One of the principles of newsworthiness is focusing on what is unusual or out of the ordinary. When a dog bites a man, it isn’t news, but when a man bites a dog it is. It is this search for strange stories that are usually not representative of what most people experience that leads reporters to cover strange events and these are usually negative.
Another aspect, especially of television news, is that it is easier to cover events that are happening, which are usually negative like a murder or fire, as opposed to successes, which may take years to show signs of improvement.

CBC veteran reporter Bob Nixon speaks on the nature of television news

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According to psychological studies, people believe ignoring a danger to be worse than ignoring an opportunity, so we react in stronger ways to negative information. A story will only grab the audience’s attention if it is different from the current state. Negative developments are usually sudden disturbances such as accidents or natural disasters, whereas positive developments are a result of the sustained work of many people over time. If a reporter needs to cover breaking news it usually isn’t going to be a positive story. It may take months to build a house and that is a positive story, but a fire may destroy the house in an hour and that news is more immediate and breaking. It tends to be better suited to daily television news.

UBC economics professor John Helliwell, who studies life satisfaction, says that “it’s absolutely normal whether you are the headline writer or the story writer or the assigner to send the person out to study the disaster and not the successes.”

Another principle of news taught in the journalism schools is conflict. Helliwell has been on panels to discuss economic issues in the past and believes that producers design the news programs looking for controversy. “They get somebody right off on one side of a question, somebody right off on the other and have them yell at each other because they think that makes good media coverage when 90 per cent of people who really know would say the answer is right in the middle. People get an idea that the world is much more controversial and subject to controversy and that experts can’t agree on anything so then they get a negative view of the capacity of science.”

Journalists defend their work arguing that they apply a set of professional standards to determine what is news.
Les Staff, executive producer of CTV in British Columbia says that it isn’t about writing a positive or negative story. “I don’t think we send reporters out and say do this one the negative way or do this one the positive way, the story will go where the story goes,” said Staff. “It needs to be about context, why is that bad, why is that good. It’s not us telling why it is bad, it’s us presenting people on TV with the expertise and the insight and the credibility to say why it is bad or why it is good…and then we let Joe on the sofa decide.”


Les Staff, Producer for CTV in B.C.

While television can be a useful tool in eliciting emotions from viewers, because of the nature of the medium, it has an uphill battle to fight when it comes to improving people’s life satisfaction, according to Helliwell. People get satisfaction out of helping others and “when you are watching television, what are you doing for other people? Zero,” he said. “Unless you are acquiring a better information base…your contribution to other people is zero.”

One final note about television is that it is a much more addictive medium than reading text or listening to the radio. Researchers have found that the more one watches television, the harder it is to turn off and therefore people are likely to watch for longer than they would partake in another medium, such as reading a book or a newspaper, taking more time away from engaging and helping others.


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