The need for good news in the media

A few months ago, I had the privilege of doing my postgraduate internships with Nine News and SBS Dateline.

Conducting vox pops for Nine News in Sydney

Friends would ask about my experience in the newsroom. After a number of different conversations, I started to notice a pattern.

Me: “It’s incredible how much work goes into what looks like a simple 2-minute news story on Nine. And it’s a whole other level of planning at Dateline for their 20-minute reports on international current affairs.”

Friend: “It’s great that you got to see all that in action. But frankly… I don’t watch the news. It’s just too negative and depressing.

Sadly, I didn’t even have to ask them why. Across the world, television news programs follow a predictable format. They go something like this.

Worst news, bad news, commercial break. More bad news, sports, finance, weather. And maybe a ‘feel good’ piece to lighten things up.

So, newsrooms churn out bad news everyday because the industry believes that bad news sells. But people are tired of being bombarded with bad news and switching off.

It doesn’t take much to spot the irony.

Perhaps then, it’s time for the media to pay more attention to good news.

And by good news, I don’t just mean more aww-inducing pictures of cute puppies.

Screen capture from HuffPost Good News, Oct 13th 2014
Screen capture from HuffPost Good News, Oct 13th 2014

(Awww-right. Let’s leave some room for that cuteness)

While that’s good, I believe good news should be (and can be) more than that.

It was this belief that led me to conduct some research into the idea of good news as part of my Master’s degree at The University of Sydney.

I thought I would share a few points from my research – as well as the full essay for those who are interested – in the hope that this will contribute to a cause I believe in.

1) Let’s pay more attention to what’s going right around us.

Discovery of new cures. Justice. Acts of kindness. Rescues. Unsung heroes. Love. Innovative solutions to problems in the world.

Good news happens everyday. But we’ve gotten so used to bad news filling the headlines, that it somehow seems unnatural or trivial to give more airtime to positive developments.

2) A focus on good news does not suggest that harsh realities be downplayed as the public has the right to be informed.

Instead, the concept of  ‘good news’ should be extended to involve a constructive treatment of ‘bad news’. One way of doing this is by placing incidents in their proper context.

Numerous studies have revealed how audiences perceive crime as more rampant than ever in their community due to excessive reporting of an isolated incident. This sensationalised the sense of crime in spite of declining crime rates.

3) There is value in reporting good news, even/especially when it comes to the political realm.

Journalists are taught the importance of being the public’s ‘watchdog’ in reporting on politics and public affairs. This is crucial to keep those in power accountable, but there is a danger of the media compromising its watchdog role by sensationalising the personal scandals or fumbles of politicians. We see this every other day in the news.

On the flipside, instances where public policy has performed well are rarely acknowledged.

It is unsurprising then, that research has found that the media’s overemphasis on negativity and sensationalism has contributed to a breakdown in trust towards politicians and the media. The domino effect of that? A disinterest in politics and the news.

Just look around you and see how many people pay attention to what’s going on in politics.

But the good news is… good news may turn things around. Audience research conducted in the United States found that news about a successful policy report actually drew more interest than a failed one – pointing towards the value of (and desire for) good news in a climate of negativity.

4) It was heartening to discover alternative media outlets that have successfully embarked on good news reporting.

In my essay, I take a closer look at two pioneers in the alternative media space of good news journalism – the Good News Network and Positive News. I also look at how some mainstream media outlets like the Huffington Post and The Guardian have dabbled with the concept of good news.

– Full essay below –

Note: Media academics, students and professionals may find the essay most relevant. But if you are curious about the stuff of media research, read on too!

If you have further thoughts or would like to collaborate on bringing more good news, I’d love to hear from you 🙂


RESEARCH ESSAY

Victoria Ong | June 2014

Alternative news sites are creating innovative new forms of journalism for the promotion of “good news” beyond traditional news values. Is good news significant to society, and to what extent does the form of good news reporting by alternative news sites challenge the dominant paradigm of news reporting?

