Every minute of every day we are faced with stories from all over the world, yet there always seems to be one common theme: negativity. From gang violence and terrorism to Brexit and the latest celebrity scandal; it doesn’t matter what’s being reported on, the stories are always centred around the bad stuff, the stuff that magnifies terror, concern, and angst. Last year, out of the top 20 stories on BBC News online, 19 were dramatic, negative stories.
The RSA hosted an event based on ‘How the news can change our world’ and invited a panel of journalists and authors to debate the current state of news and the impact it has on consumers.
Jodie Jackson, an author, spoke about her own experience as a news consumer, and some research she conducted which found that consuming a negative imbalance over a long period of time effects our mental health as well as our behaviour and tolerance towards others. Other data also suggests that news causes stress, with many reporting anxiety and sleep loss as a result.
Naturally, people turn to the news when big stories happen, yet more often than not, the truth is distorted and stories paint a completely different picture, giving us a false sense of the world we live in. It’s because of this that 71 per cent of Brits said they believed that the world was getting worse and the same goes for across the pond, with only 6 per cent of Americans believing that things are getting better. Yet surprisingly, the reality is that the world is in fact in a much better place than it was a couple of centuries ago.
While a fifth of the population avoid news, we can’t escape it completely. Therefore, perhaps it’s about changing the way we consume it and start viewing it in a more positive and constructive way. Emily Kasriel, head of editorial partnerships and special projects for the BBC World Service, spoke about a shift towards what has been termed ‘solutions-focused journalism’ (SFJ). SFJ isn’t just about positive or good news stories; rather, it’s about the responses to problems and how they can be solved. Instead of simply focusing on ‘what’ the problem is and concentrating on the negatives, it’s about shining a light on the resolutions and ways of improving the future. For example, rather than covering a natural disaster and portraying people as ‘victims’, journalists should look at what these individuals are doing to respond to the challenges as positive agents of change.
SFJ is centred around not only identifying solutions to problems, but also providing evidence and data to scrutinise the whole situation. On top of this, she described the importance of considering whether a story can scale and whether it only works in one context or can be amplified beyond a region or country. Being able to report on something that has the potential to impact wider communities and countries can be extremely powerful.
Sean Dagan-Wood, publisher of Positive News, felt like journalism was falling short. He wanted to create a different narrative that empowered people; after all, if we don’t like something, we end up disengaging and becoming disconnected and cynical. He believes that there needs to be a complete culture shift. Therefore, Positive News is all about ‘constructive journalism’ and reporting about what’s going right in the world. In his opinion, it’s important to provide rigorous and relevant journalism which focuses on progress, possibility, and solutions. Of course, it’s still about seeking a compelling angle and reporting on the truth through multiple sources, but there needs to be a shift in mindset among journalists. The starting point shouldn’t be looking at covering a story when things go wrong but looking at the purpose it serves and the impact it has. He used the example of the first supermarket in London to introduce plastic-free zones; a story which is not only positive, but tangible, and scalable.
This way of reporting is proving popular. BBC Audience Research revealed that 51 per cent of 16-18 year olds, and 47 per cent of 19-24 year olds in the UK “agree or strongly agree” that they want news to also provide solutions and not just problems and these figures were even higher in developing countries.
Cynicism is associated with non-ethical behaviour, so if you’re focusing on problems and negative stories, then ultimately consumers will absorb this outlook. SFJ won’t work for every story, but if more reporters take this kind of approach then perhaps, we can start representing the world in a more positive light; not only empowering people but making a real impact across the globe.