There’s a fascinating experiment under way in the United States, in which you can ask your phone for good news. I know, it’s slightly odd: I mean, why ask a $600 piece of glass and metal to pick your spirit up, when your mother can do it for free? Although your mother’s news would likely include a passive-aggressive subtext about how you prefer to spend time with your phone rather than her, which is just fine, it’s not like she carried you around for nine months or anything.
Americans who use Google Assist can say to their phones, “Tell me something good,” and in return they’ll receive a positive news story from the Solutions Journalism Network, which, as it name suggests, is a service devoted to collecting stories about things that are going right. The thousands of stories in the Solutions Journalism Network don’t deny that the world is a Dumpster fire, but they choose to concentrate on the legions of unheralded Dumpster firefighters out there, aiming their water hoses far from the spotlight.
As Google said in announcing the good-news initiative, a bombardment of negative stories can leave people feeling stressed, apathetic and mistrustful, a problem academics identify as the “hope gap.” (The role that monopolistic tech giants play in creating anxiety in the first place is a subject for a different column.) “When we’re overly focused on the problem instead of the solution,” Google noted. “It can make us tune out, stress out, or even worse shrink in our ability to problem solve.”
This echoes something I hear from readers frequently: Why don’t media outlets report more good news stories? Upon hearing these complaints, I’d put on my Queen of All Media tiara (the one with emeralds) and consider striking off their heads for this temerity. I would bristle, as would many of my colleagues when I mentioned this idea. If I may generalize, journalists think we’re reporting important stories, and if many of those are distressing, they’re also vitally important. “Good news,” in journalism, often carries the whiff of upbeat end-of-newscast items about comfort llamas and 100-year-olds running marathons.
Once past that initial defensiveness, though, I began to see the point. People – readers, viewers, citizens – feel overwhelmed at the moment not just by the deluge of news, but by its toxic content, as if an irate deity had opened the gates of the universe’s sewer. It can be damaging to mental health. The American Psychological Association reported this year that 95 per cent of Americans follow the news regularly – and 20 per cent checked social media “constantly” – but this caused stress for 56 per cent of them.
Media outlets have come to realize that there need to be different notes struck, or people will stop listening. Hence, there are now numerous places to find positive news stories, from the low-calorie – “You won’t believe how this hero hamster saved a family!” – to the more substantial. The substantial stories are the ones that look at solutions to seemingly intractable problems, big or small. They might never get the same number of clicks as the latest rage-bait out of Washington or Hollywood or Ottawa, but they’re the ones you e-mail to people you love, or if you’re old-school, cut out of the paper and stick to the fridge. No one ever sticks depressing stories on the fridge.
The New York Times has a good-news newsletter and The Washington Post has The Optimist. If you go to the Guardian newspaper’s Upside section, you’ll find reports about local women being deployed on the Nepal-India border to catch sex traffickers, or a Dutch designer who’s working on “manure couture” – that is, making clothes out of cow dung. Who knew? Now you do.
The Solutions Journalism Network – Google’s good-news pipeline – offers thousands of stories curated from newspapers and broadcasters about things getting straightened in this crooked old world. You can read about “energy justice” in California, where one-third of the proceeds from the state’s cap and trade auctions have to be reinvested in green technology for marginalized communities. Or you can read about a groundbreaking mental-health program for black men that takes places in barbershops (this fascinating story originated in the unfortunately named Yes! Magazine, which bills itself as “journalism for people building a better world.”)
Hunger for these narratives is huge, judging by two recent Globe and Mail stories that resonated impressively with readers. One was Jack Altman’s first-person essay about his mental-health challenges and struggles with anxiety, and the other was a story by Camilla Cornell about a Syrian refugee training to take over an Ontario couple’s fishing business. Those stories showcase two of the most powerful aspects of storytelling: universality (we all know what anxiety feels like) and novelty (very few us know what it’s like to be a Syrian refugee learning to fish.)
In my own experience, stories that demonstrate some kind of resilience and strength of human spirit are the ones that hit home. I wrote an article last year about young carers – children and young adults who help look after a sibling or parent with physical or mental challenges – and the feedback was extraordinary, mainly because it wasn’t something most readers had heard about. (Except for those families containing a young carer, who did know all about it and were happy to finally see their reality acknowledged.)
I’m convinced that these stories are compelling not just because they’re positive, but because they’re different. In the current environment, a few stories hog all the oxygen and then burn hotter when they’re fanned by social-media outrage. Outrage is satisfying, momentarily, but ultimately empty if it results in nothing greater than itself.
So it’s up to us media types to find the stories and you reader types to take time to digest them. Does this mean some kind of keto news diet full of heroic hamsters, and devoid of political scandal, violence, and corruption? Not at all. There’s room on the plate, and the page, for both things, and we’ll be healthier for it.