Bring me sunshine: Just enough to warm my soul a little

Have years of low pay, low esteem, and lay-offs taken such a toll on journalists that they have become incapable of viewing the world as anything but a grim, dark place?

Almost every time I pick up a newspaper, switch on a news bulletin, or access a news website, I am presented with a picture redolent of Thomas Hobbes’ state of nature in which life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”.

Our news outlets are pervaded by negativity: Violent crime, social dysfunction, economic gloom, and conflict ranging from warring nations to warring neighbours.

So what’s new? Journalists have always been drawn to the ‘if-it-bleeds-it-leads’ mantra, mindful of that primeval human instinct known to psychologists as ‘negativity bias’. That predisposition may be hard-wired into humans as a sort of survival instinct –­ if you always think something bad is about to befall you, you’ll avoid the wild beast waiting to devour you.

And there certainly is a lot to be negative about: We continue to face a cost-of-living crisis, crime has hit the places we shop and the suburbs in which we live, inequality has frayed the social fabric, and a pandemic has left a residue of anxiety.

This sort of accrued misery is a sentence that societies have borne over the centuries and, when social structures have broken down, Hobbes’ description has been a painful fact.

However, in relatively modern times, the portrayal of those bad situations by the media has been leavened. Journalists have realised that an unadulterated diet of doom is counter-productive and unappreciated by their audiences. They have sought out positive stories to add glimmers to the gloom.

Those glimmers are now less in evidence. The evidence – captured by this year’s Trust in Journalism survey by AUT’s Centre for Journalism Media & Democracy – is that an overly-negative offering is turning people off the news altogether. That survey showed that 69 per cent of New Zealanders often, sometimes, or occasionally avoid the news altogether. More than one in ten do so regularly. New Zealand news avoidance is much higher than the international average, which the Reuters Digital News Report estimates at 36 per cent across markets.

We need only look at our metropolitan newspapers’ front page leads to see the prevalence of negative stories. In the past month, 14 leads in the New Zealand Herald were crime-related, as were 10 in the Waikato Times, and nine in the Press. Only the Post and the Otago Daily Times were relatively crime free in their lead stories (two each).

Leaving aside politics (where negativity is a function of whose side you are on), only one front page lead in the Herald over that month could be judged wholly positive (the start of the FIFA women’s world cup in Auckland). The Post was similarly fired up over FIFA, only to rain on the parade a few days later with the headline: ‘Fears FIFA fan hype won’t match reality’. With its Stuff stablemates it did, however, have a fulsome front page celebration of Matariki, but that was the only bright light as far as the Press’s leads were concerned. Only the smaller centres – Hamilton and Dunedin – looked for the positives and found them in money being spent on their cities.

It seems the bigger the place, the darker it gets. And national television and radio bulletins paint an equally gloomy picture with lead items that invariably have negative connotations.

It got particularly dark for the New Zealand Herald last weekend. It led the Weekend Herald with the headline ‘Kiwi richlister quits NZ for Australia’ and told how “the country’s biggest private real estate investor” had sparked a “$100 million property selloff” by moving fulltime to Sydney (where he has had a house for the past 22 years). Then the Herald on Sunday’s front page promoted an inside-page story with “Another Kiwi business owner quits NZ for Oz” and went on to quote the interiors business owner saying “New Zealand is in a mess”. I was reminded of the famous Sun headline ‘If Kinnock wins today will the last person to leave Britain please turn out the lights’.

The only thing that prevented me from rushing for the airport was an interview by Jesse Mulligan on RNZ National on Friday with Taranaki farmer, Rebecca Alexander, who had spent three weeks touring the Gobi Desert in Mongolia. She told him: “Every time you visit a different culture, it reflects on your own. So, I’ve come back to New Zealand incredibly grateful for what we have here…we don’t realise how wealthy we are.” To which Jesse Mulligan replied “Yeah, we spend a lot of our time moaning.”

Isn’t that the truth?

National Party leader Christopher Luxon was hammered when he said in June that we are “a very negative, wet, whiny country” then was forced to explain, rather lamely, that he was talking about the Labour Party.

News media can’t be held responsible for the climatic element of that viewpoint, but they most certainly do more than reflect the very negative, whiny aspects of the national character. They contribute to it.

Yes, they must report the bad and sad things that happen in our country and elsewhere and, yes, they need to prominently draw those matters to public attention. However, they must not leave their audiences with the impression that this is an accurate portrayal of events, achievements, and attitudes over the past day or night.

I should not have to explain that life is made up of light and shade. It has been explained by many people in far more eloquent terms than I can muster. Journalists might tell us that into every life a little rain must fall, but they also need to acknowledge that Henry Wadsworth Longfellow preceded that line in ‘A Rainy Day’ with “Behind the clouds is the sun still shining”.

The Reuters Institute finding of growing news avoidance was, not unnaturally, accompanied by a decline in weekly news consumption across different news sources and lower interest in the news overall. The researchers asked how news organisations were trying to overcome the trend.

Many news organisations are looking to tackle both periodic and specific avoidance in a variety of ways. Some are looking to make news more accessible for hard-to-reach groups, broadening the news agenda, commissioning more inspiring or positive news, or embracing constructive or solutions journalism that give people a sense of hope or personal agency.

This suggests that, unless media organisations begin to cater more for the light and shade of life, and take a more constructive approach to what they do, the numbers who regularly turn away from the news will continue to grow.

Every period of adversity in recent times has given rise to a signature refrain to raise the spirits. In the Great Depression it was ‘Happy Days Are Here Again’, and at the end of the Second World War it was Johnny Mercer’s ‘Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive’.

I would like our news media to adopt comedy duo Morecambe and Wise’s signature tune and ‘Bring Me Sunshine’. Not enough to blind me, just enough to warm my soul a little.

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