Positive psychology could revolutionise journalism

The science of positive psychology offers a new, more constructive foundation for news reporting, proposes Cathrine Gyldensted

Mark Kelly, the astronaut husband of former US politician Gabrielle Giffords, clutches his wife’s arm as they approach Jared Lee Loughner in the courtroom. It’s early November 2012 and almost two years since Loughner killed six people and injured 13 others, including Giffords, in a shooting rampage in Tucson, Arizona, in January 2011. Giffords was left with a brain injury, partial blindness, a paralysed right arm, and for now, retirement from politics.

The atmosphere in the room is tense as Gabrielle Giffords locks her stare directly at Loughner. Her husband then breaks the silence, speaking on his wife’s behalf: “Plans she had for our family and her career have been immeasurably altered… Every day is a continuous struggle to do those things she once was so good at.”

Brutal, terrible and sickening in all its violence, the Tucson shooting and its aftermath are sure headliners for media all over the world. But why are you reading about it in Positive News? The answer might surprise you. As well as the necessity of reporting the tragic events that unfolded and the outcomes of the prosecution, there are, in addition, also positive and constructive stories to be found, which have value for society. But we have to decide to look for such stories and know what we are looking for as reporters.

Personally, I wouldn’t have known what to look for had it not been because of what I learned in 2010 while studying for a master’s in positive psychology. You see, for most classically trained journalists, ‘positive’ is something Pollyanna-ish, fluffy and non-critical. It’s the feel-good piece about a kitten being rescued from a tree, and it’s placed just before the weather in TV´s evening news. It’s definitely not the prizewinning kind of journalism, which usually involves investigative pieces and stories that topple people in power.

The history behind ‘negative’ news

In my opinion there were two defining pivotal historical events shaping modern journalism and fostering its current negativity bias: the leak of the Pentagon Papers and the Watergate scandal during the 1970s. After the Vietnam War, journalism would never be the same. News organisations that had once cooperated routinely with the government, began to view the term ‘national security’ as a sure way that government consciously manipulated coverage and hid the truth from the public.

The Pentagon Papers were a classified report authored by the United States Department of Defence on US political and military involvement in Vietnam from 1945 to 1967. They described how four US administrations had deliberately expanded their aggression in the region with bombings and raids hitting Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam, none of which had been reported by media in the US. Thus, four consecutive US administrations had misled the public regarding their real intentions and foreign policy. This of course fostered a widespread public distrust toward those in power.

Only one year later, in 1972, another scandal of epic proportions hit, increasing distrust and journalists’ determination to expose corruption and abuse of power. The Watergate scandal uncovered how a break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate office complex in Washington, DC was orchestrated by the Nixon administration. This eventually led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon, the only resignation of any US president. Watergate also resulted in the indictment, trial, conviction, and incarceration of several key Nixon administration officials.

The reporters leading The Washington Post’s coverage were Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward. They became idols, and are still viewed as icons for journalists today.

These events are usually highlighted as establishing a golden age of contemporary journalism. However, I believe that this so-called golden age has also had a profound negative influence on our ability to innovate journalism as a profession. Beginning with Watergate, great reporting was to always be critical reporting, ie negative. Since then, despite what it has achieved, news reporting has stalled into describing a disease model of the world.

Let me make it clear from the outset that I highly value quality investigative reporting, when corruption is exposed and people are held accountable on the basis of solid journalism. However, when ‘catching the crook’ thinking is infused in all news reporting, the relentless uncovering of wrongdoing fosters a downward spiral that seems to repel our audience.

“News consumers report that negative news induces learned helplessness and passivity, and we are seeing more and more people shy away from it”

How do I know this? By carrying out research on how negative news affects readers. News consumers report that classic negative news induces ‘learned helplessness’ and passivity, and we are seeing more and more people shy away from it. My research confirmed my theory of how positive psychology – the scientific study of what enables individuals and communities to thrive – offers a basis for more constructive, solid and trustworthy news journalism.

The scientific underpinnings are especially important here, as it’s crucial to get documentation and solid facts in order to successfully innovate mainstream news media. The worst case scenario for any ambitious news reporter is to produce weak content without substance. Therefore, the shift to more constructive and balanced news journalism won’t happen unless solid methods and tools are provided to journalists in order to produce valid and trustworthy positive or constructive news stories. The driving force has to be the science of positive psychology, because it offers empirical evidence and the means of applying a positive approach, which fit with the ethics that form the foundation of traditional news reporting.

