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Why Don’t More News Stations Broadcast Good News?

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By Robert Safir

John Krasinski’s Good News show has upbeat, positive stories, not too much murder, mayhem, and general violence. The first few include an upbeat story about health care workers, a delivery driver who leaves gifts on a person’s porch, and more.

It’s clear that part of his motivation was to put out something positive during the COVID-19 crisis we are currently undergoing. It makes one wonder what will happen when the virus is finally under control. Will John continue his YouTube broadcast after things get back to “normal,” whatever that is?

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Is it the Viewers' Fault?

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Why don’t major stations focus more on good news rather than news filled with disaster, incompetence, and corruption? Would it be so hard? This is a question posed by many people, including psychologist Tom Stafford. His answer is similar to many I have come across in the past. Mr. Stafford says “It may be because we’re drawn to depressing stories without realizing it.”

He also puts out ideas such as the possibility that journalists are drawn to reporting bad news because “sudden disaster is more compelling than slow improvements.” He also suggests newsmen (or newswomen) believe that cynical reports of corrupt politicians or negative events make for simpler stories.

But his last idea is that we, the readers or viewers, have trained journalists to focus on these things. Many people often they they’d prefer good news – but is that actually true?

"If it Bleeds, it Leads"

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We’ve seen this argument before. “If it bleeds, it leads.” You can give people good news, but what they’re really attracted to is bad news. A Russian news publication tried an experiment and brought to the front page only good stories. Then they claimed that they lost two-thirds of their readership that day. (This is an unlikely claim. A publication would not lose that much in just one day, no matter what they published. Plus, you cannot reliably measure a trend by looking at just one instance.)

There is no shortage of psychology studies that explain why we are attracted to bad news. Negative events are supposedly more memorable and impactful than good one. But the biggest claim – which really is more of an excuse – is that the media only give people what they want.

Please Don't Be So Positive?

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Some argue that reading and spreading bad news is ultimately good, because the awareness can affect positive change. Writing about racism and corruption can – and should – promote action to improve those causes. In other words, the optimistic view is that it’s all about “making the world a better place.”

Others make the case that we respond faster to negative words. These claims always cite lab studies in which words are flashed on a screen. The “average” result is that more people recall the negative words, not the positive ones. Likewise, when given stories to read, the subject would recall the negative ones more easily than the positive ones.

Experimentation Bias

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There is another theory and I will put it forth. As in many, many studies, the results are skewed toward the result that the researcher wants to reach. You could call it “experimentation bias.” The questions might be written – even if unconsciously – to influence the result that is ultimately reached.

But that’s not the only theory to consider. As a broadcasting major at Los Angeles City College, and later at California State University, Los Angeles, I created radio documentaries that were upbeat and positive with hopeful endings. They were the ones that won awards. It the same classes, the typical “bad news of the day” stuff never surfaced to the top. Yes, this is anecdotal, but nevertheless interesting to consider.

People Want Good News

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Finally, and on a larger scale, the major stations are focused – solely – I repeat – solely – on ratings. To re-conceive their material in a new way, with more emphasis on the positive, would require a lot of work and a lot of time, things they don’t have. It’s as if you were going to open a restaurant, and needed dependable cash flow right away. You wouldn’t open up a Red Lobster – you’d open up a McDonalds. Stations prefer quick and easy – and high ratings. Eyballs. Viewers. Results. Ratings.

A more cynical view would state that major corporations control the major networks who dictate what news to cover. Keep the viewers in line – somewhat fearful, and then sell them the dish soap – they’ll feel better then. Keep the commercials coming and keep the negative news stories flowing so quickly, the viewer can’t even absorb a story before the next one is half way through.

However, ending on a positive note, let’s look at this. ABC’s Nightly News with David Muir – as just one example – it ends with a “Person of the Week.” The stories are positive, human interest stories, and they are heavily watched. If they didn’t work, they would have been discontinued a long time ago.

If John Krasinski is successful with his show, it might serve as another example that people want, and like, Good News.

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