Negativity in the News
These are bleak and dangerous days, if you believe the world view the media present to us. But in my role I also have to understand something about news management – about the choices of what you report, and the way in which you report it. Every fortnight I write a newsletter for parents and on Wednesdays I share school news with pupils and staff in assembly. This means that over the years I have had to deliver a huge amount of school news, much of it happy; some, sadly less so. But I am increasingly struck by the difference in tone and content between the generally upbeat stories we report in school and the unremitting negativity of our national media.
Of course school news can be negative. In my time as a school leader I have had to relay news of deaths, illness and injuries to the school community. This kind of news is upsetting, but it is important that school leaders do not shy away from the depressing and difficult. Bad things do happen in life, and by discussing them we can try to provide some context and perspective, and offer coping strategies. We can also reflect on how we can learn from our mistakes to become better people. The reality that we are all fallible and that perfection is not part of the human condition is an important and reassuring message for young people to hear. Bad news needs context. With the media, too often that is missing.
When you deliver bad news to 1200 young people in an assembly, you can vividly see its impact on the young faces that are looking at you. You will see tears, anger, and anguish. As a Head you know you have a responsibility to help the community you lead through any suffering and difficulty. You cannot just deliver bad news and leave your students to cope with it as best they can. You also know that there is only so much bad news young shoulders (and minds) can bear at once. With young people especially, a message of undiluted gloom can be damaging and wrong. There are times when you must find a way to cap the negativity, and introduce an element of positivity to help children move forward.
Most school news has two elements – information and education. For example, reference to incidents of upsetting language on social media can be turned into a message about the importance of kindness and consideration in both the face-to-face and the virtual worlds. In a similar vein, although a serious cycle accident will be disturbing and upsetting news, and must be addressed with sensitivity, it can nevertheless offer an opportunity to talk about safer cycling, and perhaps help to prevent something similar happening in the future. The reality is that school news is, at least in part, about motivating pupils to improve their behaviour and this is not achieved by relentless negativity. In true Trevor McDonald fashion, school assemblies need to have their ‘and finally’ moments where examples of good conduct and / or achievement are recognised and celebrated. Indeed the final assembly of every Perse term is a Colours Assembly which highlights the extra curricular, academic, and pastoral achievements of Perse pupils and ends with Community Colours that are given to students who have gone out of their way to show kindness and consideration to others.
The purpose and ethos of school news does seem increasingly different from the objectives of the national news media. These seem to have moved on from a Reithian commitment to inform and educate to a crude focus on securing readers and maximising ‘clicks’. Bad news sells (in turn generating advertising revenue) and in a competitive media environment the worst news of all seems to grab the most attention. The world may be a troubled place, but I don’t think it is as bad as the media suggest. Amongst the political and economic scandals, the unkindness and upset, the atrocities and environmental degradation, there are plenty of good news stories. Day in, day out people are kind and considerate to one another, and some of their stories are heroic and inspiring. New technologies are improving living conditions, and advances in medical treatments are saving lives. There is much to be cheered by, even if it doesn’t make it into the news. If your world view were to be formed entirely by the news the media serve us, it really would be dark and distorted. The dark clouds of negative news do need to be kept firmly in perspective. Quite simply, we need a better balance. There is a place for good news too.
When I was growing up, exposure to the national broadcast news was limited to lunchtime and evening radio and TV news bulletins. Today’s children can consume news 24/7 on their mobile devices, but what reaches them can be a dark, incomplete and distorted picture – and this can do real damage. A never-ending stream of negative news alerts can weigh on children’s’ minds and compromise their wellbeing. They may become excessively anxious about the present and depressed about the future. They also tend to access news and information in isolation, on their mobile devices, which means that they miss the perspective provided by parents and teachers, helping them contextualise events, with no-one providing the coping strategies they need to manage bad news.
Of course, it is true that bad news tends to attract more attention than good, and the media realise this. It’s very seldom that you will see them leading with the positive. But a relentless diet of bad news can do a lot of harm, spreading anxiety and depression and, among young people in particular, creating distaste and cynicism towards politics and public affairs. But when young people disengage from politics and from the concerns of their society, that can only be bad for democracy.
Of course bad things must be exposed and reported, wrong-doers must be held to account. Not all news can be cheerful or uplifting. But good and responsible journalism recognises the importance of balance and accuracy, and also reflects the understanding that education is an inseparable element of news management. And that demands a degree of responsibility.
Yes, we must recognise and protect the freedom of the press, but we, the public, are equally entitled to have fair and reasonable expectations of our media. With freedom comes responsibility. So, we are entitled to expect the media to report events accurately and proportionately. I would also argue that journalists must show some consideration of the effects their reports have on younger audiences. The dissemination of the news does not take place in silos, insulated between generations. Young people are an inseparable part of the media’s audience, and responsible journalism takes this into account. Relentless and over-stated negativity is, quite simply, not a true reflection of the world and there is legitimate space for some positive ‘and finally’ news. It is always good to end on an optimistic note, and a reminder that no matter how depressing the headlines, many people in many places will be doing good things to make the world a better place.