The case for writing good news (especially in these contentious times)

December 22, 2017

During my 36 years in the newspaper business, I often wondered whether journalists are primarily romantics or cynics. Of course, they are probably a little bit of both. But there’s no doubt that a romantic impulse propelled many of my colleagues into the profession: the desire to fix the world, to shine light into dark places, to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.

Cynics expect the worst and glory in exposing and publicizing it; romantics expect the best and are shocked when they discover that the world is not a Disney-like utopia and that not everyone behaves according to their ideals.

Unfortunately, the news, by its very nature, tends to be negative and bad. It’s not news when an airplane lands safely; it is news when it crashes. It’s not news when a local official serves his community faithfully for years; it is news when he  embezzles thousands of dollars to finance gambling benders in Las Vegas. It’s the aberrations that capture attention and generate headlines.  

As author and former New York Times reporter Gay Talese has observed:  “Most journalists are restless voyeurs who see the warts on the world, the imperfections in people and places. … Gloom is their game, the spectacle their passion, normality their nemesis.”

The constant barrage of negative information distorts reality, frays our nerves, poisons our outlook. The relentless presentation of problems and issues leads to “crisis fatigue,” making us feel fearful, frustrated, impotent, discouraged. The news, in short, can not only spoil your day but also threaten your mental health.

There’s nothing worse than waking up in a sunny mood, picking up the paper, and gazing at a front page that immediately clouds your disposition with tales of strife, natural and man-made disaster, human misdeeds, depravity, knavery and pigheadedness, not to mention the sorry fact that far too many people are liars, phonies, scoundrels, idiots and nitwits.

Too often, the news seems like so much trivia and ephemera, sound and fury signifying nothing, packaged in sensational confections of breathless urgency, most of it either boring or depressing, a daily dose of dismal and stultifying psychic clutter and mental static that we don’t really need to know, all with the life span of an adult mayfly, concocted by harried editors who are reflexively drawn to controversy and conflict, the obvious and  superficial, and defiantly wedded to convention and suspicious of imagination, complexity, nuance, profundity and the slightest deviation from standard practice.

Little wonder that alternative health sage Andrew Weil recommends what he calls a “news fast.”

In his book "Spontaneous Healing," Weil writes:  “A major source of my own mental turmoil is the news. The percentage of stories that make me feel good is very small. The percentage of stories that make me feel anxious or outraged is very large and increasing. As news media focus more and more on murder, mayhem and misery, it is easy to forget that we have a choice as to whether to let this information into our minds and thoughts. I find it so useful to disengage myself from it that I recommend ‘news fasts.’”

In his more recent book, "Spontaneous Happiness," Weil elaborates:

“If you habitually tune in to news programs that make you angry and distraught, chances are you will spend less time in the zone of serenity and contentment. The challenge is to exercise conscious control over what you pay attention to. The world is both wonderful and terrible, beautiful and ugly. At any moment one can choose to focus on the positive or negative aspects of reality. Without denying the negative, it is possible to practice focusing more on the positive, especially if you want to shift your emotional set point in that direction.”

Weil advises that we take particular care with our choices of media. “A great deal of the content is designed to induce excitement and tension,” he says. “Often it exacerbates anxiety and the sense of being overwhelmed and out of control.”

When I worked at the Philadelphia Inquirer, I made a valiant attempt to buck this trend. I proposed a column called “This Life,” that was meant to be an oasis of optimism, an irony-free zone for those who complain that newspapers contain nothing but bad news, flash and trash and celebrity meringue. Schopenhauer once said, “The first 40 years of life give us the text. The next 30 supply the commentary.” Sometimes explicitly, more often implicitly, “This Life” was an attempt to stimulate that commentary, through a thoughtful essay, an illuminating profile, an inspiring tale.

My approach was guided in part by the words of Horace, the Roman poet who summarized the purpose of poetry as dulce et utile — to be sweet and useful, to entertain and inform, to delight and teach.

I was guided as well by the wise words of the legendary newspaper editor William Allen White of the Emporia Gazette in Kansas: “Passing the office window every moment is someone with a story that should be told. If each man or woman could understand that every other human life is as full of sorrows, of joys, of base temptations, of heartaches and of remorse as his own, which he thinks so peculiarly isolated from the web of life, how much kinder, how much gentler he would be. And how much richer life would be for all of us.”

I was also inspired by the words of Henry David Thoreau: “To affect the quality of the day is the highest of the arts.”

