The worst-case scenario news story is less likely to inspire positive action or go viral, and could be delaying political decision making around sustainability.
"The darkest corners can be illuminated," stated the notice in the newspaper in 1887. Flash powder was the hot new commodity and Danish American photojournalist Jacob Riis read about the new invention that could spread light to corners of society that had been comfortably wrapped in darkness. Riis' now famous book How the Other Half Lives exposed the squalid conditions of New York City's tenement slums.
Riis' photo documentation of the lives of the poor meant it was no longer possible for society and those with power to stand by idly. Laws were passed and journalism was shown to have a role in improving society by exposing the negative sides of life.
Don't ignore the silver lining
Today we face a problem with this approach, in the belief that it is only by focusing on what is wrong with the world that we can keep power accountable and maintain a healthy and well functioning society.
In a study I carried out at the University of Pennsylvania, different versions of the same news story were tested on a sample of 710 people. It found that the classical negative news story left people feeling hopeless and passive.
In contrast, articles with a constructive peak midway and a hopeful ending was deemed good reporting and left readers feeling informed. The data overall suggested that readers of the more positive article were left with more energy to engage and take action.
A growing body of research points to the same finding. This year researchers at the University of Texas, Austin released a study in which a solution-based ending was applied to classic news articles reporting on homelessness in the US, mental struggles for US school children and living conditions for poor people in India. Across the board readers reported higher levels of inspiration, a desire to learn more about the issue and higher levels of engagement when it came to sharing, commenting and discussing the issue.
A silver lining news story that highlights positive outcomes from an otherwise negative topic seems to have another interesting effect. Readers remembered more story-related information from silver lining news than from either positive or negative news reports.
When researching what makes news stories go viral, researchers from Wharton Business School at the University of Pennsylvania found that stories get shared online most when they induce awe and a sense of meaning, in contrast to stories evoking emotions low in arousal, such as sadness.
Inspire readers to share
Internet media site Upworthy, with its stated mission of hosting the intersection of the "awesome", the "meaningful" and the "visual" is little more than two years old and already gets around 30 million unique visitors per month. Upworthy's key characteristic is curating engaging videos and content from the Internet and adding its own headlines designed to raise curiosity or inspire. While critics might be right in accusing Upworthy's headlines of often misrepresenting its content, it is skilfully doing exactly what research shows creates viral and engaging content: prompting arousal in the reader, usually of the awe inspiring and meaningful kind. Before Upworthy is dismissed as substandard journalism, it's worth noting that its formula is something other news organizations are paying attention to. Propublica, a Pulitzer Prize winning US based newsroom for investigative journalism teamed up with the site earlier this year.
Focus on the worst case and hinder the best case
In an interview with Karen Hjulmand, a colleague who has been covering climate issues for many years, she argued the worst-case scenario approach embedded in most journalists' reporting has played an instrumental part in delaying crucial political decision making around climate change by between 10-15 years.In particular, she pins this on the media's failure to cover solutions, visionary thinking and possible collaborations. There's a growing framework within journalism working on remedying this imbalance.
In Europe it has been coined constructive journalism. While remaining critical and trustworthy, we must add more accountability and understand that we need to focus not only on exploring the disease model of the world but also the strengths, resilience, and solutions. Rather than sticking to Riis' focus on how the other half lives, the time has come to shed light on how the other half works.