Friday, February 9, 2007

Why the media are always so 'negative' (July 2002)

"Why are the media always so negative?"

We’ve all heard this one. Many of us have said it from time to time. And there is no doubt that the vast majority of news headlines every day are bad news. But I assure you that reporters and editors do not use terms like ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ in deciding the worth of a story. (A reporter’s first thought, on hearing anything interesting, is more likely to be: ‘Is it accurate or inaccurate?’)

So what makes a story interesting to a reporter or assignment editor? Actually, it can be summed up in one word. And that word is not ‘negative’!

When I worked as managing editor of The Sunday Express, my Monday morning calls were usually quite predictable. A call or two from someone’s lawyer, advising us that we’d better have our facts right on a certain story (we usually did).

An anguished call from the guy in Glovertown whose paper hadn’t arrived again, even though the distributor swore it had been delivered (we suspected a neighbour was stealing it).

And at least one caller would ask, ‘Why are you always so negative?’

I heard this question so often that I began to give it serious contemplation. I would thumb through back issues and sure enough, page after page, the paper was full of bad news. What did these stories have in common? Why did we deem them newsworthy?

Finally, it hit me. The answer could be summarized in a single word, one that explained everything: conflict.

It was a lesson first learned in Grade Three English. Every story must contain conflict. And that conflict was broken down into three sub-groups: man against man, man against nature, and man against himself. I knew this to be true in fiction, but it was a revelation to realize that it applied equally to the real world; to news.

Pick up any newspaper, or tune into any news broadcast. Think about the stories. Most often, it’s man against man – one person or group against another person or group. From civilized debate to all-out war. The panel of Fenwick and Rowe on Canada Now. Mount Cashel victims vs. the Christian Brothers. Andy Wells vs. Paul Sears, Sandy Hickman, and perhaps a few others. Government vs. the Official Opposition. United States vs. Al-Qaeda. Israelis vs. Palestinians. And on it goes…

Sometimes it’s man against nature. Woman killed by cougar. Tornado takes 15 lives. Lost hiker succumbs to hypothermia.

Rarer still, but quite compelling, is man against himself. Geoff Eaton’s inspiring fight against cancer. A physically-challenged person who achieves athletic greatness. A celebrity battling an addiction.

Conflict is the main driver behind our fascination with sports – there are good guys and bad, winners and losers. The same applies to business reporting. Much of lifestyle reportage is man against himself (how we can improve our health). The lines blur a little in entertainment coverage, because we like to hear about new releases and such. But entertainment is also where conflict goes over the top and becomes the most salacious and controversial of all.

So how about the flip-side? How to explain the ‘positive’ good news stories that do get coverage? The same rationale applies. There is conflict at work, but the story has a happy ending – the protagonist wins. In other words, there is triumph over adversity. Someone rose to the challenge, usually against the odds. This will explain the minority of 'good news' stories that you do see or hear in the media.

If you were to ask a reporter what they look for in a story, very few will actually say "conflict". However, all good reporters use this filter without attaching a label to the process. They know, at least on a subconscious level, that a story is not newsworthy without conflict.

So the next time you see a controversial story, don’t think ‘negative’. Think ‘conflict’, and identify the conflict elements for yourself. Understand that conflict is what makes the news, and accept it as part of nature’s plan.


Anonymous said...

If I chose one word to explain the negative nature of news reports, it would NOT be conflict, it would be MONEY.... Everything on earth revolves around greed, hate, self, etc. & money is the fuel for that emotion.

People are being "Dictated" to by our media & government, but 95% of them don't realize it. All that they're creating is many, many millions of paranoid-schizophrenic's...

Anonymous said...

Your comment about 'conflict' truly resonates with me. I agree - that is what makes a great news story. However, I think there are just as many stories where the protagonist wins or the story has a positive ending as there are negative stories. So, why is it then reporters and/or editors generally more likely to run a negative story than a positive one. Should there be more balance in the news. Not only covering both sides of a story but also balance in terms of overall content? Negativity in news is an issue that I have spent a lot of time thinking about - which is probably why I was led to your blog. I appreciate your view but feel the question remains unanswered. An updated blog on this or response to my question would be much appreciated.

Anonymous said...

I teach current events to my grade 8 students. Well, rather, we look at current events together. This is a GREAT way to look at the notion of negativity in the news - especially from the language arts perspective. I will bring this to my parents and students for discussion. Thank-you!