Note: This was written originally for the daily newsletter at the Columbia Journalism Review, where I am the chief digital writer
Since we are currently in a global pandemic that has caused the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people and the closure of stores, restaurants, and other hallmarks of normal life, it’s not surprising many people are searching for things to take their minds off the gloom. And what they are clinging to — and sharing on social networks — is often explicitly “good news,” whether it’s heart-warming stories about kids having virtual birthday parties where friends drive by and honk their horns, or people banging pots and pans to celebrate health-care workers. There’s even a “news network” dedicated to this kind of thing, although it’s a tongue-in-cheek take on the genre. It’s a YouTube channel that consists of actor John Krasinski, best known for his role in the sitcom The Office, sitting at a desk in what appears to be his den, dressed in a suit and hosting a show he calls Some Good News, complete with a hand-painted sign that reads SGN (drawn by his children). He throws to video clips and does live interviews, just like John Oliver or Stephen Colbert, but the purpose is to be uplifting, not satirical.
Krasinski’s show may be the most recent example, but it’s far from the only one. Musician David Byrne, co-founder of The Talking Heads, launched a site last year called Reasons to be Cheerful (a name taken from a song by British musician Ian Dury) that he said was designed to give people reasons for hope, as opposed to the bleak landscape that traditional news offers. Byrne has described it as “part magazine, part therapy session, part blueprint for a better world.” He told Rolling Stone magazine he wanted to give people something to make them feel better about the world. “It often seems as if the world is going straight to Hell. I wake up in the morning, I look at the paper, and… often I’m depressed for half the day,” he said. Mother Jones magazine has a newsletter that focuses on positive news called Recharge, and the Washington Post has a similar newsletter filled with “inspiring” stories called The Optimist. Before it became synonymous with clickbait headlines, the digital news aggregator Upworthy was designed to distribute feel-good stories via social media.
It seems churlish to even question this trend, because it’s so clearly designed to be heart-warming. Who doesn’t want their heart warmed, especially when we are all marinating in a stew of fear and despair? And even if someone didn’t want their heart warmed, what kind of monster would begrudge someone else having theirs warmed? Especially if it’s by a little girl being serenaded by the entire cast of Hamilton because she couldn’t make it to the real Broadway show. Watching that kind of gesture — as calculated or orchestrated as it might be — touches a very human place in us, like watching kittens play with string, or seeing a child do something adorably dumb. When I shared a short video clip of a spring stream flowing through the woods near my house recently, several people I don’t even know thanked me profusely for it, as though I had offered them a drink after days of crawling through the desert.
Is there anything wrong with that feeling? Of course not. But the fact that Krasinski’s show apes the design and structure of regular TV news program implies that it’s intended in part as an antidote to the real thing, because regular news is too depressing and negative. Is that true? Perhaps. Covering death day after day does get depressing. But what is the alternative — to not report on what is happening because it is will make people sad? Psychologist Steven Pinker has said that he believes the news media deliberately exaggerates bad or negative news. He likes to point out that we never see a journalist saying to the camera, “I’m reporting live from a country where a war has not broken out.” And it is true that some news shows seem to take a perverse delight in car-crash-style journalism, highlighting murder and arson whenever possible (but it’s also true that we are drawn to bad news, as much as we might like to deny it).
The problem is that the whole point of the news is to inform people about the world, to give them the knowledge of events that might affect them. And a lot of that knowledge involves depressing things like viruses, or quarantines, war, and death. Is it nice to have a respite from that? Of course. Even journalists need to take breaks, as CNN reporter Brian Stelter admitted he had to do recently, after getting overwhelmed by the relentlessness of coronavirus coverage. But a focus on only good news could easily turn into escapism, if it involves deliberately avoiding the truth in favor of something that feels better, because it implies that the world is just fine the way it is, and therefore nothing needs to change. That’s a little too close to the “bread and circuses” the ancient Romans provided as a way to keep the populace in line.
Here’s more not-so-good news:
Avoidance: In a recent Outline essay, writer Joanna Mang noted that feel-good stories often evade certain uncomfortable questions, like a much-shared video of a police officer knotting a teenager’s tie outside his high-school graduation ceremony. “Positive news is necessarily regressive because it does not identify, much less critique, systemic problems or injustices,” Mang writes. “On the contrary, it often elides and obscures conflict; in fact, that’s one of its main appeals. That video I mentioned earlier, of the police officer and the high schooler who needed help with his graduation outfit? The cop is black, the teen is white, and it takes place in Georgia.”
Not good: In what turned out to be a rather disheartening social experiment, a Russian news site called City Reporter only reported good news to its readers for an entire day in 2014. The site put positive news stories on the front of all its pages, and found as many silver linings in any potentially negative stories as it could (“No disruption on the roads despite snow,” for example). As Quartz described it, “the result was a smorgasbord of sunshine, lollipops, and rainbows—that absolutely no one wanted to read.” The City Reporter lost two-thirds of its normal readership that day, according to a post by one of the editors on Facebook.