Introduction

The concept of news values in journalism can be traced to the seminal work of Galtung and Ruge (1965), where the authors identified 12 factors or values that are vital in the selection of news stories. Their list of what is considered “newsworthy” is still referred to as a foundation in many journalism textbooks today.[1] Of particular interest to this essay is Galtung and Ruge’s news value of “Reference to something negative” – where bad events are considered to be “generally unambiguous and newsworthy” (O’Neill and Harcup, 2009, p.165). This traditional news value lies behind the saying that “bad news sells”, and persists as the dominant paradigm in newsrooms today.

This essay will discuss an emergence of attempts among some media academics and practitioners to rethink news values to incorporate “good news”, in a bid against the ingrained notion that “bad news sells”. It will explore the concept of good news and its significance, and examine how alternative news sites on the internet have ventured into “innovative new forms of journalism” that promote good news. Finally, it will find that at present, good news reporting by alternative news sites challenges the dominant paradigm to a certain extent – it is significant in meaning, but limited in impact.

Rethinking the Dominant Paradigm of Traditional News Values

O’Neill and Harcup (2009) raise the need to recognise that the construction of news values is in itself “ideologically loaded” (O’Neill and Harcup, 2009, p.169). Harrison (2006) supports this idea, explaining that the concept of what is newsworthy has been “passed down to new generations of journalists through a process of training and socialisation” (Harrison, 2006, p.153). It is in this environment that “Reference to something negative” has become a commonly accepted news value among media practitioners.

Fuller (1996) argues that in selecting what to report, journalists tend to display “fundamental biases” – among which include the tendency to select news that “accentuates the negative” (Fuller, 1996, p.7). Golding and Elliot (1979) describe how “bad news is good news” for the media, as the drama and shock value of such news items attracts audiences (Golding and Elliot, 1979, p.120). This ties in with Schultz’s (2007) research into newsrooms, which finds the existence of journalistic hierarchies that value “hard news” and bad news over “soft news” and good news. This industry norm is especially obvious in the pattern of newspaper headlines or top stories in television news, which are dominated by hard news and bad events (Schultz, 2007, p.195). This “taken-for-granted” sense of newsworthiness towards hard news/bad news points towards what Gramsci (1971) describes as hegemonic ideology in action (Bailey et al, 2008, p.16).

Beyond the newsroom, a similar “dominant paradigm” of bad news being accepted as the norm of reporting appears to be present in journalism academia. Although numerous media scholars denounce the sensationalism of bad news to attract more audiences (Altheide, 2002; Fuller, 1996; Grabe et al., 2001; Patterson, 2000; Slattery, 1994), considerably little research has concerned itself with rethinking hegemonic news values, and to explore the possibility of incorporating more good news as a counter-balance. Research that specifically examines this issue dates back to 1987, where Galician and Pasternack (1987) questioned if there was an ethical obligation for journalists to balance good news and bad news in their reporting. More recently, O’Neill and Harcup (2001) proposed that “a new set of news values” should be considered. In their list of 10 news values, they include “Good News” as well as “Bad News” – suggesting that while bad news can be considered newsworthy, it is important to recognise and report good news. They define “Good News” as “stories with particularly positive overtones, such as rescues and cures” (O’Neill and Harcup, 2001, p.279).

The Significance of “Good News” as a News Value

The significance of paying more attention to good news as a news value has to be explored for it to make sense in a culture where mainstream media outlets and audiences have come to expect news reports to be made up of bad news. Contrary to the saying that “bad news sells”, studies into audience attitudes towards the news have found that an excessive focus on bad news causes audience fatigue – leading people to switch off from the news. For example, Patterson’s (2000) research on public affairs reporting in the United States and its effect on audiences found that the media’s overemphasis on negativity and sensationalism led to a breakdown in trust towards politicians and the media, and a resultant disinterest in politics and the news. Surveys on media audience attitudes by the Pew Research Centre for the People and the Press likewise revealed that Americans were tired of political news as it was “too negative, too sensational, and too intrusive” (Patterson, 2000, p.12).

While the news media’s “watchdog” role in public affairs reporting is crucial to keep those in power accountable, Patterson (2000) and Fuller (1996) suggest that the American media compromises its watchdog role through frequently sensationalising the personal wrongdoings and scandals of politicians, while rarely acknowledging public policy that has performed well. By so doing, audiences’ “expectations of public officials decline and its trust in the media’s judgment diminishes” (Patterson, 2000, p.14). An interesting finding emerged from Patterson’s media audience research, where news about a successful policy report actually drew more interest than a failed one – pointing towards the value of and desire for good news in a climate of negativity (Patterson, 2000, p.12).

