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Striving for a new kind of balance

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Too much exposure to negative news has been linked to depression and anxiety: For instance, a 2014 survey of 2,500 Americans found that one in four said a significant part of their stress came from news consumption. (You can also click here for a summary of another study, and here for an overview of research on effects of negative news.)

Our overexposure to the world’s tragedies and traumas is caused by several cumulative media changes in recent decades, but what’s most intriguing to me is that some news organizations are bucking the trend. That is, they’re managing to provide a different experience—one that’s more well-rounded and more reflective of a world that encompasses both tragedy and good fortune. In the process, they’re making the everyday experience of news consumption an enjoyable experience.

Of course, most news provides a balanced diet of difficult subjects like natural disasters, political controversies, and systemic problems, on the one hand, and lighter stories about sports, arts, business, technology, entertainment and opinions, on the other. But at the websites of many major news organizations—The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN, ABC and NBC News—negative or painful stories dominate the home page.

The answer to this problem is not an increase in the number of puff pieces, boosterism, and feel-good features. What I’m talking about is serious thought about what news consumers experience. How do you provide, right up front, a daily diet of explanations, solutions, intriguing context and enjoyable challenges—in addition to the essential information about problems and issues that need reform?

Take a look at your local community’s newspaper or news website, and there’s a good chance you’ll see one possible answer. In Durango, Colorado, for instance, the Durango Herald provides good, in-depth coverage of local controversies and problems. But its front page also offers a daily mix of chatty features, explanations and stories that focus on solutions. Here are some recent examples:

  • Several stories about avalanche research and the psychology of backcountry skiers, published after two young skiers were killed by area avalanches;

  • An Associated Press story about millions of people uniting to march against terrorism;

  • A story about a nearby national park’s plans to open more areas to cyclists and hikers;

  • Features about the local school system’s efforts to cut down on food waste, local vehicle owners with more than 200,000 miles on their vehicles; and locals who have come up with creative solutions to high housing costs, ranging from living in a yurt to sharing space with roommates to downsizing.

The Herald doesn’t avoid controversy or scandal—or reader complaints about negativity and sensationalism, for that matter. But it balances that coverage with front-page stories dealing with other aspects of life and the news. For readers, that means experiencing the news can actually be fun.

Of course, large news organizations cover issues on a different scale from those affecting small communities like Durango. But NPR offers another example of this particular type of balance.

For instance, on a recent morning, NPR’s Morning Edition included stories about the new Greek government, a controversial Argentine prosecutor, and the resignation of McDonald’s CEO. But it also included stories that dealt intelligently with research about workplace meetings and a potential terrorist who was sent to a halfway house to receive counseling rather than to prison, thereby offering a potential new approach to radicalization—as well as a light-hearted brief about bar customers who duct-taped a man’s hands together after he tried to attack the bartender.

News organizations that fail to provide this kind of balance are often busy shining their spotlight of attention on injustice, poverty, and public corruption. Look, for instance, at the Pulitzer Prize winners over the years. These well-researched stories overwhelmingly focus on the painful, the corrupt, the evil.

We need these stories. How would we know what should be changed in our communities, if no one reported on what’s wrong? Still, you can’t blame news consumers who decide to turn off the news for a while because it’s so depressing. And a steady diet of news that focuses almost exclusively on wars, oppression and crime neither serves readers well nor reflects reality. News organizations that provide a more balanced experience are ahead of the game. (Photo is a Durango Herald file photo with accompanying story on January 26, 2015).

Jennie Dear

#journalismbalancenegativenews

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