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ON THE MEDIA

Good news? Now that's news

Adding to the daily drumbeat of dire pronouncements is almost too easy these days. The public yearns for stories that inspire, and they're out there if journalists want to look.

March 25, 2009|JAMES RAINEY
  • NBC news anchor Brian Williams.
NBC news anchor Brian Williams. (Evan Agostini / Associated…)

When Brian Williams asked at the end of the "NBC Nightly News" three weeks ago for viewers to send along good news, he couldn't have imagined the thousands of e-mails that would pour into the network overnight.

The resulting stories on "acts of kindness in this cruel economy" have made NBC the most visible of many media outlets pushing to give audiences some good news in the midst of bad times.

The trend-bucking features might have the public wondering: What took so long?

I'd say a bit of the traditional good news deficit comes from the misguided conviction among some news people that happy endings and serious journalism don't mix.

But I'd lay some of the blame with audiences too. There's more good news out there than some of you have recognized.

Let's start with one of the most basic tenets of journalism -- that "news" is what we don't expect. We pull out our notepads for the unexpected: Man bites dog. Plane cartwheels off runway. Jon Stewart goes Mike Wallace on interview subject.

To that old rule most big outlets apply a corollary: A complete paper or newscast must include a "mix," of breaking news and features, of photos and words, covering subjects both trifling and transcendent.

Most networks, cable outlets and big newspapers try to cover the entire spectrum, but their hearts really soar for the weighty, heavy stuff. That means lots of focus on dark stories, regardless of whether they hint at a resolution, or even much hope.

Prize-winning investigative reporter Frank Greve of McClatchy newspapers talked about the queasy reaction he got from some colleagues a couple years ago when he announced he would start a "good news" beat.

"Some of my old friends, when I told them what I was doing, reacted as if I'd told them I had cancer," Greve told the Poynter Institute, a nonprofit school for professional journalists. "Most, but not all" of those reporters encouraged Greve when they saw that he still reported and wrote with rigor.

Greve has noted how delayed licensing of drivers has driven down the teenage accident rate. He's written about how many old people remain sexually active. He's raised doubts about whether we should really need to worry about pharmaceutical contamination in drinking water.

That list of topics might seem like a hodgepodge, but there's a common theme. Bad news grows out of conflict or loss. Good news often means just following the conflict through to a resolution.

It might seem counterintuitive, but I'd argue one of the best "good news" stories in the L.A. Times in recent years was about a grizzly bear attack.

My colleague Tom Curwen painstakingly detailed how a father and daughter struggled to survive the 400 pounds of raw fury that bore down on them in Glacier National Park. His follow-up paid particular attention to how the daughter fought to regain her equilibrium. Without struggle and loss, we'd lose resilience and hope.

That's been the theme of "Making a Difference" that has concluded many "NBC Nightly News" shows this month. Williams told me it was his wife, Jane, who recommended a counterpoint to the drumbeat of bad news.

"We were having one of those kitchen-table discussions and she said the other part of this story is what everyone has taken on themselves, how they're doing more to help," Williams said.

The anchor/managing editor of the top-rated "Nightly News" called the response from viewers "incredible."

Among the panoply of do-gooders NBC has profiled: a small-town Alabama pharmacist who gave out $16,000 in $2 bills to his employees, requiring them to prime the local economy with the money; the Kansas trailer-hitch manufacturer who sent recession-idled employees out to fix ball fields, homes and churches; and the Denver restaurant that offered free or cut-rate meals to those who couldn't pay full price.

Even a hard-bitten newsman had to be moved by some of those tales and the thousands of dollars in donations and new volunteers they inspired.

I'd guess that most newsrooms in the country have talked about how to make the economic calamity real, but not overwhelming. Every reporter out there has heard from a friend or neighbor that they just can't take much more bad news.

At the Bakersfield Californian newspaper, Executive Editor Mike Jenner talked with business editors a couple of months ago about not recycling foreclosure and unemployment statistics. "It's going to be bad for a while and we don't need to repeat all these numbers breathlessly," Jenner said.

Jenner has also got "every reporter and editor in the room on the lookout for upbeat stories." Last weekend, the paper's local section featured a spread about workers who love their jobs.

In New England, the Cape Cod Times has taken to writing full stories on new businesses, rather than the briefs it once presented.

Editor Paul Pronovost won a small concession the other day: getting the paper to run a front-page photo of the first spring crocuses in bloom.

He had to fight off an argument from at least one other editor who preferred something from Iraq. Said Pronovost: "There is something to be said for offering a little bit of inspiration in dark times."

Many commentators are making a living now channeling people's fears and rage. That's nice for blowing off steam, but will it make anything better?

Not long ago, I got an e-mail from a guy who wondered if The Times would write about his parents on their 70th wedding anniversary. That once might have provoked a quick blowoff from me, Mr. Serious.

Now I'm thinking the story of a seven-decade marriage must include a few lessons about surviving hard times. I asked the proud son to send me more information.

--

james.rainey@latimes.com

On the Media also appears Fridays on Page A2.

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