News doesn’t reflect real world, says former newsreader Martyn Lewis

Claudia Cahalane

The British press features too many negative and irrelevant news stories that don’t accurately reflect what’s going on in the world, former BBC broadcaster Martyn Lewis said on Wednesday night

Speaking to an audience of more than 100 people at the Good News for the Media event held at the British Museum, Lewis said most media outlets do not tell people stories about things that are truly shaping our world.

“I had a routine look at the BBC website recently, and out of 10 stories, seven of them were negative. There was ‘girl, 5, dies; teen body found, stabbing…’” he said.

“What about all the positive change that’s happening? I see so many great stories that just aren’t getting picked up. Where are the reporters looking at how the riots last year have brought communities together?

“Twenty years ago The Times editor Simon Jenkins told me he switched off my bulletins after four stories. I asked him why; he said: ‘because the body count was too high.’ My children wouldn’t watch either.

“A balanced news agenda should hold an accurate mirror to the world. News stories should be about things that have the potential to shape the world. We don’t need to hear and see graphic details of a bus crash in Humberside. That is relevant to locals, but it does not belong on the national news.”

Recounting an incident from his days at the BBC, the broadcaster said: “Martin Bell, my colleague at the time, covered 14 wars. He chartered the disintegration of those cities. When he asked the BBC if he could cover the rebuilding of them, they just said no, and sent him on to the next war.

“But, people should know about changes that offer hope. There are some amazing solutions happening to the problems in our world and the mainstream media isn’t covering them. Journalists analyse everyone else, but they are defensive when someone analyses them.”

He said he believed persistently negative reports have given people a skewed and depressing view of the world.

“News stories should be about things that have the potential to shape the world”

The event was organised by the website What a Good Week, which rounds up positive news stories from around the globe. Its founder, Jodie Jackson, set the site up a year ago because she wanted to be informed about what was going on in the world, but couldn’t face all the bad news she was coming across.

“I hear of so many people switching off from the news altogether because it’s just so negative,” said Jackson. “I almost became one of them myself but decided instead to search for the positive things that are going on in the world, to get more of a balance.”

Following Jackson and Lewis’s speeches, the editor of Positive News, Seán Dagan Wood, and founder of Ideal Media, Jeremy Wickremer, also took to the floor.

Wood said there was a clear and growing hunger for positive news with a spate of websites and good news initiatives launched in recent years.

“As well as dedicated good news sources such as Positive News, some mainstream media organisations are now branching into positive content – such as the LA Times, which has set up a Twitter feed for its positive stories following reader demand. In places from Afghanistan to Pakistan and Italy to Israel there are media outlets trying to get more positive stories out.

“Positive News has also initiatied sister papers in Argentina, the US, Spain and Hong Kong. There is a huge amount of support out there for changing the news agenda. Yet, a test we did in July showed that the average British newspaper’s content is only around 16% positive.”

Jeremy Wickremer, who is organising a two-day event in London next week called Transformational Media Summit, said that the mainstream news was showing humans at their lowest ebb, and that we need to see people at their best too.

“You don’t just go and moan to your friends the whole time and neither do you just go on about the good things. There needs to be a balance.”

The Transformational Media event will run on 27-28 September and features an extensive list of speakers who will talk about ways to use media for social change.

Wood, Wickremer and French NGO Reporters De’Espoirs are now looking at setting up a global alliance of media organisations and journalists that are taking a solution-focused approach to news reporting.

Photo title: Martyn Lewis speaking at Good News for the Media on Wednesday night

Photo credit: © What a Good Week

  • Flikster

    What’s balance, though? The story says they found 16% of stories were positive. Do they want 50-50? What’s their definition? News is by nature usually things gong wrong, and newspaper research (I work in newspapers, as you can probably tell!) shows that although generally people say they want to read ‘positive news’, they actually read negative news.
    It’s also interesting what they say about ‘not reflecting the real world’ – yet have set up a website that does a ’round-up'(presumably from newspapers, rather ironically) of positive news. Hardly what you’d call reflecting the world; rather, the world they want to see. Rather like trying to define the ‘true’ version of history. Hats off to them if it genuinely is as wildly successful as they say; but newspapers are businesses (they’ve never claimed otherwise) and wouldn’t miss an opportunity to give people what they want to read. Papers are already in decline and I doubt filling the pages with endless cheque presentations and charity bike rides would help the situation. Anything positive that is genuinely news, however, does get reported. There isn’t a good news filter in newsrooms and if it’s a story it will go in.
    As an aside, I would also say that the BBC is a special case and criticism probably quite rightly can be levelled at it: being a state-funded media organisation (Leveson take note), it has its own agenda and it is certainly full of the ‘irrelevant’ stories to which Lewis refers. If you want to get away from irrelevance, agendas and poorly quality reporting, while at the same time supporting the cornerstone of a free democracy that is the free, non-state funded Press, then stop reading the BBC website and start going to your local newspaper website, wherever you live. I work in local media(and thus will probably be called biased, but there’s not a lot I can do about that as this is what I genuinely believe), and the quality of the reporting, the depth and detail, the number of stories and follow-ups on issues is FAR superior. With the BBC, expect to see one story(usually taken from local newspapers anyway as the BBC almost never breaks stories – they don’t even ask their reporters to find their own stories, unlike newspapers) on an event. With local newspapers and their websites, expect to see more coverage, more angles, more exclusives and breaking stories, and – the all important return to events and people to get the good news stories when things return to normal. Have a look and see what I mean.

  • Claudia Cahalane


    I don’t think anyone would be so crude as to suggest a figure for the amount of positive agenda-changing news that should be covered, it’s not that simple. Positive News seeks to redress the balance that’s needed … it is a low-resourced paper however and can’t not do all the work in this area, and there are plenty of stories it doesn’t have the resource to cover itself, also.

    I have worked at several local papers and I would say they are fairly ‘shallow’ in their stories…I know sometimes this is also down to resource. If you read Positive News, it goes deeper than charity bike rides and charity cheques… we want news that shows the unseen positive and good changes happening in society. Deep stuff that shows what’s really happening in the world. See more here:

    I’d urge you to come to future events to see what I mean.

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  • Vlad

    I am extremely nervous that the level of negative news in the UK media is so high. I am not convinced that this is good for the whole society. In this context I would like to know what the physiologists, psychiatrists and sociologists think about the above challenge. However, I would request from the leading politicians to consider at least balancing the level of negative and positive news in the media. A strange habit of “bad/negative news” has been created. But, the British society is not that horrible as it is normally presented in the media. Why not to look at the media of e.g. Germany. Are they so negatively oriented? What about the French media, or e.g. Norwegian media. Do they also learn about spectacularly negative things in their media firstly, or not?

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