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Good News Is Here to Stay: The Media and Positive Reporting

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In one day (August 6), the following headlines appeared online:


  • “Bill Clinton’s Success in North Korea” The New York Times
  • “Happiness: Staying Positive in Negative Territory” USA Today
  • “Shooting Victim’s Sister Trying to Stay Positive” MSNBC


Success, happiness, positivity. What’s with the optimism? US news, not usually associated with “uplifting” content, has been betraying its hard-hearted bent, making a departure toward a softer tone. Even tragic subjects—MSNBC’s shooting story, for example—show potential to be framed in a hopeful light. Sure, we still have titles like CNN’s delicately phrased “Creeped Out Family Lives Alone in Tower,” but balance is key, right?


See, there’s a trend catching on in the news; it’s called seeing the bright side. Hold your eye rolls, please. Despite associations with earnest idealism, “goodness” is a smart sell. It comes down to marketing logic—with the side benefit of possibly changing our collective conscience for the better (or vice versa, for you earnest idealists). It’s about using language that engages readers and keep our hopelessness at bay. We already know what it feels like to be beaten over the head with gut-wrenching headlines. The timing is right to try something new.


It’s starts simply, with softer columns peppered in among gruesome stories. Take this example from the New York Times, published a little while back and earning hefty responses from a slew of fans. In “The Consolation of Animals” by Richard Conniff, the author talks about witnessing animals in their element, watching wildlife do its thing. He makes the case that experiencing the wild kingdom doesn’t require an expensive safari or a swim down the Amazon. Check your backyard, your nearest pond, your shadiest tree.


Sound hokey? Fair enough. But the guy is on to something, and his article will suck you in to confessing your own corniness, if you let him. (In fact, that the Grey Lady ran a separate piece highlighting reader comments shortly after publication.) He admits:


“People who do dumb stuff like racing red-throated loons down a beach in the dead of winter—or even just stopping to admire swans flying overhead, their wings creaking like door hinges—are liable to get a reputation for being a little nuts. But I prefer to think of it as what makes me almost sane. These encounters with the lords of life (and also with the soybeans) pull me up out of the pettiness and stupidity of my workaday life.”


The post drew my attention to its home on the newish Times series called “Happy Days: The Pursuit of What Matters in Troubled Times.” We at Tonic are certainly hip to the fact that most headlines skew toward doom and gloom, leaving feel-good stories in the dust. Digging through daily articles to search for inspiring ones can sometimes feel like a futile treasure hunt. We know they’re out there, everywhere … they’re just not always easy to find. Media outlets also seem to be recognizing that a reader can only take so much heaviness, and that if we’re going to pitch in toward making things better in our world we’ve got to be reminded that there’s plenty of goodness to be found. From the Happy Days site:


“The severe economic downturn has forced many people to reassess their values and the ways they act on them in their daily lives. For some, the pursuit of happiness, sanity, or even survival, has been transformed. Happy Days is a discussion about the search for contentment in its many forms — economic, emotional, physical, spiritual — and the stories of those striving to come to terms with the lives they lead.”


The Times isn’t alone. CNN started the CNN Heroes series last year, and it’s still going strong. Then NBC Nightly News and Brian Williams asked readers to offer their own “good news” stories. Submissions—and requests—for positive news poured in. It can’t be long before others catch on and balance the necessity of learning about the world’s tragedies and struggles with the desire to hear about humanity’s efforts to heal these wounds.


With Jon and Kate headlines more pronounced (still? really?) than coverage of global politics, I think it’s safe to say that we’ve reached a point of compassion fatigue where crisis and tragedy don’t penetrate our brains and hearts in a sufficiently empathy-provoking way. We need balance. It’s important to know about war and economic crashes, disease and catastrophe that affect our world, but without anything to counter the heaviness, it makes for a rather desolate template. The state of affairs starts looking hopeless, change seems elusive, and Jon and Kate become infinitely more mentally digestible than foreclosure rates and bombings.


It’s not that we don’t care. It’s that we need the right approach to engage us. Think what you will of conservative pollster Frank Lutnz, but his study on the power of words is pretty fascinating—and brings a bit of legitimacy to our “good” news theory. In “Words That Work—It’s Not What You Say, It’s What People Hear,” he presents the obvious in a rather fresh and compelling way, looking at “how the tactical use of words and phrases affects what we buy, who we vote for, and even what we believe in.”


Rumor has it that Pepsi’s new “Refresh Everything” ad campaign, which piggybacks on Obama’s Hope campaign, is actually a result of Luntz’s research. It has a section devoted Goodworks, stories highlighting positive social change. As told to CNSNews.com back in January, media analyst Robert Knight said, “I think, given the effectiveness of Obama’s message, Pepsi is merely getting aboard the bandwagon and trying to capitalize on the good feeling—that a new era of optimism has arrived.”


In other words, wanting to re-frame issues in a good light isn’t just idealism; it’s responsible business and effective persuasion. It’s a little bit of subliminal manipulation, and it’s all good as far as I’m concerned — re-frame an issue with a positive slant and we can trick readers into learning about concerns that need our collective attention.


Tie in reports of death and brutality in Honduras with stories of the peaceful protests there. Keep us aware of threats to agriculture in the United States, but in the same breath point out rising trends of resilient young farmers. Not only will audiences be more likely to engage, but they may just feel hopeful that their own small actions can have an impact after all. Seems that scare tactics are no longer the fail-proof technique they once were. Nope. We’re magnetizing toward positivity more than ever.


It’s official: Kindness is cool. Nice is all right. Good news is here to stay.

By Caroline Walker, Senior Editor at Tonic

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