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It’s not about death and water skiing squirrels

October 01, 2012

I was watching a large picture of a waterskiing squirrel on a screen. “This is not what positive news looks like,” said the speaker, Sean from Positive News. I was at the British Museum and there were Egyptian treasures and mummies close by. It was dark outside.

It wasn’t a dream. It was an event entitled “Good News for the Media”, organised by Jodie Jackson, which I was a little cynical about at first. I have witnessed people attempting to produce sickly sweet web TV channels that bear as little resemblance to reality as grotesque war reports. I found myself concerned that the room would be full of worthy do-gooders who were more concerned with positivity than balance. If I am honest I wouldn’t have gone if famous BBC newsreader, Martyn Lewis hadn’t have been there and if it didn’t give me the chance to have a Night-at-The-Museum kind of experience. The squirrel reassured me. Silly news was not good news. They were right.

Then a moving moment occurred as Martyn took the stand and began to speak – suddenly I no longer felt alone. He was saying everything I think, feel and write about news coverage – only far more eloquently.

Twenty years ago, Martyn became concerned about the effect that the news he was presenting had on people’s lives. It did not reflect reality, as news should. Instead it reported on all-that-is-bad and all-that-is-bad has shaped peoples views. In reality, we live in a world where global child poverty has dropped, and global health care has improved and yet people’s perception is the opposite.  When people were asked how many of the world’s children were starving the common response was between 50 to 75 per cent, when in fact it is as low as 1 to 2 per cent. Our views on Africa are lumped together as one homogenous place and include images of big eyed, fly covered, pot bellied children, child soldiers, famine, and war. These images are built from news stories, documentaries and charity appeals and do not accurately reflect the reality that is Africa.

Less and less people buy newspapers and TV news viewing figures are down in the UK – many are simply switching off. Like Martyn, I have friends who don’t (and don’t let their kids) watch the news, as it is “too depressing”. Looking at the front page of the world news on the BBC website as I write this, of the 13 main articles, nine of them are negative, and five are about death. And that’s a good day. However, whilst the news is hell bent on self-esteem lowering disaster, as Jeremy Wickremer from Ideal Media put it – it is in striking contrast to how we interact with people on the social media: taking photos of our babies, our friends, our lunch and making jokes – even sharing waterskiing squirrels.

My argument has been to retrain journalists to present news that is dramatic, but that isn’t necessarily negative – the heroes of the Karachi fire, the cooperation between the Israeli and Palestinian Red Cross, the charities working with street children – interesting, compelling stories about difficult subjects, but not all negative.

Although many in the room that evening acknowledged that the biggest challenge was a culture change amongst senior editors and media owners, there was also concession that, with more and more people switching off, change makes commercial sense. A shift in content that re-engages an audience with more balanced information about what is going on around them could be what works – online newspaper Huffington Post is in many ways an example.  Martyn presented an idea that every negative news item has in it somewhere a line about solutions and about who and how the negative problem is being tackled.

Of the 181,000 voluntary organisations in the UK most barely get a mention in the news. My hope is to work with him and Sean to take this further: if all journalists persistently filed copy that contained some element of solution within it, eventually some stories would seep through and hit counts would show that some such stories would become popular – and those running the media might begin to change. I am hoping to get quite “I Spartacus” about this.

But that’s on next weeks to do list. As it stands I am hugely honoured to be a professional writer who earns a living very specifically from writing about this subject and by shining a spotlight on the human as an uplifting and inspiring specimen – the human who dedicates a life to medicine, the one who risks their life to save a stranger from a fire, the one who tackles institutional prejudice and ingrained racism. Look around you. There are more of them about than the bad guys – don’t let the news tell you otherwise. I thank Dawn, for finding me and asking me to write for them in this way. As I explained at the British Museum that night, Pakistan has one of the biggest problems with depressing news media.

I agreed with Sean when he said, one day I hope there won’t be a need for his organisation. Positive News.  A separate news agency that reports only on the more inspiring side to life will in time I hope be replaced by a mass media that offers us balance in our news. But for the meantime, I am delighted that Positive News have asked me to start writing for them. The first story will be about Pakistan of course – and I promise, no squirrels.


Caroline Jaine is a UK based writer and artist with a background in media strategy, diplomacy and community cohesion. Her book  A Better Basra, about her time in Iraq was published in August 2011. She is currently planning a solo exhibition in London “See Karachi” touching on the perception of Pakistan in the media.  More about Caroline’s work and her contact details can be found here and on facebook.

The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.