THE BLOG

Why Stoke Locals Were Right To Call Out The Negative Media Narrative About Their 'Brilliant City'

27/02/2017 12:11 GMT | Updated 27/02/2017 12:12 GMT

"I reject the negative narrative spoken about my brilliant city and its fantastic people, mostly from outsiders like the media who take bad photos, go to our roughest estates, talk to our poorest people... go to the grottiest places. I see brilliant people in Stoke doing brilliant things every day"

Those were the words of Danny Flynn, chief executive of North Staffordshire YMCA, on Friday morning's Today programme in a discussion about the Stoke by-election.

His sentiment will certainly strike a chord with anyone familiar with the growing constructive journalism movement which rejects the relentless and singular focus on negative news and the resulting skewed sense of reality. Constructive journalism calls for a more balanced perspective which includes examining not just what's going wrong, but what's going right and why. Both the BBC and the Guardian have recently embraced this approach. Rather than dwelling on negative deviants, journalists should also be examining the positive ones and flagging up how things can get better. As Arianna Huffington famously said:

"We talk a lot about copycat crimes. How about if we actually put the spotlight on solutions, and what is working, and generate 'copycat solutions'?"

This approach isn't about fluffy, feel-good stories or PR puffs, but rigorous reporting of positive responses to pressing problems. It's not about telling journalists to abandon their principles but to consider whether a constructive angle or focus could bring an added dimension to their reporting and give a better reflection of reality. It doesn't have to be the solution to a problem, but just one aspect of a problem. Not doing so, could have dangerous repercussions.

Two of the leading proponents of this solutions approach, David Bornstein and Tina Rosenberg, CEO and co-founder respectively of the Solutions Journalism Network, have written in a New York Times article how the media's focus on negative news was one of the reasons for the success of Donald Trump.

"So why did so many people accept Trump's dark vision? One answer is that it fits with what they feel from the news. For decades, journalism's steady focus on problems and seemingly incurable pathologies was preparing the soil that allowed Trump's seeds of discontent and despair to take root".

Southampton University professor Dr Denise Baden, who has done research into the psychological impact of negative news, is also concerned about the media's role in creating a false reality:

"The adversarial role played by news journalists in holding those in authority to account, can in some cases be counter-productive. Focusing simply on what goes wrong can put issues on the political agenda and create pressure for change based on the view that more is wrong than actually is."

Here in the UK, a sustained diet of negative news stories about the EU and immigrants created a powerful hostility towards Europe. The impact of our politically partisan press is no secret, but an interesting study by Media Tenor highlighted the negativity of even supposedly neutral media in the decade prior to the referendum. This meant the public "has been accustomed to EU bashing". It seems pretty obvious this affected the way people voted in the referendum.

I've written previously for the HuffPost about why and how constructive journalism can help shift us away from the ingrained negative bias of news. (Here's a handy summary about the scientific basis, courtesy of the Constructive Journalism Project). And it's telling that since the election of President Trump, there's been a surge in subscriptions to the constructive journalism magazine, Positive News. Editor-in-chief Sean Dagan Wood reported that in the 12 weeks after Trump's election, website traffic was up 93% and magazine subscriptions up 77%, indicating that people are coming to them because they want to be informed in a different way. He thinks there is "an urgent need, and opportunity, for a better story about ourselves, our world, and what's possible. He writes:

"... despite the brilliance of so much journalism, the media's excessive focus on bad news has created a story about our world that distorts reality, divides us and - counterproductively - limits our ability to respond effectively to the challenges we face."

His words echo those of another contributor to Friday's Today programme, Roisin Maguire, a former head teacher at St. Joseph's College in Stoke. She said she was "fed up that the press portray Stoke in a very negative way" and she issued this appeal:

"We have to get the good news stories out there, there are amazing things going in but we never hear them and we need to hear them so the people of Stoke hear them so they can start celebrating the successes whilst recognising we still have a lot to do."

She's right. Until we start investigating why some things are working, we're not going to be able to fix the things that aren't.