When I was a boy I made my first newspaper. With a pen, ruler and sheet of paper, I marked out some boxes and filled them in with stories about what was going on in my home and the world around me. I then photocopied it and tried to sell it to my parents for 10p a copy (not realising of course that they were paying the production costs).
But as I got older the picture that the news painted of the world never sat right with me. I knew that the stories of war, crime, scandal and tragedy were vitally important. I also came to understand that they weren’t the full picture; that the news magnifies only a fragment of reality. But despite knowing this, the way that the news created a deeper story about the world and about human nature, didn’t feel right.
It was perhaps this intuitive feeling that led me to editing Positive News, a publication that shines a light on innovation, kindness, co-operation and the ways people are working to create solutions to the problems facing society.
Like myself as a boy creating my own newspaper, Positive News is now giving its readers the chance to take ownership of the kind of media they want. It is becomingthe first crowdfunded global media cooperative, owned by its readers, supporters and journalists. By selling ‘community shares’ we are raising a minimum of £200,000 to scale up and respond to the growing demand for our journalism. With 6 days still to go in our #OwnTheMedia campaign, we have reached 90% of our target.
But why do we need positive news stories?
We face colossal and escalating challenges as a global community: climate change and social inequality, to give just two examples. And on the individual level, people are suffering across the spectrum of circumstances in which humanity finds itself.
But at the same time it would be wrong, in our knowledge or imagination, to disown anyone of their achievements, strengths, loves and joys. At the global level, there is also another side to the story.
According to researchers, a thorough analysis of the data shows that apart from a recent spike in conflicts, the long-term trend is that the world is becoming more peaceful. More countries than ever are democracies, and on the whole we’re getting healthier.
Meanwhile, data from the Ipsos Mori social research institute shows that across 14 countries, the public perceive rates of teenage pregnancy, immigration and murder to be much higher than they actually are.
This brings into question the role of the news in shaping our perceptions. The media doesn’t just mirror society, it moves it. What the media focuses on, and how it chooses to report, affects our thoughts, feelings, conversations and perspectives. By consequence, it plays a part in influencing our choices and actions too.
Of course, it is essential to report the problems and dangers we face. And journalism as a watchdog – exposing injustice, exploitation and corruption, and holding power to account – is a function critical to democracy. But journalism’s apparent theory of change, that by relentlessly focusing on what’s going wrong society will be better informed and able to do something about it, is undermined by evidence of how news impacts us.
Emotional and psychological impact of news
Research has shown that negative news can cause stress, world-weariness and mental health issues such as anxiety and depression. The work of Cathrine Gydlensted at the University of Pennsylvania revealed that it leads to ‘learned helplessness’ and leaves us feeling passive.
But research also suggests that when we bring more positive elements into reporting it can boost our mood and give us a sense of social agency. The University of Southampton has found that positive news stories lead people to feel significantly higher motivation to take actions such as voicing their opinions, donating to charity or protecting the environment.
Psychologist Barbara Fredrickson says that positive emotions are what truly lead to progress because they foster creativity and innovation. They broaden our awareness, opening our hearts and minds, and enable us to build new knowledge, skills and resources.
When we experience positive emotions, the hormone oxytocin is released. This chemical is sometimes referred to as the ‘cuddle drug’ or ‘moral molecule’ because it correlates with increased trust, generosity and empathy. It leads us to connect to others, says leading oxytocin researcher Paul J Zack. High stress however, inhibits oxytocin. Negative emotions tend to prompt narrow and immediate, survival-oriented behaviours.
Bad news does sell. This is partly because stories that shock and provoke fear grab us, according to a study published by the Journal of Communication, by triggering our hardwired survival response.
But there is another, less stress-inducing way that we can also grab audience attention. The business school at the University of Pennsylvania has found that articles most likely to go viral are those that evoke strong positive emotions, particularly a sense of awe.
In addition, research from the University of Texas found that people feel more engaged in an article about a problem when it also contains information about a potential solution – and are more likely to share these stories online. With social media increasingly driving traffic for news websites, then perhaps the old saying “if it bleeds, it leads” might one day give way to “if it succeeds, it leads”.
There is a growing number of publications incorporating this approach. For instance, the Huffington Post recently announced its global editorial strategy to give more coverage to ‘what’s working’ – a decision backed by the fact that its positive content was receiving three times as many shares as other pieces.
The emerging field of ‘constructive journalism’ offers a way for the media to bring more positive elements into conventional reporting. Learning from other fields such as the behavioural sciences, constructive journalism involves techniques such as using solution-focused angles while remaining critical and still highlighting ‘negative’ facts. For example, a journalist taking a constructive approach would ask interviewees questions that reveal their strengths and resilience, not simply their victimisation.
Initiatives such as the Constructive Journalism Project are now delivering training in constructive journalism – or solutions journalism as it is often called in the US – in journalism schools and newsrooms worldwide.
Audience researchers have known for a long time that people want more good news. What the industry is now realising is that this doesn’t have to mean fluffy stories – waterskiing squirrels and the like – but it can be rigorous and compelling journalism about progress and possibility.
The world is complex and multifaceted, and I don’t pretend I understand it. But as a boy making my newspaper, and now as an editor, I do know the power of storytelling. Positive and constructive approaches offer a way to help strengthen journalism, at a time when more than ever, we need a way of looking at the world that sparks the potential in us all.