Audiences are reaching for journalism with a positive spin as pandemic news saturates our timelines.
On a normal day, Andrea MacDonald, a digital producer at the Toronto Star, would receive one or two alerts from the wire that must make their way to the publication’s online platform. In March of 2020, however, the digital team was suddenly inundated with as many as 25 urgent newswire stories a day. “It was honestly the most breaking alerts we’d ever done on the digital desk,” says MacDonald. The COVID-19 tidal wave had taken over the news. It was unlike anything she had experienced in her nearly 20-year career.
“It was just so oppressive, that every news story was about [COVID-19]. And there was nothing lighthearted happening,” says MacDonald. She decided to research key terms that had nothing to do with the virus in Google Analytics and Trends. “The term ‘good news’ was at an all time high.” With that metric, a pandemic brainchild was born. In April of 2020, after the initial dust of the pandemic had settled, MacDonald went to her supervisors and pitched a dedicated place for good news stories on the Toronto Star’s digital platform. Her bosses went for it immediately. Now, a year later, the aptly-titled The Goods section of the Toronto Star website is experiencing continued success, with a plethora of good news content published throughout the week.
The experience of living through a pandemic is drawing audiences away from hard news and towards journalism with a positive slant, increasing the public appetite for everything from feel-good stories to solutions journalism. As seen with the explosive success of the Some Good News web series with John Krasinski and the decision by the popular Instagram account So You Wanna Talk About to add a weekly good news post to their socio-political discussions, people want good news. The pandemic has only highlighted the avenues that provide it.
“People would want to see something more helpful, especially if everything is negative,” says Igor Grossmann, a social-cognitive scientist and associate professor of social psychology at the University of Waterloo. He acknowledges that news retains a level of negativity bias, but that consumers might be overstimulated. “There may be a certain advantage of presenting something that’s different, that’s positive…and that, in some ways, would be somewhat rewarding. It varies to the extent of optimism or pessimism when it comes to societal change.”
This rewarding aspect is exemplified in The Goods. According to MacDonald, the section has continued to perform “consistently well” in the Star’s audience engagement since it was first launched. From the success stories of how Black activists are making ballet more inclusive to a Canadian drag queen revolutionizing math education, The Goods offers a range of human experiences that are determined to leave readers hopeful about the world around them.
In March of 2021, we reached the anniversary of the unprecedented changes that left the public reeling, while simultaneously navigating what a post-pandemic life might entail. As we continue to grapple with uncertainty, Grossman suggests that the type of hopeful messages in MacDonald’s work might help ground us. “If there are solutions, or if there [is] reporting that provides more hopeful messages that help you to re-establish control, or at least a subjective sense of control in those messages, of course that would be more appealing,” says Grossmann.
According to a February 2021 piece in The Atlantic written by sociologist and writer Zeynep Tufekci, this mindset doesn’t need to restrict itself to feel-good daily news; it could also be applied to messaging around high-stakes issues like the pandemic. In the piece, Tufekci examined elements of news media that have failed while reporting on the COVID-19 vaccination rollout. Tufekci writes that there is a problematic lack of news content that speaks on the speed of the vaccine distribution and provides positive affirmation. This vaccine is an unparalleled medical advancement that was made in record time. “The problem is not that the good news isn’t being reported, or that we should throw caution to the wind just yet. It’s that neither the reporting nor the public-health messaging has reflected the truly amazing reality of these vaccines,” writes Tufekci. “We need to be able to celebrate profoundly positive news while noting the work that still lies ahead.”
In her piece, Tufekci demonstrates how crucial it can be to include “balanced optimism” in reporting on serious issues like global health—or, for example, climate change. A good example of the success of this approach can be seen through the continued growth of The Narwhal, an independent non-profit online magazine that focuses on environmental and ecological reporting. The publication’s content is unique because it highlights solutions journalism, an approach to reporting that focuses on responses to newsworthy matters, and can serve news with a positive bent when reporting on how an issue can be solved or improved. Good news can come from all walks of life and be tailored in creative ways to serve as a satisfying story; solutions journalism, by contrast, requires a specific formula that is only gleaned from diligent investigative reporting.
Following that formula has definitely paid off for The Narwhal. According to the three-year-old publication’s 2020 impact report, they’re doing better than ever. Along with a 129 percent increase in membership, the report mentions that they published more solutions-based and good news stories in 2020 than ever before.
Emma Gilchrist, editor-in-chief and co-founder of the Narwhal, reflects on the challenges of being a small independent publication that strives to provide quality in-depth solutions journalism. “Good solutions journalism takes more time. So, there’s always a tension between wanting to cover more and wanting to do more versus wanting to do better. And we constantly try to remind ourselves that people don’t actually want more, they want better,” says Gilchrist. The solutions journalism practiced by The Narwhal ensures that the extra mile is conducted thoughtfully; the reporters (and the publication) have taken the time to invest beyond the story.
“You’ve written 300 stories about clear cut logging. What can we do to protect old growth forests in B.C.? What have other jurisdictions done to stop the logging of growth forests?” says Gilchrist. “These are really vexing questions. And they’re also questions that policymakers and decision makers need answers on. So I think there’s a huge societal role for journalism there, too, to help provide some of those answers.”
In Canadian broadcast news, the final story of a show is traditionally something light—a way to let the audience down gently after a series of stories that can be complex, disheartening, or violent. With this in mind, MacDonald knows that good news stories can be considered fluff, but still believes that it serves an important purpose. “It’s just something that’s a palate cleanser at the end of a tough news cycle,” says MacDonald. “I think it’s an absolutely necessary part of the news process to have some lighthearted relief from some of the pain and misery that’s in the world. Especially right now during the pandemic.”
Fluff or not, distilling good news as often as bad news can humanize an entire publication and breathe new life into journalism when it is most essential. Carol Linnitt, managing editor and co-founder of The Narwhal, says that there is space for difficult information to be absorbed through a multifaceted approach that can make a publication seem more human. “If you were holding the hand of someone you loved and you had to deliver hard news, would you not take the opportunity to also laugh with them and be kind to them?” says Linnitt. “Allow that to be a part of the way that you’re going through this difficult moment.”