As tragic news unfolds around the world, media has an opportunity to be a force for good

When news organizations first started sending out mobile push alerts, I jumped at the chance to sign up. The ability to receive alerts on my phone, in real time, gave me a rush as a news junkie.

Lately, though, I’ve seriously considered deactivating them. In recent weeks, they’ve delivered updates about shootings, stabbings, and bombings. The jarring headlines, which pop up on my phone without notice, have made the world seem like a dark place — darker than ever, perhaps.

The recent incidences in Orlando, Baton Rouge, St. Paul, Dallas, Nice, Munich and other cities around the world have been nothing short of tragic. But contrary to what we might think, research shows that the world isn’t more violent than it used to be, even though a lot of media coverage would suggest otherwise.

“People think the world is getting worse. … That’s the perception,” author and computer scientist Ray Kurzweil said at a conference last week. “What’s actually happening is our information about what’s wrong in the world is getting better. A century ago, there would be a battle that wiped out the next village, you’d never even hear about it. Now there’s an incident halfway around the globe and we not only hear about it, we experience it.”

Cognitive scientist Stephen Pinker did extensive research on this topic for his book, “The Better Angels Of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined.” 

“The only way you can really answer the question — has violence gone up or down? — is to count how many violent incidents have there been as a proportion of the number of opportunities, and has that gone up or down over the course of history? And that’s what I tried to do in the book,” Pinker told NPR in an interview earlier this month. “I looked at homicide, looked at war, looked at genocide, looked at terrorism. And in all cases, the long-term historical trend, though there are ups and downs and wiggles and spikes, is absolutely downward. The rate of violent crime in United States has fallen by more than half in just a decade. The rate of death in war fell by a factor of 100 over a span of 25 years.” 

Pinker’s book was published four years ago, but it’s been widely quoted over the past month as people search for answers about whether violence is in fact on the rise. The Republican and Democratic conventions have further fueled the conversation, with Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” campaign slogan and Michelle Obama’s assertion that it’s already great.

“I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves, and I watch my two black daughters playing with their dogs on the White House lawn,” Obama said in her speech at the Democratic National Convention Monday night. “Don’t let anyone tell you that this country isn’t great. This right now is the greatest country on earth.”

The media often tells discouraging stories about the U.S. and the world at large. But it doesn’t have to be that way. There are steps that individual media practitioners can take to paint a more accurate picture of the world, while still covering the hardships that exist. The Poynter Institute’s Roy Peter Clark suggests that journalists can start by avoiding the “myth of the Golden Age” — the idea that modern times are far worse than the days of yore.

“The past was never as good as some people would have you believe. And the present is never as bad,” Clark wrote in an essay this week. “When there is violence, death, intolerance and paranoia, when the news is filled with tragic stories and bloody images, when citizens on the scene produce dreadful video images that are then broadcast to the world, it is easy enough for journalists to contribute to the myth of the Golden Age.”

In his essay, which is well worth the read, Clark offers four helpful tips for moving beyond the myth:

  • “Focus not just on the acts of killers and their consequences.”
  • “Avoid an unending series of repetitious or even incremental coverage.”
  • “Do more ‘what does this mean’ stories.”
  • “Visit the past. There are lessons of history, and two of the most important: a) things were worse back then; and b) people figured out a way to make them better.”

Along these lines, media practitioners can also do a better job of keeping an eye out for restorative narratives — stories that show how people and communities are making a meaningful progression from a place of despair to a place of resilience. They can revisit tragedies — in Ferguson, Charleston, Boston, Newtown, and elsewhere — and look for stories about how those affected are finding meaningful pathways forward.

These types of stories are often an afterthought, or confined to anniversaries. The openness to this type of storytelling needs to come from the top down; if editors aren’t supportive of restorative narratives, solutions journalism, and constructive storytelling approaches, it’s going to be difficult for journalists to get the time and resources they need to move beyond the “if it bleeds it leads” approach to news. 

A growing body of research shows that repeated exposure to traumatic stories can cause acute stress symptoms and leave us feeling helpless and hopeless. Changing how we consume news — and which outlets we choose to receive news from — can help lessen the negative side effects. Claire Wardle, research director at Columbia University’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism, offered related tips in an NPR interview last week.

“On your social networks I would advise turning off autoplay so you don’t see a graphic video that you didn’t expect to see. … We’re having a nice conversation with a friend or our child and then our phone buzzes, and you look at it, and you’re like, ‘Oh my goodness. I can’t believe this,’” Wardle said. “I think that uncontrolled nature is what’s really troubling. So I think in terms of self-care it’s about people thinking about their own news habits and thinking about how they can protect themselves and stop these kind of unexpected alerts coming into their lives.”

Some news organizations, such as The Wall Street Journal, have been experimenting with customizable push alerts that give people more control over which alerts they see. There’s value in this, particularly for news consumers who don’t want to be inundated with tragedy-filled updates. Studies suggest that people are hungry for a different type of news. A few years ago, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania spent months studying The New York Times’ most emailed stories and found that readers are far more likely to share positive stories over negative stories — and that they’re especially drawn toward awe-inspiring stories that change the way they see themselves and the world.

Stories hold power — to deeply affect us and change our world views for better or worse. I can’t help but wonder how people’s perceptions, and even their sense of well-being, would change if the media made a more conscious effort to tell stories of resilience, recovery, and renewal in addition to stories of trauma. Telling more restorative narratives could prove advantageous not just to news consumers but to journalists, too. Vicarious trauma is a real issue for media practitioners who have to put themselves in dangerous situations when covering traumatic stories. What if the industry lent itself to telling more stories that paved the way for vicarious resilience?

As news about recent tragedies unfolds, the media has an opportunity to explore this question and illuminate hope.

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