Is this a media revolution?

Transformational Media Summit report: Are we seeing a positive news revolution in specialist and mainstream media?

I was 14 when I did my work experience at a local newspaper. I was into green issues, equal rights and writing and was excited that I might be able to combine them. My first day was a ‘quiet news day’. There was a joke about the most exciting times at a local paper being when a murder happened. I felt deflated and also intrigued about that mindset.

Journalists are taught to enjoy a bit of digging in order to uncover the truth and wrongdoing, and if you expose some dirt, you’re a hero. I too believe that’s the job of journalists, but, like a growing movement of people in the media – most famously Martyn Lewis, the former BBC news journalist – I also believe that real journalism should reflect the real world, bad and good. However, a lot of journalists and editors still believe that bad news sells and that a ‘good story’ is a cat being rescued from a tree, which involves little skill to report and doesn’t make you a hero.

There’s never been much of a school of thought which goes deeper and encourages journalists to find stories which show interesting trends and positive changes around the world that could have an impact on humanity and challenge the bad guys. These stories do get covered sometimes, but there are lots out there that don’t. Instead we have reams of irrelevant and miserable stuff about people dying in accidents.

However, as you have probably seen from the Positive News pages in recent weeks, and as you might well have sensed yourself through seeking out more positive news options – there is an uprising from some people in the media who want to do things differently. While Positive News has been around for decades, we’re now seeing mainstream publications responding to their readers’ desire for stories which show humanity in a more positive, inspiring light.

Mainstream media takes note

In the last year, we’ve seen the Metro and the LA Times introduce good news feeds. Positive News has also spawned sister papers in a number of countries including Hong Kong and the US, and there’s the Huffington Post which has a big focus on news that covers positive happenings, plus many more. Additionally, this summer the Big Issue launched a new website where the aspiring journalists among its sellers can write and post stories which show solutions to the problems in our society.

As of last week, the movement has pushed further ahead again. Around 60 people from all areas of the industry got together for what is believed to be the first ever Transformational Media Summit, produced by the company Ideal Media.

Media with a deeper consciousness

There was a huge energy at the two-day event, held at Sadler’s Wells in London. We discussed how we could use newspapers, the internet, broadcasting, music, films and all sorts of other mediums for positive change. Underpinning it all was an exploration of how the media could be more conscious in the spiritual sense, so that its stories would better reflect the human spirit.

“There is a momentum going. There will come a point when the tide becomes overwhelming” – Martyn Lewis

Top Hollywood scriptwriting consultant Dara Marks spoke captivatingly about truly understanding the human story and how we could bring its spirit to life. Martyn Lewis, who was once threatened with being sacked from the BBC for speaking about wanting to see more positive news stories, said that journalists often built a “cocoon around themselves to remain detached”, but that he believed they “couldn’t explain the world unless they care about it.”

BBC World Affairs producer and landmine survivor Stuart Hughes said his accident had been the catalyst for him becoming a more conscious producer who really cares about the people he is featuring.

BBC Trust producing life-changing radio in Afghanistan

We heard from those who are using media in the most profound ways to change negative situations around the world. A talk by the deeply warm Felicity Finch, who plays Ruth Archer in Radio 4’s The Archers, stood out for me. She spoke about how the 60-year-old soap originally had a mission to educate people on farming issues in Britain, and in particular, to encourage food production after the second world war.

But even more fascinating was the fact that The Archers has spawned radio soaps in Afghanistan and Rwanda, which are listened to by the vast majority of the public and appear to be doing astoundingly well in changing mindsets in these countries. The Afghanistan radio soap New Home New Life, supported by BBC Media Action (previously BBC World Service Trust), tackles a range of social issues and has been running for 17 years. It is listened to by 80% of the population, according to Finch, who is a trainer on the programme.

In 2004, the then-UN Secretary Kofi Annan praised New Home New Life, saying it was “a perfect illustration of how the media can use drama and entertainment to advance the cause of peace and development.” In particular he commended the programme’s role in raising awareness of landmines, the return of refugees, and immunisation.

A 1997 study commissioned by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs found that listeners were half as likely to be injured as non-listeners post-1994, and concluded that a rapid decrease in landmine incidents in the country could only be down to information broadcast through New Home New Life.

Finch, who also makes features and documentaries for Radio 4, has travelled to places including Rwanda, Peshawar, Albania and Cambodia to examine how radio drama can be used to communicate vital information. She has many heartwarming stories and explained how an older man in Afghanistan was overheard telling younger men to put their weapons down and talk about their differences “like they do on New Home New Life” – and they listened.

