By Jordan Chittley

“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 was adding was the news. One day, when watching the news, she found it so depressing that she just stopped viewing.

“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.”

An online study conducted for this story suggests that negative news affects people’s level of optimism and happiness. It showed that 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. Other studies including one conducted by Bayer have arrived at similar findings.

Shelley Choquer talks about why she now looks for positive news
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“500 years from now when archeologists dig up the blue 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.

Too much negative news becomes too much

Choquer remembers one news story that made her realize the media were accenting 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.”

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. That 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.
“When there are natural disasters and its thrown in your face in the news, when you can’t do anything about it, that is difficult,” said Choquer. “And if you are a thinking, feeling person, you’ve got to have some empathy or sympathy or something and what do you do about that when you are continually barraged…I was just sick of hearing about all the bad news.”

It is not that journalists look or choose to air negative stories, but many stories result because of the principles of newsworthiness. These news values are taught on day one of newswriting classes in journalism schools. Students are taught to look for the tension in a situation and many times that tension leads to a negative portrayal of the event.

How people are affected by news

It isn’t just Choquer that is noticing an affect from the large number of negative news stories. In the study for this piece, participants were asked to take a 10-question life orientation quiz. Two weeks after, they were asked to each watch one 11-minute mock newscast composed of different amounts of positive and negative news and retake the life orientation quiz. In academic circles there is a debate surrounding the meanings of life orientation, life satisfaction, happiness and optimism. In this case, the life orientation test is basically a measurement of ones’ optimism and happiness level. This study found that people’s life orientation levels dropped all across the board, with the highest drop coming in from those who watched the all negative newscast and the lowest drop coming from those who either watched the half positive newscast or the one that ended with the positive story. Participants were shown a list of 12 words that describe feelings after watching the newscast. Results showed that the more negative the newscast, the more likely the participants were to say they felt sad, frightened, afraid and tense. They are also the least likely ones to say they felt happy. The research is meant to be a snapshot from a small group of people for journalistic purposes. It suggests that people are affected by the news and the more negative news they watch, the better chance they have of decreasing their life orientation level.

Turning to good news

Choquer’s way to supress these negative feeling brought on by the news came after a couple of years of not watching or reading news. Her solution 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 the Good News Network run by Geri Weis-Corbley out of Virginia. If you type good news into Google, Weis-Corbley’s site is the top hit out of the 170 million search results. “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.”

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She says that there is real demand for this 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 the time, the Internet was emerging and she saw this new tool as her chance to do something.

“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.”

The site is entirely paid for by advertisements and Weis-Corbley is in the process of trying to make it a sustainable business by doing more than text stories and expanding into video content. The site usually contains short text stories taken from other news outlets and rewritten.

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 bad 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.”

Scientific evidence backs up what Weis-Corbley and Choquer believe. An article by communications professors Gerald Stone and Elinor Grusin 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.

“I read the headlines on CNN and CTV on the internet, but the first thing I do every day is look at the Good News Network, always,” said Choquer. She doesn’t see this site and ones like it as news seen through rose-coloured glasses, but simply an attempt to add balance to her daily intake of news. Balance that evening daily news doesn’t have according to Choquer. But, while the Executive Producer of CTV in B.C. Les Staff 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.

The journalists role in improving society

Another ethical responsibility for journalists that they are taught in the schools is to expose the truth, even if it is negative, so society can learn from mistakes and take steps toward improvement. CTV assignment editor Ethan Faber referred to his role as being the one that shines the flashlight on the potholes. Members of the media often say that their job is just to record the news. But people like Choquer and Weis-Corbley say their recording, while accurate, focuses on the negative parts of society.

“It [all positive news] is like eating dessert every night for supper,” said CTVBC Executive Producer Les Staff. “People want to know what’s going on and you can only take so much sugar.”
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.
The days of tragedy for the sake of tragedy are gone. “That’s the news of the men and women that came before me in this industry, because frankly the viewers are more savvy than that.”

Nixon also talks about the nature of the television news industry, saying that they have to fill an hour of news every day with something that has maximum impact on people.
“There is a tendency, a bias to go to the low hanging fruit and that is quite often the big events like someone being blasted away in Surrey or a bombshell announcement, a scandal in Victoria or Ottawa,” said Nixon.

CBC veteran reporter Bob Nixon on positive news
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The most dramatic picture should lead is also something that is taught in journalism schools. This goes for any time a reporter is packaging a story or a producer is lining up a show. The picture that will catch the viewer’s eyes and make them want to keep watching. “The pictures tend to be dramatic and quite often negative in the sense of people dying,” said Nixon.
Nixon concedes saying he believes that if the news wasn’t so gruesome less 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 that “If I have an opportunity to lead with something that makes me smile, I will do that in a heartbeat.”
However, Choquer and Weis-Corbley look at the good news first because daily television newscasts rarely lead with something positive. CTV now does a daily segment that goes at the end of each broadcast called “Where We Live.” Many of the stories, according to Staff, have no adversarial angle, such as the one about more buses coming to Vancouver. They are just positive stories about things going on in and around the city. While these stories are positive, they are still at the end of the broadcast and not the focus of the day’s news. The study for this article found that the participants who watched the newscast with three negative stories and one positive one at the end actually showed the smallest difference in life orientation levels before and after the newscast. That may be why outlets run reports from journalists such as Nixon, who mainly focuses on positive news.