New constructive tools for journalists

The interview is journalism’s fundamental tool. Most interviews are meant to be explorational and critical, and are meant to hold power to account. However, nine out of ten times the interview fosters victims. If I only ask the homeless person about all his suffering, I will get answers exploring suffering. Thus I will induce that feeling of suffering threefold: in my subject, myself and the people reading or viewing my piece.

What happens if I ask questions that explore resilience, ask about people who’ve helped and supported, ask about a path to solutions, for any perspectives that provide meaning in the situation? Then, those are the answers I will get from the same homeless person. This will give me soundbites of positive emotion, hope, resilience and inspiration to put in my news piece – which can still be a story highlighting the challenges of our economic recession. These methods should be added to the professional journalist’s toolbox.

“The way we construct news stories has a strong impact on the emotional mindset of readers, listeners and viewers”

Moreover, the way we construct our news stories has a strong impact on the emotional mindset of our readers, listeners and viewers. According to what’s called the ‘peak-end rule’ – first suggested by scholar Daniel Kahneman and others – we judge our past experiences almost entirely on how they were at their peak (pleasant or unpleasant) and how they ended. Other information is not lost, but is not used. This includes net pleasantness or unpleasantness and how long the experience lasted.

The dramatic construction of the news story should include a positive peak and a positive end statement from a main character. I realise that, from journalism school, I seem to have a default installed for a negative peak and a negative end – that’s the way we are taught ‘effective’ storytelling.

Finally, journalists should look for ways to view and communicate information that are identified within positive psychology. My professor, Martin Seligman, considered as one of the founders of positive psychology research, has identified five pathways to human wellbeing, which are summarised in the acronym ‘PERMA’: positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning, and achievement. These elements offer a solid framework for reporters to identify positive threads within the top news stories that are already there.

For example, in covering the recent US superstorm, Hurricane Sandy, the media could report on how people in New York and Jersey Shore are helping each other, inviting neighbours who have lost their homes or their electricity to stay with them, strengthening the social fabric. The press could give examples of how first responders are engaged in their task and how they are finding meaning in rescuing people.

Or in covering the situation in Syria, we could look for citizens forming new relationships because of the uprising – maybe even across political beliefs.

In reporting on the economy, we should look for the accomplishments of people, who through resilience and creativity have found jobs, turned their businesses around, or are proposing new ways to structure the economy so that inequality and scarcity are a thing of the past. When you think about it, these examples are more newsworthy than those of people experiencing setbacks; we’ve heard those stories a million times over.

Benefiting society

According to US researcher Barbara Fredrickson, negative emotion has proven valuable for humans in fight-or-flight situations, but it is positive emotions that have driven civilization forward, because of how they foster creativity and innovation.

Critics claim that we, the news media, are partly responsible for the detrimental state of the world. We in the media usually respond that we are merely describing the world as it is. However, with the bias for negativity in our reporting, it seems to me that we are solely describing the disease model of the world, and adding to the disease by only reporting on negatives instead of positives. As Fredrickson suggests, the positives have the power to drive civilization forward. If not now, in these times, then when?

“Positive stories have the power to drive civilization forward”

In conclusion, let me mention two seminal constructs within positive psychology research, which are highly relevant in news reporting: human resilience and post-traumatic growth. The relevant question for journalists should be: where are we seeing humans grow from a traumatic experience?

When Gabrielle Giffords silently walked back to her chair supported by her husband in the Tucson courtroom, she transformed into a positive news story. The federal judge sentenced Jared Lee Loughner to seven consecutive life terms, plus 140 years. But what people might not recognise is that in that moment, Giffords was the embodiment of resilience and post-traumatic growth.

It is best described by the closing statement from her husband: “Mr Loughner,” Kelly said, “you may have put a bullet through her head, but you haven’t put a dent in her spirit and her commitment to make the world a better place.”

This might be a story of a classic American hero, but it’s also an important case against the limits of the contemporary approach to news reporting. Seen through the lens of positive psychology, a constructive approach is to not only describe a tragedy or problem, but to report the responses to it that are driving civilization forward.