There's an old saying in the news business, one that's guided editorial thinking for decades: "If it bleeds, it leads." That is, stories of violence, tragedy, dysfunction and corruption get top billing -- at the top of the hour, at the top of the computer or phone screen or above the newspaper fold -- driven by the assumption that these are the stories the public will be most drawn to watch or read.
This ethos is wrong, both factually and ethically. And it's lousy journalism. As journalists, our job is to give our audience an accurate picture -- and that means the full picture -- of what's going on in the world. Just showing tragedy, violence, mayhem -- focusing on what's broken and what's not working -- misses too much of what is happening all around us. What about how people are responding to these challenges, how they're coming together, even in the midst of violence, poverty and loss? And what about all the other stories of innovation, creativity, ingenuity, compassion and grace? If we in the media only show the dark side, we're failing at our jobs.
And, what's more, it turns out that we are also failing to give our readers and viewers what they want.
Last month in Davos we announced "What's Working," a global HuffPost editorial initiative to double down on our coverage of what's working. While we will continue to cover the stories of what's not working -- political dysfunction, corruption, wrongdoing, violence and disaster -- as relentlessly as we always have, we want to go beyond "If it bleeds, it leads." And to be clear, I'm not talking about simple heartwarming stories, or aw-shucks moments, or adorable animals (although don't worry, we'll still give you plenty of those as well). What I'm talking about is consistently telling the stories of people and communities doing amazing things, overcoming great odds and coming up with solutions to the very real challenges they face. And by shining a light on these stories, we hope that we can scale up these solutions and create a positive contagion that can expand and broaden their reach and application.
Not only is this good journalism; it's also smart business. It turns out that, contrary to the thinking behind "If it bleeds, it leads," people want more constructive and optimistic stories. As the number-one social publisher on Facebook, we've learned these are the stories our readers are most interested in reading and sharing. And our experience at HuffPost is not unique. Jonah Berger, a Wharton Business School professor and author of Contagious: Why Things Catch On, dug deep in 2013 with his colleague Katherine Milkman into The New York Times' list of the most emailed stories over the course of six months. And what they found was that people were far more likely to share stories that stirred positive feelings.
Judgment has always been an essential part of the news business. But somewhere along the way our definition of what's news became synonymous with violence, mayhem and disaster.
And not only do the media seldom cover the stories of solutions and of what's working (largely relegated to the "hero" segment at the end of the local broadcast, or the feel-good profile buried in the Lifestyle section); at the same time we lavish plenty of attention on stories that are barely newsworthy. Last week, for example, our national conversation came to a screeching halt for hours before and after Mitt Romney held a conference call to announce that he would not be running for president.
"All the news that's fit to print," The New York Times' famed tagline, introduced in 1896 by the paper's publisher, Adolph Ochs, was an attempt to push back against the sensationalistic yellow journalism of the time. More than a century later, however, what's left out of much of the news isn't the news that's "unfit" to print but lots of actual news. The fitness/unfitness debate is obsolete and has largely taken care of itself. The new marching orders should simply be delivering "all the news." So how do we define what qualifies as "news"?
To begin, the news should accurately reflect the world we're living in. In The Guardian recently, Daily Mail deputy editor Tony Gallagher acknowledged that the media often falls short. "Crime is going down," he says, "but you wouldn't know that from looking at national media because we still cover the same number of crimes, the same number of murderous trials, so there is a danger that we are not reflecting the world."
In his book Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, the Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker showed that we are, in fact, living in perhaps the least violent and cruel period of human history. Again, this is not to whitewash the myriad big problems that do exist in our world. But for all the terrible things we see on the news, "there has been a decline in all kinds of organized conflicts, including civil wars, genocides, repression and terrorism," as Peter Singer wrote in a review of Pinker's book.
Just how far removed is our media coverage from reality? In the 1990s murder coverage increased more than 500 percent -- even as homicide rates dropped more than 40 percent, according to the Center for Media and Public Affairs.
Our world is full of crises, dysfunction and corruption, with often tragic human consequences. And we will of course continue relentlessly to cover all of them, from ISIS and Boko Haram to climate change, Ebola, youth unemployment and growing income inequalities. But even in these stories the picture presented needs to be much more complete. How people are responding, how they're reaching out to their neighbors, how they're rising to the occasion is far too often left out.
When we don't give the public the complete picture, there are multiple opportunity costs, including growing cynicism, resignation, pessimism and ultimately despair about the possibility of problems ever being solved. And when we do give people the complete picture, their response shows how hungry they are for it.