My beloved “This Life” column lasted two years. During that time, it attracted a loyal, thoughtful, grateful following. I was operating in overdrive, exercising my talents to the fullest, and serving the paper and its readers, I believed, in a singular way. Then new editors arrived and killed it. Not newsy or sensational enough for page one, they said.
I was heartbroken. My sails fell slack. Normal journalism seemed inane and simpleminded —  glorified stenography about glorified gossip, transitory and meaningless, shallow and superficial, appallingly bereft of perspective and depth.
Maybe this suits the digital era, when everyone is bombarded 24/7 by too much information from two many clamoring sources and our beleaguered attention spans are deranged by mobile phones and Twitter. Maybe this suits a time when “content” is determined by “metrics” and “analytics” and page views and “search engine optimization,” by millennial-driven crowd-sourcing and real-time electronic plebiscites of the ignorant, ill-informed and intellectually infirm (resulting in a profusion of meretricious click bait and vapid, app-friendly “listicles”), all in the service of promoting a screen-dependent, psyche-damaging virtual existence and, of course, “going forward” (as management loves to say), always “going forward.”

I beg to differ. I’m convinced there’s an abiding hunger  for journalistic fare that feeds the mind, warms the heart and soothes the soul. As newspapers, magazines and websites strive to attract and retain readers, some are recognizing the value and necessity of stories that exalt and edify, uplift and inspire. Often, these are stories about extraordinary ordinary people who are living with purpose and passion, pursuing quirky pastimes or interests, propagating goodness in their particular corners of the universe, reminding us of the power of the human spirit. A Wharton study of the most e-mailed stories in the New York Times found that they tended to be about emotion, wonder and awe.

There’s still a conviction in some newsrooms, and among some hard-boiled editors, that news isn’t really news unless it’s negative, unless it condemns, exposes, ridicules or embarrasses. Snark and irony, the insouciant smirk and supercilious sarcasm are prized as hip manifestations of clever wit and mature cynicism. Positive stories, meanwhile, are derided as “soft,” often dismissed as fluff and puffery, even “inspiration porn.” But good news doesn’t have to be smarmy and treacly. Positive stories can be executed with rigor and sophistication. They can be “thought scoops,” reported and written with insight and imagination, color and style, by “investigative moralists” who illuminate the way we live by gathering “the news of feeling,” which often can be far more revealing and truthful than the “important” and portentous headline stories on page one. There is (and ought to be), more to life — and the news — than crime and government, cops and courts, politics and elections, budgets and taxes, scandal and corruption.

Here are some examples of what I’d like to see more of more often to offset the depressing news on the front page:

The news of feeling: Often the traditional questions of journalism (who? what? when? where? and why?), don’t go far enough. Many stories fail to address two additional and more fundamental questions: So what? And who cares? Much more telling, moreover, may be this question: How did a particular news event make us feel? And respond? And what does how we feel and respond say about us and our times?

The nature of heroes: At a time when the media are obsessed with celebrities and the apotheosis of the worthless, we have lost sight of what it means to be a true hero, a word devalued through overuse and inappropriate use.

Ordinary people: Many seemingly ordinary people are quite extraordinary, their private struggles and ambitions far more worthy of attention and celebration than the strutting and rutting of vainglorious politicians, shallow TV and movie stars, egotistic pro athletes and greedy corporate moguls.

Quirks, pastimes and passions: The wacky and wonderful ways we distract ourselves and seek meaning and fulfillment during our precious instant on planet Earth.

The power of one: The amazing ability of a single individual to initiate change, make a difference, elevate our aspirations. The bracing possibility of becoming, as the great physician-philosopher Lewis Thomas once put it, “uniquely useful.” The stirring sagas of those who persist and persevere against all odds.

Imparting wisdom: The human thirst for answers to the Big Questions and the eternal mysteries is never slaked. Stories that offer wisdom, evoke wonder and awe, and nourish the spirit and soul captivate readers and may be the partial salvation of newspapers and magazines. “Any journalist worth his or her salt knows the real story today is to define what it means to be spiritual,” Bill Moyers once said. “This is the biggest story not only of the decade but of the century.”

The thought scoop: Not all stories are announced at news conferences or revealed in government reports. A sharp eye for trends, fresh ideas and the news that oozes rather than breaks may provide a more accurate and insightful picture of what’s really going on, those subtle tectonic shifts that transform culture and society.

Beloved and unforgettable: Sharing the character and deeds of those cherished people whose sacred memory time will never erase.

Steady excellence: The value of a career, the worth of a life, is the diligent application of our talents, day in and day out, the constant pursuit of perfection, the sum of our quotidian efforts, humble and paltry individually perhaps, grand and glorious collectively. A salute to those who earn our respect and gratitude through consistent craftsmanship and reliably stellar performance over time.

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