the world’s original and leading positive newspaper”, Positive News ( postivenews.org.uk) has a circulation of 60,000. Founded in 1993, it has sister editions in the US, Argentina, Spain and Hong Kong. The paper’s editor, Sean Dagan Wood, was among the speakers at a conference last year at the British Museum in London calling for a cultural shift in news media. The Good News for the Media event was chaired by a trainee accountant and perfumery worker, Jodie Jackson, who founded the website whatagoodweek.co.ukin 2011.

“I was becoming frustrated with the lack of positive news, frustrated with constantly being confronted with problems, not even on a global scale, just individual tragedies that seemed to feed their way into my outlook of the world,” she told 100 delegates. Jackson collected what she considered good-news stories from various sources and uploaded them to the site weekly, and she began probing other people’s experience of news.

“I always ask people if they read the newspaper and if they replied no, I’d ask why. In almost every case, their answer was because they found it too depressing. Not once did I hear that it was because they just weren’t interested.”

Jackson claims the truth reported in mainstream media doesn’t reflect the world. “If we are seeking truth, we should perhaps include more examples of human resilience, recovery, positive emotions, accomplishments and solutions,” she says.

Conducting a tally of positive versus negative news in the English media last July, excluding sport and celebrity stories, Dagan Wood found an average of 16 percent “positive” content. The London Independent topped the poll with 22 per cent.

“I think the question is whether that balance of good and bad news is a true reflection of what’s going on in society, or not,” says Dagan Wood. “People are turned off by the overwhelming negativity of the news because it’s disempowering, affects their wellbeing, and doesn’t reflect their full experience of life with its hardships and its joys. I think people don’t want to just be passive consumers of information [but] want to share, interact, collaborate and respond creatively to the world.”

The Huffington Post established its dedicated Good News section a year ago. Launching the new service, Arianna Huffington said, “Everywhere around the country, people and communities are doing amazing things, overcoming great odds, and facing real challenges with perseverance, creativity and grace. But these stories are rarely told online, in newspapers, and on TV.”

Dagan Wood admits that in an industry where good-news stories carry less weight than harder-hitting items, there is a risk attached to a change in editorial direction. “It is a tough decision for editors. But I think there is little to lose and much to gain. Solutions-focused journalism can empower people and serve society by drawing attention to how we can achieve true progress,” he says.

Let the readers decide

The veteran journalist and broadcaster Sam Smyth, whose Sunday-morning current affairs show on Today FM ended in late 2011, disagrees. “Solutions? I’d sooner leave that to the readers themselves,” he says. “I would consider it good news if you are exposing wrongdoing. I think that’s a good thing to do; it’s good news in general that you know something that you didn’t know before that benefits society. That wrongdoing is exposed, that’s part of the function of journalism,” he says. “Negative [news] is generally seen as that if it somehow shows somebody or some circumstance up in a bad light, but would it be better that it not be shown up?”

It is not the role of journalists to present solutions to readers, according to Smyth. “I’d prefer to deal with the facts and try and present a story in a way that causes people to engage with it themselves and use the information you give them to make up their own mind. I think that’s a better way of doing things,” he says.

Miriam Donohoe, a former Irish Times journalist, started the @PositiveIreland Twitter account, on which contributors are encouraged to share inspiring or uplifting material. Although she’s a strong advocate of more coverage of positive events in the interests of media balance, Donohoe echoes Smyth’s reasoning in terms of offering solutions to readers.

“I don’t think it’s the role of the newspaper or the media to solve our problems but I do think it’s their function to provide information with a bit of balance so people can decide for themselves,” she says.

The@PositiveIreland account has more than 1,100 followers. Stories shared include anything from jobs announcements to gains in Irish exports to sporting and charitable achievements.

“Certainly, in my view, there is an appetite for more emphasis on the positive things that are happening, without being in denial. I feel there is an opportunity being lost with national print media in terms of positive news,” Donohoe says.

While regional papers are strong performers in the provision of positive stories, such articles are often sacrificed in national print media, says Donohoe. “It’s interesting for me, having been a news editor and having worked in PR more recently, that if you can get a really positive image, an uplifting story, people love it. Sometimes the papers will go for it but they tend to prioritise negative news, in my view, and it’s the positive news that will fall off the page.”