“My role is to try to balance that [negative news] with happier news,” said Nixon. He admits that they tend to use his stuff in a cynical way and say “here is happy Bob and now we can go into weather.” This allows the viewer to leave the newscast with a more positive feel, but according to the study is only successful if the viewer ends on the positive story and therefore would have to watch the entire newscast.

Providing context: teaching viewers how to help

However, Choquer’s main issue with most local newscast isn’t that positive news is relegated to the end, but that the stories provide little in the way of context and telling viewers what they can do to help. This context can put a positive angle on the story. Sometimes reporters will mention a way to send money to help victims, “But there are a lot of other things that we hear about like a murder or a small child injured…those things, what can you do?” she added.

Helplessness is directly connected to depression and pessimism and can be caused by the media according to an article by Grace Ferrari Levine, a professor of communications at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut, titled “Learned Helplessness in Local TV News.” Providing helpful solutions is where the role of the reporter, according to Choquer, can change. It’s not just that it can change, Staff says it already is changing and his reporters are striving to add more context. Television news is best at providing spot news coverage and detailing four of the five W’s in journalism.
“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.”

It is no longer about just saying what happened to whom, but if the reporter can strive to add context and explain how the tragedy could have been prevented then that may teach viewers and prevent another tragedy.

According to Jane Ellen Stevens, a multimedia journalist and teacher at the University of California Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism Studies, this has already happened in the reporting of traffic accidents. Until the 1960s, traffic accidents were blamed on “the nut behind the wheel.”

“When researchers began identifying the role of societal and environmental risk factors in auto crashes, the media changed their reporting,” said Renita Coleman, a Ph.D. candidate who summarized Steven’s arguments as part of her dissertation on new stories that put crime and violence into context. Instead of blaming the person, the media began reporting possible flaws with the car, road and weather conditions, whether people were wearing seatbelts and whether alcohol was involved.

Once people began to see that auto accidents could happen to anyone, they began to change their driving habits, including the way they thought about drinking and driving. In addition, “more social policies were enacted to discourage drunk driving, build safer roads, and force more car manufacturers to design safety features into cars.” As a result, car accidents and deaths have decreased.

Providing positive examples

Showing examples of people performing positive acts is directly connected to showing people how they can help. UBC Economics professor John Helliwell says most media are not doing a good job of providing positive examples. He argues that television news does not give the audience credit for wanting to do the right thing and usually just shows people performing negative acts. He also says that television newscasts do not accurately describes the city. For example, Vancouver is a city of great wealth and beauty. It is often voted near the top of the list for most livable cities in the world with its numerous beaches and world-class ski resorts. But the beginning of newscasts rarely show this side.

Helliwell now specializes in studying life satisfaction and says that audiences get facts about other peoples’ ethics from the behaviour of family, friends and the media. It is “almost uniformly bad people doing worse things to other people.” That is why people are satisfied thinking they are ethically better than others in society, but at the same time negative news stories lead people to believe that the world is going downhill. Without the context of how to improve a situation and seeing people perform positive acts, there is little a viewer can do to improve it, according to an article by Jan Bernheim and Francis Heyligher titled Global Progress II: Evolutionary Mechanics and their Side-Effects in the Journal of Happiness Studies.

Adding context, showing a greater spectrum of emotions and providing positive examples all allow the viewer to be more optimistic about the world. That is what can lead to people feeling happier. They will see better results and will be empowered to affect change instead of just thinking that the world is going downhill.

Television’s strength: showing emotions

While TV news is fighting an uphill battle because they need to show dramatic pictures and tell the story quickly, what the medium is good at compared to other media according to Staff is 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 and I talk to this group [the reporter] here about all of those reactions because that is the strength of television news.”

However, while Staff says that his newscasts try to elicit all of those responses. He says that, “with that ability comes a super responsibility to make sure we are not just beating people over the head with what is wrong or what is bad.”
He says that his goal to add more context to stories and to make it a more helpful and positive experience for the viewer is working. “More people are watching and ratings are going up.”

For Nixon, it is not only about adding context, but using 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 cord 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. For his recent story about the haiku champion in B.C., he interviewed the person and the event organizer to find out why they are so passionate about writing haikus and uses their passion in the story.

“You are seeing a story about people who just have these particular passions and I think that is a positive thing,” said Nixon. “Television news can be a medium for telling stories about people, stories that have narratives, beginnings and ends, like journalistic haiku about a particular emotion. I think that is important.”

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