Deep documentary power

It was also brilliant to hear from the directors of the BRITDOC Foundation (part funded by Channel 4), Beadie Finzi and Maxyne Franklin, about the way they’ve seen documentary film-makers focus more heavily on creating cultural and legislative change over the last decade.

From the film Never too Old for Gold

They talked specifically about the BRITDOC film on sustainable fishing called End of the Line, which saw sustainable fish sales in restaurants and supermarkets rise substantially. They were particularly proud that Whiskas cat food also started using ‘marine-friendly’ approved fish after the film came out in 2010.

This year, they brought out a tender documentary about the over-80s world ping-pong championships called Never Too Old for Gold. It’s a fascinating and insightful backdrop to a campaign for elder justice and intergenerational respect. The campaign has encouraged care homes to put ping-pong tables on site, and the film is being shown in schools to encourage ping-pong competitions between older and younger people.

Finzi and Franklin spoke about ping-pong being good for mental agility and even for reversing symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease. They are now working on getting the film in front of carers to address the issue of “lack of respect in the NHS”.

Creating balance by giving a voice to those without one

“Journalists often build a cocoon around themselves to remain detached, but you can’t explain the world unless you care about it”- Martyn Lewis

Other speakers talked about putting microphones, keyboards, pens, video cameras and other media in front of people who needed a voice, so that their perspective could receive an airing. Greg Barrow, who works at the World Food Programme (WFP), talked about giving a small video camera to a 12-year-old girl called Molly who lives in the slums of Nairobi and receives free school meals. Her films received much attention through the WFP’s social media pages.

Julie Mollins, communities editor at the Thomson Reuters Foundation’s humanitarian news websites AlertNet and TrustLaw, spoke about giving a voice to people in crisis zones – through the websites and Twitter feeds – so that the world can see a truer picture of what is going on.

Leon Stuparich, an independent film-maker, made the point that showing the public’s appetite for positive stories and art through social media can influence the mainstream media. His film Road to Peace – about the Dalai Lama – received little interest until he showed the film for free online and received a wealth of interest on Facebook. The film was subsequently taken on by several distributors.

The public’s appetite

It was clear from the public mood during the Olympics that there really is an appetite for uplifting stories. One speaker said that at the start of the Olympics, the BBC was looking for stories which exposed problems around the Games, but quickly changed tack to looking for more upbeat ones.

Catherine Gyldensted, a Danish political journalist who spoke on the second day of the event (28 September), has recently completed a masters in Applied Positive Psychology.

She believes journalism needs new heroes – not just those that expose wrongdoing, but also those who shine a light on people doing the right thing. Danish media is open to news which shows agenda-changing positive stories, she said.

There was a lot of talk about the prevailing conception in mainstream media that bad news sells. Editors want grubby stories and while journalists might not always want to do them, they feel pressurised.

Good news does sell

But Gilles Vanderpooten, founder of Reporters d’Espoirs, blew this theory out of the water. The founder of the French collective has produced positive news supplements for mainstream newspapers in France. He said their studies show that the audience for the papers grows by 5-20% when a supplement is included and the papers usually bring in around three new pages of adverts when including such supplements.

“It does feel as though the revolution is getting underway. Many of us in the room sensed this”

This, along with the LA Times good news feed, Metro’s good news pages and the wealth of other evidence about the desire for positive news, has surely got to make the industry sit up and take notice a little more. We want publications and bulletins not to publish these stories separately at the back of their pages, and also stop giving space and airtime to irrelevant, negative, depressing stories too.

It does feel as though the revolution is getting underway. Many of us in the room sensed this: “There is a momentum going,” said Martyn Lewis.

While the BBC had once threatened to fire him if he spoke publicly about wanting to see more good news stories, Martyn Lewis said he’d seen moves by mainstream media professionals, such as Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger, to question the current news agenda: “There will come a point when the tide becomes overwhelming,” Lewis said.

Finally, to get to the roots of changing the media for good, we discussed encouraging journalism students and training establishments to teach ‘solutions-focused’ journalism. The Guardian has just announced the introduction of its own journalism training course – wouldn’t it be great to see some modules cover solutions-based journalism?

Reporters d’Espoirs has introduced an award for journalists who seek to show solutions to problems. We definitely need something similar in the UK to send out a clear message that journalism which tells the truth and seeks to show humanity in a good light is something to be praised.

To see video interviews from the Transformational Media Summit, which ran from 27-28 September 2012, click here.