I am one of those who has often felt the hairs on my back rising when people have criticised the media for reporting only bad news. This has been the case because, from my own years in journalism and in a lifetime in the communications industry, I know that this is simply not true of all journalists. Many actively seek out good news.
But the perception, which we all know is reality, is that bad news supersedes the good more often than not. It is usually always more obvious, and therefore easier to come by, and report. Turning good news into a product that is saleable (and the media is all about sales) is a lot more difficult.
Having said all that, I have to say that when there is good news, the media – while sometimes reporting it initially – is often a little reticent in doing the follow-up stories that it would enthusiastically trot out on issues such as gory train accidents, devastating earthquakes, and the odd piece of graft or two in South Africa. Let me hasten to add that I have no problem whatsoever with fair reportage of such events.
My problem, however, to which I have already alluded, is that balanced reporting often suffers because good news is not actively sought and, when found or presented, not enthusiastically followed up and reported on until the news is fully spent.
A recent case in point is the wonderful news that, after nine years of work by the Square Kilometer Array (SKA) teams in South Africa and Australia, 70% of the facility was awarded to Africa, with most of this going to South Africa. Amidst this astoundingly good news for us in Africa was a suggestion by some that it was actually bad news that the entire project was not coming to the continent. (See how easy it is to create the negative out of an outstanding piece of news?)
It was like a breath of fresh air, therefore, to listen to Naledi Pandor, the Minister of Science and Technology, wax eloquent about the achievement in being awarded the lion’s share of this project – a recognition, she said, that was “substantive evidence of the great strides made by the local radio astronomy community since South Africa signaled its interest in the SKA”. Her enthusiasm was infectious and, as an aside, was in marked contrast to the dour manner in which some other South African cabinet ministers often pronounce on even good news.
The reporting on the SKA was substantial and serious. But as I write this, I have to say that I have seen scant evidence of enthusiastic follow-up stories about the consequences of being awarded such a huge project. Neither have I seen anyone delving into the human interest stories that should flow naturally when one considers the implications of SKA for Africa, the kind of human interest that we at Quo Vadis seek to teach participants in our communications training courses to recognise and be able to write about engagingly.
Hard on the heels of this announcement came the celebration of the Queen of England’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations. It was fascinating to watch the coverage on television and the manner in which human interest stories were dug out to keep one’s attention and illustrate that good news is indeed pervasive – even in the face of her husband, Prince Phillip, being taken to hospital in the midst of the celebrations, and the rather grim, typically sodden English weather amidst which millions celebrated.
So why is it so difficult for us to present good news? Is it because good news is sometimes seen as “soppy”, gives us a lump in our throat, or is considered to be too soft? Is it because, for reasons I cannot fathom, the ugliness of our society appeals more to our base instincts than the beauty and splendor of the creation of which we are privileged to be part? People will have their own answers, but the communicator has a distinct and awesome responsibility in a world in which bad news has currency and good news less so.
That responsibility is to recognise beauty and the gift of life and to report it. It is to report fairly and in a balanced way, and recognise that such reporting must inevitably contribute to the positive attitudes in people – and thus to the wellbeing of the global village we all share.