News has the power to construct and reconstruct social reality (Tuchman, 1973), highlighting the influence that journalists have in shaping public perceptions towards the world. Hence, by equating bad news stories of “conflict, violence, and misfortune with importance, reporters often present a negatively distorted view of reality” (Galician and Pasternack, 1987, p.82). Galician and Pasternack (1987) describe how “research has suggested that negative news can cause individuals to become depressed, to lower their perception of a community’s benevolence, and to experience a sense of helplessness” (Galician and Pasternack, 1987, p.83). Supporting Galician and Pasternack’s findings are numerous studies on how audiences perceive that crime is rampant in their community despite declining crime rates, due to news media that exacerbates a sense of crime through excessive reporting (Gerbner and Gross, 1976; Heath and Gilbert, 1996; Leger, 2003; O’Keefe and Reid-Nash, 1987).

As such, good news is a significant news value that merits more attention as it advances the public interest – a key tenet of journalism – in its ability to bring a well-balanced worldview. While this essay proposes that good news should be given more merit as a news value, it does not suggest that bad news be eliminated as the public has the right to be informed. What is does propose however, is for journalists to adopt a constructive approach towards the reporting of bad news. A constructive treatment towards bad news places events in their context, in what Haskins (1973) terms the “silver lining” approach. Haskins proposed this as a way to rethink the reporting of bad news, where for example, violence stories are supplemented by factual reports of an improvement in the situation (Galician and Pasternack, 1987, p.83).

“Good News” through Innovative New Forms of Journalism

This essay regards alternative news sites as those that “challenge the status quo” of mainstream news reporting (Pickard, 2007, p.12), which is steeped in the dominant paradigm of news values that prioritises bad news. Through these alternative news sites on the internet, “innovative new forms of journalism” have emerged to promote good news stories. A non-exhaustive list of “good news sites” include: Good News Network; Positive News; DailyGood; The Intelligent Optimist; Gimundo; Finally Good News; Happy News; Good Mood News.[2]

The proliferation of good news sites is telling of a resistance towards the dominance of negative news in mainstream media. It also indicates how the rise of the internet has enabled new forms of engagement by groups that may not have had the financial resources or access required to publish good news in traditional media. These alternative good news sites are significant in their “desire to counter – or subvert – prevailing news values” (O’Neill and Harcup, 2009, p.170). Bailey et al. (2008) argue that alternative news sites are significant in voicing the “ideologies of those under-or misrepresented in the mainstream channels of communication” (Bailey, Cammaerts, and Carpentier, 2008, p.16). In this case, good news is the “ideology” that is under-represented in mainstream media. With over 400,000 “Likes” on the Facebook page of DailyGood (their tagline being “News that Inspires”)[3], there appears to be a significant desire among media audiences for a dose of good news in their media diet.

With their determined focus on good news, these alternative news sites pose a challenge to mainstream media news values. Interestingly, the influence of these alternative good news sites has flowed over into some mainstream news sites. This shall all be discussed in detail in the following sections.

Case Study: Alternative News Sites – Good News Network and Positive News

Good News Network and Positive News are pioneers in the alternative media space of good news sites on the internet. The founders of each site started working on their plans to address the lack of good news in the 1990s, but the idea of reporting exclusively on good news did not take off until 2006 and 2001 respectively – when the combination of internet growth and user-friendly publishing software provided a launching pad for them.

Good News Network is based in the United States, and its content is a mix of original news articles by its team of contributors as well as links to other good news stories around the world. The Good News Network Facebook page has built a strong following with over 200,000 “Likes”.[4]

Founder Geri Weis-Corbley describes her motivation behind starting the site:

This website was created in order to report on outstanding citizen action, innovative solutions to the world’s problems, and to shatter negative stereotypes in the public regarding race, governments, politicians, religion, corporations, Hollywood, public schools, and inner cities. It was also specifically created to be a for-profit business in order to finally prove the founder’s precept that good news actually does sell. Changing broadcasters’ belief about what kind of programming “sells” is critical to getting more positive programming on the air. (Weis-Corbley, 2014)

Seeing as the news site’s business model recently moved from paid subscriptions to free access – enabled by a growth in advertising and donations – Weis-Corbley is on track to proving her belief that “good news actually does sell”.

