The media is questioning its negative news focus as journalism diversifies

Claudia Cahalane

Publications such as Positive News are pioneering a more diverse journalism, suggested a BBC Radio 4 programme broadcast on Sunday

A wave of media alternatives focused on presenting a positive, balanced picture of the world are paving the way for a more diverse journalism, while traditional media are questioning old assumptions about what the news should cover.

These were some of the findings of the programme Good News Is No News, broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on 8 February.

Presenter Charlie Beckett, former editor of Channel 4 News and director of journalism think-tank POLIS, highlighted positive and solution-focused news sections in the likes of the New York Times and Washington Post and the rise of alternatives such as Positive News and ‘slow news’ publication Delayed Gratification, as a challenge to traditional news values.

Beckett said that there is an ingrained belief in mainstream media that news has to be about something broken, violent or disturbing, which “runs so deep that it’s almost the unconscious of the craft.”

“Journalists are questioning the fundamentals of news itself”

But “change is beginning to stir at a deeper level,” he said. “Even the toughest of mainstream newsrooms are aware that the old editorial certainties are being questioned.”

Positive News editor, Seán Dagan Wood, told Beckett he believed that relentless bad news was leaving audiences feeling disempowered.

“We are reaching peak negativity in the news,” he said. “The overall narrative that the media creates is no longer serving us and it’s increasingly at odds with our evolving sense of who we are, what works and what’s possible.”

Former BBC news presenter and Positive News patron Martyn Lewis, who was “vilified” when first calling for positive stories not to be ignored in the news agenda in 1993, told Beckett that his job had been “on the line” as a result of going against the status quo.

But with the industry turned upside down by digital technology, now “journalists are questioning the fundamentals of news itself,” said Beckett.

The programme featured a number of media figures supportive of a renewed news agenda, including Arianna Huffington, founder of the Huffington Post, who last week announced a global editorial initiative in this space.

“If we don’t cover positive stories, ideally with the same relentlessness and the same resources that we cover negative stories, we’re basically not giving our readers the full truth,” said Huffington. “We’re giving them a very jaundiced view of human nature.”

Stories that reinforce faith in human nature are shared three times more on the Huffington Post than the combined average of all other sections on the site, she added.

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Jamie Angus, editor of the BBC’s Today programme told Beckett he felt audiences were “fatigued” by the repetition of stories of misery and violence in foreign news and suggested that editors could give more attention to trends such as entrepreneurialism in Africa.

The news agenda as it stands has disturbing consequences, warned Beckett’s interviewee Dr Denise Baden, who has researched social psychology in relation to the news. “It leads to helplessness, it leads to a lack of agency, it leads to mental health issues,” she said.

Illustrating some of the most anxiety-inducing stories, Beckett read out a selection of headlines from an edition of the Daily Mail and asked its deputy editor, Tony Gallagher, whether that narrative reflected the real world.

“It’s an extraordinary fragment of the real world, which is why we should be covering it in the depth we are,” said Gallagher. “But of course it doesn’t relate to the ordinary person’s existence, any more than a crime thriller… But we are competing for people’s time and attention, and the reality is that bad news does sell.”

He added: “Crime is going down, there’s no getting away from it… I think there is a danger there, that we’re not reflecting the world as people see it. That said, you can’t ignore people’s fears.”

But Wood told Beckett that he believes journalists have a responsibility to also expose positive stories and potential solutions. “I think it’s not enough to just inform people about what’s going wrong… [The news] shapes our reality because of where it puts its focus and the way in which it chooses to report.”

While Positive News and its peers might not turn around the media’s interest in negative stories, “they may well be pioneers for a more diverse journalism,” concluded Beckett.

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