Positive news and the television news audience
by Jordan Chittley June 16, 2008
“Growing up in Vancouver, we always had two newspapers. When I moved to the [Sunshine] Coast I always had at least one and would watch probably the early news and the 11 o'clock news in the evening to keep in touch with everything,” said 50-year-old Shelley Choquer, who now lives in Sechelt, B.C.
But then a combination of factors forced her to change her attitude about the news.
“I was at a stressful time in my life. The girls’ dad left and I thought I had to concentrate more on all the positive things in my life and around me,” she said. “Life was difficult enough without adding to it.”
The thing she left out was news. One day when watching the news she found it so depressing that she just stopped watching. Not only were the newscasters showing a lack of compassion for the victims’ families in the story, but they were showing a lack of compassion for their audience.
“When the kids were young, we stopped watching the early evening news because it’s a bit much for the young people to handle,” she said. There are “some pretty horrifying things in the news.”
In a study I conducted for my Master of Journalism thesis, I found that negative news does have an affect on people’s level of optimism and happiness. The more negative news participants watched, the more their optimism level decreased and the more likely they were to feel sad, frightened, afraid, and tense.
Participants in the online study were asked to take a life orientation test that evaluated their level of optimism. They were asked to wait two weeks and then watch an 11-minute mock newscast and take a similar life orientation test immediately after the viewing. Participants were asked to watch one of five different mock newscasts that each contained different amounts of positive and negative news to see if their optimism and happiness levels would change as a result of watching news. Not surprisingly, they changed for the worse the more negative news they watched.
“500 years from now when archeologists dig up the Blu-ray discs that are left over of the newscasts that we’ve done … they will probably think this is a pretty awful, violent society that is in terrible crisis,” said Bob Nixon, a veteran reporter for CBC in Vancouver. He now has the opportunity on most days to cover positive stories.
Choquer remembers one news story that made her realize the media were crossing the line by accentuating the negative side and showing little care for family members. A mountain biker riding around SFU on Burnaby Mountain didn't know the path as well as he should have and ended up going over the edge. “The news cameras [were] there and that’s fine if they give a glimpse of the scene that was happening as people were trying to resuscitate him, but the cameraman was right on the scene and they had a heart monitor on the guy and zoomed in to the flat line,” said Choquer.
She immediately got on the phone and was surprised to speak with newscasters. “I aired my opinion that they had gone too far with that particular story. In my opinion it wasn’t necessary to get the news across. It didn’t give any consideration to surviving members of his family that may have been watching the news.” She said the newscaster said that they were “just recording the news” and even asked Choquer where to draw the line. “Well, I guess that's it,” she said. Showing a young man to the public at the time of his death is where to draw the line.
She didn't see this as an isolated incident, and to focus on what was good at the time, she stopped watching the news.
It is not that journalists look for or choose to air negative stories, but that many stories are a result of what the principles of newsworthiness encourage. These principles are taught on day one of newswriting classes in journalism schools. Students are taught that there needs to be conflict or tension and many times that tension leads to a negative portrayal of the event.
Good news sites
Choquer's solution to combat how the news made her feel but to still stay informed came after a couple years of not watching any news: it was to pay more attention to the good news and read that news first. These were not just stories from local news stations, but a website called goodnewsnetwork.org run by Geri Weis-Corbley out of Virginia. Good News Network is the top hit out of 170 million pages when searching for “good news” on Google.
“It was needed,” said Weis-Corbley, who has been operating the site for 10 years. “The world needed something like that. It was obvious to me.” She says that there is real demand for positive news. The site receives over half a million views and over 50,000 unique visitors per month.
Weis-Corbley was formerly a television producer and she originally wanted to produce a positive television news program, but that was going to be too expensive. At that time the Internet was emerging and she saw the new tool as her chance.
“I have long been practicing the lifestyle that says you need to think positively to have positive results in your life,” said Weis-Corbley. “I obviously realized that it was important to keep your spirits up through what you are bringing into your mind.”
