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What’s Wrong With Good News?

Pakistani newsrooms need to rebalance their quotients of bad versus good news, or risk permanently alienating their readers, argues Zahrah Mazhar.
Updated 24 Oct, 2023 04:57pm

“People are reading the Kohli-Shadab friendship story more than the one about the rising cost of our electricity bills,” noted a sub-editor, looking at the numbers on the screen.

His surprise was understandable given that newsrooms all over the world (and for good reason) prioritise stories that impact their readers’ everyday lives. The core purpose of journalism is to inform, and make sure readers stay informed. The core value, meanwhile, is to tell the truth, or as close to the truth as is possible, for the media today. 

But the truth is not one-dimensional. It should not and does not only have to do with politics, the economy and security. It also has to do with a story as simple as two players from rival teams bonding on and off the field. That is as much a reality as a report on a cricket match or the foreign office’s statement on Pakistan-India relations. Yet, where would this story fall, if a newsroom had to rank all three in order of priority? 

More and more we see audiences turn away from ‘hard news.’ Something as crucial to the country as the date of the next general elections now fails to garner attention the way it would have done a year ago. A story on a lion roaming the streets of Karachi becomes the top-most read story while the caretaker prime minister’s statement on the steps taken to counter inflation lingers somewhere on the fourth or fifth spot – if that.

There are multiple reasons behind the changes in audiences’ behaviour regarding how they consume news – the dominance of social media, disillusionment with state affairs, and even the holiday seasons. However, here I am going to talk about the culprit that is ‘bad news.’ No doubt, bad news can be subjective; for example, the stock market going up or down can be a good or bad thing for different people. So, for the sake of clarity, ‘bad news’ in this article will refer to content that is seen as bad or negative – the kind that makes people turn away from the news, and I am not only talking about people in Pakistan. Last year, a Reuters Institute Digital News Report based on data from six continents and 46 markets noted that the proportion of news consumers who say they avoid news often or sometimes has increased sharply. Selective avoidance had doubled over the year, with many respondents reporting that news had a negative effect on their well-being. This growing aversion to the news (most of the time it is bad) is a very real condition and one that media outlets must not only acknowledge but address. 

According to a study published in May by the University of Sussex, people who see news about human kindness after consuming bad news feel fewer negative emotions.

As a reader, how many boxes would you tick on this list? 

•You feel you are stuck in a loop of terrible headlines

•Your mood dips by the time you are done catching up on news 

•You have trouble dealing with the negativity in the news

•You want to shy away from the news but feel guilty that you are burying your head in the sand 

•You have stopped checking the news as frequently as before because you feel overwhelmed

•You feel bombarded with information via social media, friends, and WhatsApp

•You feel the media only has negative things to report 

Reducing news consumption is the most obvious solution – but it poses a predicament for journalists who rely on readers wanting to stay informed in order to do their job. So the question editors and publishers need to ask themselves is, how can they focus on the good when the bad and ugly are unavoidable?

Don’t make bad things worse
Start by acknowledging that bad news gets traction – stock phrases such as “if it bleeds it ledes” or “bad news sells”, have been around for decades, so accept that the media often milks bad news (effectively earning itself a bad rep), and then resist the temptation to play up the intensity of the story. For example, in May 2020, when a PIA plane crashed in Karachi, several media outlets ran an audio conversation between the pilot and the air traffic controllers that took place moments before the crash – and at a time when the search for survivors was still going on. Such actions compound the effect of the bad news, and given that in Pakistan the nature and the scale of the bad news itself matter (the fatigue is so widespread that if the violence is not gory enough, it may not even catch people’s attention or garner their empathy), one has to question the motivation behind running such an audio. 

Help people cope
Given that bad news needs to be reported, newsrooms must assess what can mitigate the aversive effects of… well, the truth. During a visit to Dubai last month, I noticed how much of the media’s focus was on light-hearted content focusing on individual and community efforts. Let me also clarify that given that the media in the UAE and other GCC countries is highly controlled; I am not referring to ‘good news’ regarding affairs of state – and that apart from official matters, there are clear instructions as to what stories can and cannot be carried and what angles pursued – and therein comes the uplifting content.

Stories of community heroes saving an animal, helping to navigate traffic, returning a lost belonging, or setting up a water dispenser for food delivery persons are not only covered, they are celebrated. The same model can be applied in Pakistan. Instead of running the audio recording of a plane’s final moments, run stories about locals helping the rescue services at the site. You are not deviating from the issue, you are not creating an alternate story; you are merely presenting different facts and not looking at the story from a single bleak lens.

According to a study published in May by the University of Sussex, people who see news about human kindness after consuming bad news feel fewer negative emotions. Pakistan sees a fair share of disasters, but luckily we are not short on heroes. Be it an elderly man paying for people’s fuel during an economic crisis or locals stepping up to rescue school children trapped in a cable car, there are many instances that can be used to counter the effects of bad news. During the pandemic, Dawn ran a “Good News” digital segment to keep up a sense of hope among its readers. A woman watching her grandchildren wave to her outside her window or a nurse narrating a story of how a child made it through the night – these stories were a way of reducing the heaviness from headlines that were mostly racking up the numbers of casualties. 

Consciously look for good news
As part of the news cycle, journalists do not have the time to think about the presence or absence of ‘positive news’ – and that is where the problem lies. We have to actively think about what we can do to counter the hyper-connected news updates. The question I asked earlier: ‘How can we focus on the good when the bad is unavoidable?’, should be asked periodically as a reminder to newsrooms to make conscious efforts to find feel-good stories. I am not suggesting they concoct such stories or cut down on negative news in order to shine a light on the positive ones, but I am suggesting that they have to dedicate time and resources to finding these stories, which thanks to social media, are there for anyone who cares to look for them. 

A Dubai based editor made the point that putting out something uplifting was part of their daily agenda: “If we don’t have an article for the day that will leave readers feeling happy, we use our social media platforms to share a light-hearted account of someone from the city. Global stories don’t always work because people need to see themselves or their community represented to really connect.” This approach means digging through social media in pursuit of happy ledes and sending reporters into the field with a clear brief: a focus on community journalism.  

Coming back to cricket, during one Pakistan-India match in the Asia Cup, the internet was full of talk not about the players or the rain, but about a woman who brought along an entire daig (pot) of biryani. Now, imagine if one of the many reporters there had actually gone and talked to her to find out a little bit more about the who, why, what and how – wouldn’t that have been a fun article to read amidst stories about court hearings, a politician who may or may not return to Pakistan, and predictions of a further hike in the price of fuel? While all three stories had to be covered, the story of one woman and her biryani would have brought something lighter to audiences already prone to switching off due to their weariness of hard news. Such stories can make readers linger on the homepage five seconds longer, rather than closing the browser five seconds earlier – and that extra time is surely worth putting in the extra effort from our end. 

Zahrah Mazhar is Managing Editor,