James Cridland

Time for more good news?

Scott Adams, the Dilbert cartoonist, wrote a book a while ago called “How to fail at almost everything and still win big”. Part of his thought process is that you should actively manage your mood and your own personal energy, and one of the ways of doing this is to avoid exposure to too much depressing news.

A few years ago, I ran a (surprisingly successful, in readership terms) hyper local website for the area of London I lived in. I did a fair amount of research before I started this, and one of the things I learnt from others was to be positive. “Nobody wants to think they live in a rough or depressed area,” one person told me. And they’re right.

If you regularly consume news, though, you’re consuming — in the main — relentlessly negative news, on repeat. In some parts of the world like the UK, news is a regulated part of content on the radio: so every hour, you’re subjected to tales of misery, unpleasantness, and death. Thanks, regulators.

As I write this, my local news is comprised of a court case about alleged misbehaviour by an actor, an aeroplane which has crashed killing all on board, an earthquake that has “rocked” New Zealand, and new CCTV photographs released of someone just before their death. It’s not really the cheery fare you’d squeeze next to an Ed Sheeran song; but radio stations are, every hour, pumping out this sort of stuff to audiences.

There’s a radio station in Cape Town called Smile 90.4FM, which does news a little differently.

“We are supposed to believe that keeping up with the news is important and of value, yet there is no evidence to support the rationale that placing the worst of humanity as item number one in a news bulletin, has changed the world for the better. Presenting information that generates fear and worry without balancing context, or suggesting solutions, cannot be morally justified,” says the Program Director, Clive Ridgway. And he’s right.

So, Smile “amplifies the positive” in the city. They don’t shy from bad news, but deliberately focus on the positive. UK radio veteran John Myers went to see them, and was impressed at what he heard.

Hans Rosling’s book Factfulness, another book I’d recommend, is full of proof that we think of the world as much worse than it is. We’ve never been safer, healthier, richer or more educated. But listeners to radio news would be forgiven for thinking the opposite: because every single hour, we tell them how awful everything is.

On my little local news site, I had a story that I made a conscious decision to cover as “A new Turkish restaurant comes to town”, rather than “120 year-old pub to close”. The story was the same — a 120 year-old pub was closing, and being replaced by a Turkish restaurant. But I’d lay a bet that most grizzled old radio journalists would have led with the pub closure, not the restaurant opening. If it bleeds, it leads, after all.

I wonder whether we owe it to our audiences to, at the very least, give the positive side of a story; balance context (air travel is still the safest transport option); or focus on those suggesting a solution. Isn’t that the right thing to do?