Today, as a creative experiment in positivity bias, I turned part of the NYT’s Morning Briefing into a good news bulletin.
This wasn’t because I’m Panglossian, suffer from Pollyanna-ish tendencies or the glass-half-full syndrome. I’m not prone to view the world through rose-coloured spectacles.
It was an experiment.
I wanted to see if a briefing can be a decent read even if it’s not a litany of bad news. I took, arguably the most doomladen part of the NYT’s ‘Morning Briefing’, the coronavirus global update. With the world having passed 15 million cases and no vaccine nor cure in sight, we continue to suffer terribly from the effects of the pandemic. The NYT Briefing makes grim reading.
Is there another way, and if there is, why do journalists and news outlets do it this way?
An interview with Dr Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, Director of Research at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford, is very helpful in this regard.
Dr Nielsen explains that journalists are drawn to events over trends because they are more newsworthy. “This often frustrates economists, because you see a disjoint between what they perceive to be the truth of the situation as a whole – as opposed to the event-focused reporting favoured by many journalists which may accentuate more negative events, and in particular things that have consequences for named individuals; the human interest story”.
He added that sports journalism is quite distinct from most other kinds of journalism because it’s mostly not bad news and consciously takes a different trajectory. As he noted, sports journalism is euphoric, partisan, patriotic and focuses on the celebration of the athlete and the camaraderie of the fans. It’s a celebration of the culture of the sport, the solidarity among fans and the team, the heroic exploits of individuals or the strength and unity of a group of players.
And finally, said Dr Nielsen, journalists are well aware that audiences are frustrated with the negative tone of news. The world may be a bad place, but it’s not only a bad place.
All true, but still we – journalists and the outlets we work for – continue to focus on things that go wrong, without paying enough heed to those that work well, or rather better than expected.
So let’s have a go at a different way. Let’s work on the NYT’s Morning briefing for Friday, July 24.
Its opening was as follows:
We’re covering the U.S. passing 4 million cases, a stumbling reopening in Spain and climate change prompting a global migration.”
Correct me if I’m wrong, but that doesn’t sound like the NYT is wishing us “good morning” at all. It sounds like a very bad morning, the usual sort of bad morning many people have come to expect and dread – one filled with news of a coming apocalypse even as we struggle to survive pestilence and a world alternately drowning or on fire.
So here’s the question. Does “the US passing 4 million cases” merit being the lead story? It’s a high number (and every case, every individual incidence of suffering matters) but the US has, unfortunately, had high coronavirus infection and death numbers for four months now. Its millionth case was reported on April 28; the two-millionth on June 10 and three-millionth on July 7.
So perhaps the real coronavirus news story for Friday, July 24 is something quite different and with elements of good news just to keep things in context, both in the US and further afield.
First, in the US:
- Donald Trump had the belated good sense to follow the Democrats and cancel the in-person Republican convention scheduled to be held in Jacksonville, Florida at the end of August. This is welcome, even if no one quite believes that Mr Trump has finally found it in himself to labour tirelessly and selflessly for America’s hungry, poor and most vulnerable. Even so, the convention cancellation should be placed alongside the US president’s recent exhortations for people to be “patriotic” and wear masks. In so doing, perhaps Mr Trump might be able to awaken a sense of self-preservation within his core base and other committed Republicans. This will surely help slow the spread of the virus and save lives.
- New cases in Houston, Texas appear to be levelling off, which doesn’t mean much more than health officials get to take a breather. But that’s important too – for the exhausted health workers – and it’s certainly worth noting in terms of direction of travel.
- An island off the southern tip of Manhattan has become an urban garden, producing fresh fruits and vegetables for, as the NYT says, “a city in which one in four residents lack adequate food”. This is wonderful in terms of a city’s attempt to feed itself and more particularly, to feed those who have little.
Internationally too, there is some good news on the pandemic:
- Costa Rica is opening up to international visitors (although not Americans). Gustavo Segura, the country’s tourism minister, described the announcement in terms that might almost be poetic. The developments are, he said, “drops of hope for the more than 600,000 people who directly or indirectly depend on tourism…” Quite so.
- Spain’s patchwork of re-opening/ closing regulations shows that localised measures rather than complete national lockdowns are likely to be the way forward. That’s to be welcomed.
- A United Nations report has offered another way forward to slow the surge of coronavirus cases – countries should give a basic income for at least a period of time to their poorest people (ie those who can’t work from home). Now, it’s not clear every country will or can do so, but at least this offers a way to deal with a persistent problem until a vaccine or a cure is found for SARS-CoV2.
- Chinese property tycoon Ren Zhiqiang’s criticism of President Xi Jinping over the country’s coronavirus response could be seen as foolish and ineffectual considering the Communist Party simply expelled him and seized his assets. In bad news terms, this is a terrible story because it shows that the Chinese system will continue to quash dissent. But there are hopeful aspects too in the story. It is good news that people continue to speak up when they think something’s wrong. And it’s good news that the world hears about it. Mr Ren didn’t just disappear into a well, in a sack weighted down with heavy stones.
Basically, when the NYT says “We’re covering the U.S. passing 4 million cases, a stumbling reopening in Spain…” and more in that vein, it triggers weariness and despair.
The trendline is important to contextualise an event. That’s not necessarily good news, but the whole news.