Sean Dagan Wood is the founder of Positive News, an online and print publication in the UK whose motto is "Inspiration for a change." In his TED Talk he laid out the stakes:
A more positive form of journalism will not only benefit our well-being; it will engage us in society, and it will help catalyze potential solutions to the problems that we face.
Other efforts abound, from the Washington Post's newsletter "The Optimist" and The New York Times' "Fixes" column to the Solutions Journalism Network and sites like Upworthy and NationSwell.
And as Chris Moody, Twitter's VP of data strategy, told me:
We see countless proof points on Twitter that positive messages have more engagement and obtain more reach on our global platform than negative content. We will release data-driven studies this year that prove this very point. The implications of these findings should be far-reaching, from how we think about creative and editorial content as well as how companies think about public engagement and customer service.
Restoring a sense of proportion to news by accurately reflecting the world's realities is most definitely not about reporting through rose-colored glasses. The term "compassion fatigue" has been used to describe the way serving readers an exclusive diet of negative images and stories causes them to emotionally withdraw. As Lisa Williams, a social psychologist at the University of New South Wales in Australia, put it:
The more that we hear about events and suffering and trauma that pull at our proverbial heartstrings, the more likely that some of us just withdraw and no longer have that strong motivation to help.
And in her 1999 book Compassion Fatigue: How the Media Sell Disease, Famine, War and Death, Susan D. Moeller lays the blame, as her subtitle suggests, squarely with the media:
Compassion fatigue is the unacknowledged cause of much of the failure of international reporting today. It is at the base of many of the complaints about the public's short attention span, the media's peripatetic journalism, the public's boredom with international news, the media's preoccupation with crisis coverage.
And there is no reason that in-depth stories focusing on what's working should not be eligible for the highest journalistic honors. In 1943, for example, the Pulitzer Prize for public service went to the Omaha World-Herald for "its initiative and originality in planning a state-wide campaign for the collection of scrap metal for the war effort. The Nebraska plan was adopted on a national scale by the daily newspapers, resulting in a united effort which succeeded in supplying our war industries with necessary scrap material." The Herald's work was a perfect embodiment of What's Working: In the midst of a global crisis, its reporting brought an entire city together to collect literally tons of scrap metal for the war effort and, in the process, started a positive contagion among other papers across the country. The paper ran its own scrap-metal scavenging contest, even awarding young participants with "Scrap Scout" badges.
Another Pulitzer example comes half a century later. In 1997 the city of Grand Forks, North Dakota, suffered the worst natural disaster in the state's history: massive flooding followed by further destruction from blizzards and fire. For its coverage the Grand Forks Herald won the 1998 Pulitzer Prize for public service, not just for documenting the devastation but for providing the whole picture. There are stories about volunteers traveling from miles away to the University of North Dakota's library, whose below-ground materials were threatened by floodwaters; of city-hall operations moving to the local Comfort Inn; and of the university offering housing, business space and day care to people whose homes had been destroyed. As the paper's Mike Jacobs and Mike Maidenberg wrote:
We must have wondered, all of us, whether any community anywhere had ever suffered so much, and yet we know that others have. Miraculously, we have been spared loss of life. Marvelously, we have found friendships we didn't know about, as strangers came to offer labor, called to offer shelter, reached out to offer strength.
We've all heard of copycat crimes. We want What's Working to inspire copycat solutions.
That's why we've partnered with Global Citizen to add an Action Button to stories across HuffPost geared toward What's Working, helping our readers take action on issues ranging from poverty to education. And while What's Working is a global initiative, we want each of our international editions to bring its own sensibility and expertise to coverage of solutions. That's why each edition will have its own name -- for instance, at Le Huffington Post in France it will be Ça Marche, and at the Brasil Post it will be Tem Jeito! And by translating the work of each of our editions, we'll be bringing news of those solutions around the world to start a broader conversation on what's working.
But we can't do it alone, which is why we're partnering with the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism to help educate and train the next generation of journalists to paint the full picture of the human story. Throughout the spring 2015 semester our editors will work with USC Annenberg students on a What's Working Challenge, encouraging them to apply the same reportorial rigor, substance and creativity to cover what's working as they do to all their best reporting. We'll help the students identify and shape these kinds of stories, and we'll help frame them for maximum impact online. We'll crosspost their best work -- in text, video and multimedia -- across all HuffPost's platforms. As Willow Bay, Director of the Annenberg School of Journalism and a senior editor here at HuffPost, says:
We want our students to change the world with their journalism -- but also to change the world of journalism. The What's Working Challenge offers an opportunity to do both.
As always, please use the comments section to let us know what you think.