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The fear-mongering news media
At the end of last year, I wrote our first negative headline - and I really went for it:
I wasn't really that angry.
The reason for the headline was that I wanted to show the kind of headlines that have increased the most. This was according to a new research paper that analyzed 47 million headlines between 2000 and 2020. Angry, negative headlines increased significantly.
My column was picked up by Svenska Dagbladet. They invited me and Karin Olsson, Deputy Editor-in-Chief of Expressen, to debate the issue on their podcast. Expressen is one of Sweden's largest and most iconic newspapers. Karin started off pretty harshly and said that it wasn't surprising that an old politician complained about negative news. You can understand that, given my headline.
But then we had a good discussion.
Afterwards, Karin invited me to Expressen's newsroom.
Into the hornet's nest
I was there yesterday.
I was a little nervous.
I'm tense about all public appearances, but I'm rarely nervous. But now I was. There were two reasons for that. It's tough and serious criticism we have against other news media. Even though I'm seasoned from all my years in politics, it's not very comfortable to stand in front of a group of people and criticize them. The other was my background. A former politician standing in front of a group of journalists and telling them how to do their job. It can only end one way.
However, my purpose wasn't to berate them. Or teach them how to do their jobs. I wanted to get my message across, and of course, to listen to their views.
News media gives us a skewed worldview
Karin Olsson picked me up at the reception. There I saw a celebrity from a new reality series on Swedish tv, and happily texted my wife about this.
She gave me a brief tour of the newsroom (Karin, that is). A modern workplace, complemented by historic headlines of our time's major events.
I was pleasantly surprised by the turnout. About thirty people were present, and a bunch who joined online. Despite the ongoing school break.
We had 30 minutes and I started with a 15-minute presentation of myself and Warp News. In short, my argumentation looked like this:
- Facts show that the last thirty years have been the best in human history. Poverty has decreased, life expectancy increased, education levels increased, democracy and human rights strengthened, and so on and so forth.
- People are generally deeply ignorant of this, as Hans Rosling showed.
- Despite these advances, the news media has become increasingly negative.
- The media performs a central task in society by reporting and investigating. This drives away the darkness, as Washington Post says.
- They affect how we view the world and the decisions we make.
- But if the media presents an unbalanced and overly negative image, how does it affect the decisions we make?
For you as a reader of Warp News, these are not new thoughts. I have written about them in these two articles, among others.
I also had some ideas that they could complement their journalism with.
- Don't just investigate perspectives that seem too good to be true. There are plenty of things that are too bad to be true to investigate.
- Question established truths. Like the claim that a sixth mass extinction of species is happening. Maybe it's wrong, or maybe there are interesting nuances.
- Interest groups have their own interest in continuing to highlight problems, so they get continued support. But maybe the original problem has been solved or been significantly reduced?
- Politicians are often questioned by journalists (rightly so). But when a politician points out problems, they aren't met with as many and as tough follow-up questions as when they claim that something has improved. (That's my own experience, at least). The questions should be equally tough in both cases.
- Are old problems still there? Images of widespread suffering in Africa or growing ozone holes may linger long in our consciousness. But is that still true?
- Tell stories about those who solve problems and create opportunities.
Does anyone read the news without drama and conflict?
A question that came up was how to attract readers without drama and conflict? My experience is that it's possible if you have something unexpected, something that stands out. It doesn't have to be negative to get attention.
One of our popular news story is this one:
Fun headline with unexpected content. Given all the tv-series, documentaries, movies, and podcasts, it feels like there are serial killers everywhere.
Another question was about young people and their tendency to skip the news. I didn't have a great answer, except that we have seen in several surveys that pessimism among young people is serious. Many believe that humanity is about to collapse. This leads to hopelessness. It's dangerous. Being critical is not a problem, but giving up is harmful.
Optimistic news could be a competitive advantage
The questions touch on a part of our argumentation that we haven't developed much. Their current type of journalism has its audience. But to attract new readers, it's not just about more of the same, but a new type of content. Optimistic news can be a competitive advantage.
I am mostly thinking about news from a societal perspective. Negative news makes people pessimistic, which slows down progress. But there are, of course, other aspects.
Many thanks to Karin Olsson for the invitation and to the newsroom for a great discussion. Expressen deserves credit for inviting and listening to a critic.