Positive News is based in the United Kingdom, and describes its aim “to inform, inspire and empower our readers, while helping create a more balanced and constructive media” (Positive News, 2014). The site operates as a not-for-profit, backed by a trust and donations. In addition to the site, Positive News also publishes 25,000 printed newspapers on a quarterly basis to distribute for free in the UK.

Apart from reporting on “positive developments from across the world”, Positive News also provides “solution-focused perspectives on the challenges facing society” (Positive News, 2014) – displaying a constructive approach to negative news, akin to the “silver lining” approach proposed by Haskins (1973).

Both Good News Network and Positive News have ventured into good news that goes beyond the constructs of what mainstream media (and even most alternative good news sites) define as “good news” – typically those falling within traditional “soft news” genres (e.g. human interest, lifestyle, culture). Instead, both sites also report on traditional “hard news” genres (e.g. economics, politics, business) – engaging with issues through a constructive approach. Examples of recent headlines include: “Woman Tackles E-Waste Problem While Giving Jobs to ‘Unhirables’” (Good News Network, 11 March 2014); “Gender parity in politics “possible within a generation”” (Positive News, 10 April 2014).

Influence of the Alternative on the Mainstream: Huffington Post and The Guardian

Bailey et al. (2008) make an astute observation in describing how alternative media’s “rejection of the production values” in mainstream media leads to “a diversity of formats and genres, and creates room in alternative media for experimentation with content and form”. This experimentation tends to create “a breeding ground for innovation, often to be eventually adopted by mainstream media” (Bailey at al., 2008, p.20). The authors’ observation rings true in light of mainstream media outlets adopting good news for their news sites. The Huffington Post and The Guardian are examples of mainstream media outlets that have incorporated “Good News” sections on their websites.[5]

In December 2012, Huffington Post founder Arianna Huffington launched HuffPost Good News as a new section on the website. She wrote:

I’m delighted to announce the launch of HuffPost Good News, a new section that will shine a much-needed spotlight on what’s inspiring, what’s positive, what’s working – and what’s missing from what most of the media chooses to cover […] The excuse often given by the media is that these stories are ‘what the public wants’. Well, we don’t believe that, and HuffPost Good News will be our answer, and challenge, to that cynicism. (Huffington, 2012)

HuffPost Good News provides a mix of positive human-interest stories and inspirational blog posts from public figures. While they report some original stories, a large amount of content is sourced from partnerships with alternative good news sites like DailyGood, Gimundo, and The Intelligent Optimist – a reflection of how a mainstream news site like Huffington Post is not only influenced by, but is dependent on alternative media.

The Guardian started their good news section as a commercial move in March 2011, launching Good News Guardian in partnership with drinks brand Tropicana. The advertising deal centered on the idea of a “good news online hub dedicated solely to positive news stories” (U Talk Marketing, 2011). The campaign was supposed to run for just a year but has lasted up to this day with Tropicana’s branding still prominent on the site. Likewise, HuffPost Good News is sponsored by insurance provider State Farm. Both cases provide an example that “good news sells”, and may provide food for thought for more mainstream media outlets to consider the appeal of good news to advertisers.

Conclusion: “Good news” reporting currently challenges the dominant paradigm to a limited extent

Currently, good news reporting challenges the dominant paradigm of news values to a limited extent. This essay finds that at present, while good news reporting by alternative news sites is significant in meaning, it is still limited in impact.

The proliferation of alternative good news sites pose a significant challenge in meaning to the dominant paradigm by demonstrating a different approach to news reporting – one that is positive and constructive (e.g. the work of Good News Network and Positive News), instead of negative and critical. However, they have yet to attain the same large-scale audience reach as mainstream media – which limits their impact in generating a greater influence on the dominant paradigm to incorporate good news as a “core” news value.

This is telling in the behaviour of mainstream news sites like the Huffington Post and The Guardian. Although they recognise the significance of good news as a news value by having dedicated “Good News” sections on their websites, the ways in which they structure the sites reveal that they do not regard good news as a priority.