Solutions: Although it might seem related to the good news trend, so-called “solutions journalism” is designed to focus more on what people can do about a particular problem, according to its proponents — giving readers ammunition to effect positive change. “The solution is not to produce more positive news but to create more knowledge, to truly understand how the world works, what forces are at work in terms of trying to address problems,” David Bornstein, co-founder of the Solutions Journalism Network told CJR in 2014. “It’s not more awareness about problems, or even outrage, but: What can we do about it?
Other notable stories:
A bipartisan group of U.S. lawmakers called on Sunday for expanding payroll assistance to struggling local newspapers and broadcast stations that have seen advertising revenue plummet. Democratic Senators Maria Cantwell and Amy Klobuchar and Republicans John Kennedy and John Boozman urged Senate leaders to revise the rules to make thousands of local newspapers, TV and radio stations eligible for assistance under the Paycheck Protection Program. Also, on Monday, more than 240 House members signed a letter to President Trump, urging him to direct federal spending to ads in local media. In interviews on CJR’s Galley discussion platform, Victor Pickard of the University of Pennsylvania and Craig Aaron of Free Press both said the media industry needs some kind of government-funded program in order to survive. In a New York Times op-ed, David Chavern of the News Media Alliance argues that Google and Facebook should be forced to pay for journalism.
Prince Harry and Meghan Markle have written to the British tabloids promising never to work with them again, escalating an already ill-tempered war between the former royal couple and the media. The couple, who moved abroad and ended official royal duties last month, sent the letter to four of the main British tabloids — The Sun, Daily Mail, Daily Express and Daily Mirror — on Sunday evening. The former royals said they were implementing a new media relations policy towards the outlets after the publication of what they believed were distorted and invasive stories. “It is gravely concerning that an influential slice of the media, over many years, has sought to insulate themselves from taking accountability for what they say or print — even when they know it to be distorted, false, or invasive beyond reason,” the couple said.
CNN media reporter Brian Stelter writes that many of the most revealing exchanges at recent White House. briefings have been prompted by a new generation of correspondents. “They’re not taking President Trump’s not-my-fault routine for an answer,” he says. “They’re pressing, following up and fact-checking in real time.” Stelter goes on to mention Weijia Jiang and Paula Reid of CBS, Yamiche Alcindor of PBS, and Francesca Chambers of McClatchy. “They’re showing that youth can be an asset — along with persistence,” says Stelter. And the pared-down seating chart due to the coronavirus, he adds, “means that fewer reporters are physically in the briefing room each day, which raises the stakes for the reporters who are present.”
Mya Frazier writes for CJR about how the Freedom of Information Act, a favorite tool of investigative reporters everywhere, has been hobbled and weakened, and also how so many newsrooms that might use it have themselves been hollowed out by layoffs. “With countless more media outlets on the brink of collapse, and layoffs at media companies climbing to 33,000, suing to get documents has become an even riskier prospect,” she writes, “even if our current moment makes it a necessity.” Media lawyers say FOIA lawsuits can range in cost from $10,000 to $80,000.
NBC News has sold its stake in European broadcaster Euronews according to a report from The Financial Times. The US broadcaster took a minority stake in the France-based pay-TV channel in 2017, in a deal that was valued at $30 million at the time. In an internal memo sent on Monday and seen by the Financial Times, Euronews chief executive Michael Peters said NBC News had sold its entire 25 per cent holding in the business for an undisclosed amount to Media Globe Networks, a company controlled by Egyptian telecom billionaire Naguib Sawiris. That would give MGN an 88-percent stake in the European broadcaster.
Meredith, the owner of magazines including People and Entertainment Weekly, said Monday it is cutting pay for about 60 percent of its staff until September 4 because of a drop in advertising revenue due to the coronavirus pandemic. The company said about 2,000 employees will receive a temporary 15 percent cut in salary, and 750 employees, including Meredith’s highest-paid executives, will take pay cuts ranging from 20 percent to 40 percent. Employees taking a pay cut will also begin working four-day weeks from May 4 to September 4, the company said.
Cable giant Charter Communications said it plans no employee layoffs or furloughs for two months as it expands its workforce to keep its businesses running amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Charter also said on its site that it has permanently increased its minimum wage to $20 per hour. “Charter employees have stepped in and stepped up, ensuring our customers stay connected when it matters most,” the company said in a statement. “Our employees are our greatest resource, and to reinforce our commitment to them in this uncertain time, we are announcing that for the next 60 days no employee will be laid off or furloughed.”
A British TV channel has been sanctioned after allowing a well-known conspiracy theorist to air views which the regulator said had the potential to “cause significant harm” to viewers. Ofcom, which oversees broadcasting rules, imposed a sanction on the channel London Live today, following an 80-minute interview with David Icke, a former soccer player known for his belief that the world is ruled by shape-shifting reptiles. The regulator said the interview “cast doubt on the motives behind official health advice to protect the public from the virus.”
New York magazine profiles the West End Rag, an online news publication focused on the Upper West Side of Manhattan that the magazine calls “the hyperlocal site we all wish we had right now.” This suddenly indispensable publication that has been around since 2011, New York says, is run by someone known only by their byline — West Sider — and combines up-to-date COVID-19 news with “updates on a raccoon baby boom, falling trees, photos from adventures in grocery shopping, and videos of Broadway stars belting show tunes from their windows.”