It’s Time to Move Beyond, ‘if it bleeds, it leads’ Approach to Media Coverage
Images & Voices of Hope, Mallary Jean Tenore
September 2015

Michelle Gielan had a successful journalism career by most standards. She had landed her dream job at CBS News, where she anchored two early morning programs and did reports for “The Early Show,” now called “CBS This Morning.” She interviewed prominent politicians, newsmakers, and celebrities, and her stories were broadcast to millions of people.

But time and again, she found herself covering stories about poverty, death, murder, and devastation. The weight of these stories began to affect her outlook on the profession — and on the world at large.

“Over and over, our mornings began with helplessness and hopelessness,” Gielan writes in her new book, “Broadcasting Happiness,” which came out this month. “It was painful to watch, especially from a dark news studio, on repeat all day long.”

Gielan decided to pitch a different kind of story: a series about positive psychology and how to create happiness amidst tragedy. The resulting CBS series, “Happy Week,” received the greatest viewer response of the year. For Gielan, this was a sign that people were craving a different kind of news — news that moved beyond the traditional doom and gloom stories that so often dominate headlines.

Michelle Gielan

Gielan refers to this different kind of coverage as “transformative journalism,” which she defines as “an activating, engaging, solutions-focused approach to covering news. It seeks to inform the public while providing the necessary tools to create forward progress.”

In a phone interview with ivoh, Gielan said that Restorative Narratives — a genre ivoh has been developing over the past two years — is a strong example of this type of coverage. So are other emerging forms of storytelling — solutions journalism, peace journalism, and the constructive journalism movement in Denmark.

Gielan became so interested in this transformative approach to storytelling that she decided to leave her job at CBS News to get her master’s degree in applied positive psychology from the University of Pennsylvania. In her book, she draws upon her experience as both a journalist and a positive psychologist, and points to compelling research that supports the need for transformative news.

“I think there’s a hunger from the public for a new way to tell stories and for journalists to step up and provide a new level of service to society,” said Gielan, who is managing partner at GoodThink, a positive psychology consulting firm. “People are sick and tired of the news being so negative. When I give talks around the globe, and particularly in the U.S., I often ask, ‘how many of you have stopped watching your local news?’ and I get at least half the room raising their hands. [Their responses] always run along the same lines: ‘It’s negative. It’s terrible. I can’t do anything about these stories. I just disconnect.’ … At the same time, they’re wrestling with the fact that they want to stay informed.”

For years, there’s been a deep-seeded belief in media that “if it bleeds, it leads,” meaning the more sensational the story, the more likely people will be drawn to it. This belief is rooted in our natural brain response, Gielan said.

“We’re threat focused; we pay attention to threats in our environment. Nowadays the world is the safest it’s ever been — we’re living in the best times historically than we ever have — but if we still continue to be focused solely on threats, we won’t see all the resources we have at our fingertips.”

There’s something to be said for this. A Slate article from December 2014 showed that the rate of homicides, rape/sexual assault, victimization of children, mass killings, genocide, and armed conflict and wars has been steadily decreasing in the U.S. and in parts of the world. You would never guess this, though, based on news headlines.

“How can we get a less hyperbolic assessment of the state of the world? Certainly not from daily journalism. News is about things that happen, not things that don’t happen. We never see a reporter saying to the camera, ‘Here we are, live from a country where a war has not broken out’—or a city that has not been bombed, or a school that has not been shot up,” Steven Pinker and Andrew Mack write in their Slate article. “As long as violence has not vanished from the world, there will always be enough incidents to fill the evening news. And since the human mind estimates probability by the ease with which it can recall examples, newsreaders will always perceive that they live in dangerous times. All the more so when billions of smartphones turn a fifth of the world’s population into crime reporters and war correspondents.”

The media has a responsibility to cover tragedies and trauma. This coverage helps keep people informed about what’s happening in their own community and beyond. But too often, these are the only stories we hear in the media. There aren’t nearly as many stories about what happens after a horrific crime or traumatic event. Restorative Narratives explore the aftermath by showing how people and communities are moving from a place of despair to a place of resilience. In doing so, these narratives highlight hope and optimism.

“Resilience is incredibly important in storytelling because it’s one way to show that behaviors matter, and behavior mattering is at the core of having optimism,” Gielan said. “When we have a resilient mindset, which is so deeply connected with an optimistic mindset, we overall believe that good things can happen.”