“I have manifested all kinds of great things in my life and great moods through looking at good news and not dwelling on the negatives that are also going on in the world. I listen to the headlines, but I don’t dwell on the negatives,” said Weis-Corbley. “I feel good everyday…that is the reason I can do this site everyday for 10 years and not be paid for it.”
A matter of balance
However, neither Weis-Corbley nor Choquer see this as a way to get all of the news. They both see it as a way to balance out the daily news diet that includes mostly negative news.
“I see it as similar to a vitamin supplement,” said Weis-Corbley. “It gives you what your media diet doesn’t give you to help balance the daily barrage of negative news.”
Evidence backs up what Weis-Corbley and Choquer believe. In an article by communications professors Gerald Stone and Elinor Grusin, it was found that the average amount of positive news on ABC, CBS and NBC was 25.1 per cent. This is not to say that the rest is negative. Almost half, 46.8 per cent, was found to be negative. The other 28.1 per cent they called “indeterminable.”
It is a balance that evening daily news doesn’t have, according to Choquer. Les Staff, executive producer of CTV News in B.C., agrees with the percentage of positive and negative news. He contends that it is important to show the negatives to let people know where society can be improved. “It [all positive news] is like eating dessert every night for supper,” said Staff. “People want to know what’s going on and you can only take so much sugar.”
Journalists have an ethical responsibility expose the truth, even if it is negative, so society can learn from mistakes and take steps toward improvement. CTV assignment editor Ethan Faber refers to his role as being the person who shines the flashlight on the potholes. But people like Choquer and Weis-Corbley say that media portrayals, while accurate, focus on the negative parts of society.
Some positive news broadcasts have been tried, and they were tremendously successful for a couple months, but then the ratings dropped. Staff attributes that to people wanting to be informed.
“A public that is shielded from the things that are not positive is a public that is ill-informed and cannot make reasonable decisions about the world around them and how they want the world around them to evolve,” said Staff.
In television news, whether a reporter is packaging a story or a producer is lining up a show, the most dramatic picture should lead. It makes sense that the picture that will catch the viewers’ eyes and make them want to keep watching will be shown first. “The pictures [from the stories with most impact] tend to be dramatic and quite often negative in the sense of people dying,” said Nixon.
Nixon believes that if the news weren’t so gruesome, fewer people would watch. “There is a fascination with nasty stuff that people want to watch or are conditioned to watch.”
Even though both newsmen agree that there is there is more negative news than positive, Staff says, “If I have an opportunity to lead with something that makes me smile I will do that in a heartbeat.”
However, it is not just that positive news is relegated to the end of the newscast, but also that television news stories contain little context showing the viewer how they can prevent a similar incident or improve the current situation. If the viewer can feel helpful, they will feel more positive and the reporter will be showing compassion toward the viewers.
Staff disagrees saying that is exactly what his reporters strive for. “Who, what, where, when, those are the easy four … it’s the why, and that is how we provide the context,” said Staff. “They [the viewers] want context around the tragedy and if there is no context, if there is no broader story then it won’t lead our newscast.”
While TV news is fighting an uphill battle because they need to show dramatic pictures and tell the story quickly, the medium is good at giving viewers an emotional connection to the characters in the stories. “An emotional connection can be as much about making them smile, making them laugh as it can be about people becoming angry or upset or sad,” said Staff.
For Nixon, it is not only about adding context, but using the emotions of the characters to connect with the audience. “The value that I bring [with the positive stories] is the sensibility that hopefully strikes a chord in the audience,” said Nixon. “The stories I do allow me to tap into a spectrum of emotions and what people are feeling and I think in a way that is more true to what people might be feeling out there than the outrageous things, which happened to a small percentage of the population.”
“If you go and look at the types of stories television does and does well like murders and mayhem and anger…that strikes me as a narrow emotional range that people have,” said Nixon. “What I find I like about doing these stories is there is a whimsy in people’s lives. There is a desire for just wanting to laugh.”
Nixon says that for all of his stories he tries to find out what drives that person. “You are seeing a story about people who just have these particular passions and I think that is a positive thing.”