On the landing page of the Huffington Post, “Good News” is not listed as a section on the main menu display bar.[6] To navigate to the “Good News” section requires considerable effort – a click on “All Sections”[7], followed by “News”, and after a considerable scroll to the very end of the “News” list, “Good News” earns a spot below “Weird News”. Similarly, “Good News Guardian” is nowhere to be found on The Guardian’s landing page – appearing only when the search term “Good News” is keyed into the site’s search bar. The absence of good news on each site’s landing page reflects what Fiske terms “strategies of containment” through “compartmentalisation”, where the meaning and impact of good news is controlled and limited (Fiske, 1987, p.287). It also becomes evident that with both sites, the traditional construct of good news being considered “soft news” still applies. For instance, the vast majority of stories on HuffPost Good News involve cute animals, adorable children, and human interest stories with familiar themes of kindness and triumph over adversity. [8]

Nevertheless, the incorporation of good news into mainstream news outlets like Huffington Post and The Guardian marks a positive step towards recognition of good news as a significant news value – which hopefully paves the way for more mainstream media to rethink their selection of news items and present a more constructive and well-balanced view of the world. This will require conscious effort by journalists to look out for good news, rather than routinely gather negative news – as well as a shift in editorial culture to publish and give weight to good news. Indeed, as O’Neill and Harcup usefully suggest, “an alternative approach to news values may operate at the margins of journalism – and indeed, may occupy a marginal position within journalism studies – but that does not mean it has no significance” (O’Neill and Harcup, p.171).

Footnotes

[1]  A useful summary list of Galtung and Ruge’s 12 news values can be found in O’Neill and Harcup, 2009, pp.164-165.

[2] Weblinks: Good News Network (www.goodnewsnetwork.org); Positive News (positivenews.org.uk); DailyGood (www.dailygood.org); The Intelligent Optimist (theoptimist.com); Gimundo (gimundo.com); Finally Good News (finallygoodnews.net); Happy News (www.happynews.com); Good Mood News (www.goodmood-news.com).

[3] Weblink: DailyGood Facebook page (www.facebook.com/dailygood)

[4] Weblink: Good News Network Facebook page (www.facebook.com/thegoodnewsnetwork)

[5] Weblinks: HuffPost Good News (www.huffingtonpost.com/good-news/); Good News Guardian (www.theguardian.com/good-news-guardian).

[6] Listed sections on the landing page are: Politics; Business; Entertainment; Tech; Media; WorldPost; Healthy Living; Comedy; HuffPost Live; All Sections.

[7] Under All Sections: News; Entertainment; Life & Style; Tech & Science; Voices; Local.

[8] Similar “strategies of containment” can be seen in traditional mainstream media, such as television news. The format of television news follows a predictable format that has not changed over decades. As cited in Galican and Pasternack (1987, p.83), studies on television news observe how “more prominent display” was given to bad news with dramatic visuals in the beginning of the newscast and that most content would be “predominantly negative” (Lowry, 1971; Singer, 1970). At the end of the newscast, a piece of “good news” would usually be thrown in as a “feel good” piece after the bombardment of “bad news” (Haskins, 1983) – a format that exists up to this day (Alysen, 2012, p.211) that highlights the separation and deprioritisation of good news in news reporting.

References

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Alysen, B. (2012). ‘Compiling a News Bulletin’, in The Electronic Reporter: Broadcast Journalism in Australia (3rd ed.). Sydney: UNSW Press, pp.204-222.

Bailey, O.G., Cammaerts, B., and Carpentier, N. (2008). ‘Four approaches to alternative media’, in Bailey, O.G., Cammaerts, B., and Carpentier, N. (eds.), Understanding Alternative Media, Maidenhead: Open University Press, pp.1-34.

Fiske, J. (1987). Television culture: popular pleasures and politics. Routledge: London.

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Positive News. (2014, Apr 10). Gender parity in politics “possible within a generation”. Retrieved from http://positivenews.org.uk/2014/peace_democracy/politics/15104/gender-parity-politics-possible-generation/

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Weis-Corbley, G. (2014). About Us. Retrieved from http://www.goodnewsnetwork.org/more/about-us/