Telling Restorative Narratives isn’t about telling one side of the story; it’s about taking a more holistic and balanced approach to news by telling the full story. Perhaps the biggest misconception is that Restorative Narratives and other types of transformative news are simply happy-go-lucky feature stories that lack depth and meaning.

“People think it’s puppies and kittens and waterskiing squirrels. We’re talking about something so much deeper than that,” Gielan said, noting that media coverage is too often siloed into “positive” and “negative” stories. “Transformative journalism is the third path that says ‘we’re going to cover serious news but we’re going to cover it in a way that leaves you feeling like your actions matter. It provides potential calls to action so that people can feel like they’re part of the process. It has a greater goal than just telling you bad stuff in the world.”

Gielan has done research to prove the need for transformative news that moves beyond traditional “if it bleeds, it leads” coverage. She highlights this research in her book, along with several other related studies.

We’ve known for awhile that repeated exposure to traumatic news can cause acute stress symptoms, trigger flashbacks, and encourage fear-mongering. These stories can leave people feeling hopeless and can change their outlook.

One of Gielan’s studies suggests that news coverage can dramatically shift a person’s mood from neutral to negative in a matter of minutes. As she writes in her book: “A barrage of negative news reports shows us stories of a world that is frightening and seemingly hopeless. Often these feelings linger with viewers and cascade into their time at work or school. The results of another study show that people who watch local news view their city as significantly more dangerous than it actually is, in terms of anticipated amounts of crime or likelihood of disaster.”

Gielan is furthering her research through a news media study with her husband Shawn Anchor (a well-known positive psychologist) and Arianna Huffington.

Early findings from their research show that when people are exposed to just three minutes of negative news first thing in the morning, they’re 27% likely to report having had a bad day six to eight hours later. By contrast, people exposed to “transformative news” for just three minutes in the morning are 88% likely to report having had a happy day six to eight hours later.

There’s also a business case for telling these types of narratives, says Gielan, who is an executive producer for “The Happiness Advantage with Shawn Anchor” on PBS. She pointed to a Stanford University study which found that the placement of print articles and ads greatly influences buying decisions. Consumers’ intent to purchase was higher, and their attitude toward a brand was more positive, when the advertisement they viewed was placed next to positive stories. Consumers exposed to positive content before viewing the ad were 24% more likely to want to purchase the product in the ad, the study found.

Research also shows that people want to share transformative news. In a study about what makes content go viral, the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business analyzed the most-shared New York Times stories over the course of three months. The researchers’ findings contradict long-held beliefs about the type of news people want.

Drawing upon this research, Gielan writes that viral content follows three rules: “Positive content is more viral than negative content, emotional content reaches more people, and people prefer sharing practical, useful content. Of the three dimensions, a news story’s positivity was most predictive of sharing behavior. Highly positive, emotional content was more likely to be shared and go viral.”

All of these findings signal the need for change in media coverage. So much of the innovation in media these days revolves around technology. This is important, and a step in the right direction. But we also need to be thinking about innovation in terms of the types of stories we tell.

Gielan said some news organizations are embracing transformative approaches to journalism and hopes more will in the coming years.

She pointed to one anchor in particular — Ernie Anastos, who has revamped the 6 p.m. Fox News broadcast in New York with a focus on transformative journalism. By showcasing stories about solutions to social issues, and illuminating stories that offer hope instead of merely despair, he has changed the tenor of the entire broadcast, Gielan said. As a result, he has seen an increase in ratings, and other stations have been calling him to seek tips on how they can adopt a similar storytelling approach.

To help journalists embrace the transformative news approach, Gielan has created a “Journalist Manifesto,” which is featured in her book and on her website. It’s intended to be a guide for journalists who want to explore this third path of storytelling.

“I’ve been overwhelmed by the number of people who have downloaded the manifesto,” Gielan said. Many people have submitted examples of transformative news — examples that Gielan wants to eventually turn into case studies.

As a former journalist, Gielan remains optimistic that more media practitioners and newsroom leaders will embrace restorative narratives, solutions journalism, and other transformative storytelling genres. It takes time, a cultural shift, and an understanding of these genres’ importance. Journalists can turn to research to learn about their importance — and they can turn inward by reflecting on why they got into the profession in the first place.

“The majority of journalists got into the business because they wanted to do good for the world. I think the research reminds us that our initial intentions, and the potential for what we can do now, are fully aligned,” Gielan said. “The vast majority of journalists want the same thing — to inform people, give them the information they need, and create positive change in the world.”