Despite What The Media Tells You, There Is Good News

By Mark Jacob

Have you ever known anyone who was terrible at accepting bad news? I’ll bet you have.

But the mainstream media have the opposite problem: They simply can’t handle good news.

Take the economy, for example. The Biden administration has knocked down inflation while keeping unemployment low and avoiding a recession. It’s a good news story. But we get New York Times headlines like this:

“Against the Odds, the U.S. Economy Chugs Along, as Fears Linger”

“As fears linger”? Well, of course, fears linger. Fears always linger. That’s the human condition. Based on that mindset, you have to wonder why the Times didn’t write a headline in 1945 that read, “World War II Ends, as Fears Linger.”

This reflexive negativity goes far beyond the economy. Joe Biden just completed a constructive NATO meeting that reaffirmed support for Ukraine against the Russian invaders. The New York Times headline read:

“Despite Successes at NATO Summit, Divisions Remain”

What if that headline had read “Despite Divisions, NATO Summit Achieves Successes”?

Or “NATO Summit Features Both Divisions and Unity”?

With the same set of facts, a rewritten headline would have left a quite different impression. But it’s become a common journalism attitude that good news is no news and that journalists who are too positive come off as cheerleaders for the people in power. There’s a fear that if they write about the government actually working it seems naive. And there’s also the journalistic mission to not just say what happened but attempt to predict the future. That always involves uncertainty and the potential for calamity ahead.

Also, when the right wing is pillorying Biden every day, journalists are sensitive about being accused of being leftist conspirators if they highlight the White House’s successes.

When I was an editor at the Chicago Tribune, I was part of the problem. The newspaper sent me on a short fellowship to Japan, and I recall how a former Japanese diplomat complained that China was getting all the attention from the American press. I explained that China had lots of interesting problems, including pollution, political repression and workplace abuses. China simply made more news. Your society is functioning too efficiently, I told the Japanese ex-diplomat. It’s not making news.

Some journalists think it’s their job to focus on problems, and that’s certainly part of their mission. But there is a movement called “solutions journalism” that aims to highlight what’s working in our society so it can be applied more widely. In that way, good news can be news.

The real goal should be to tell the truth, not be either positive or negative in a knee-jerk fashion.

But the media’s tendency to throw shade on any positive development was exemplified by a Politico headline this week:

“Biden’s economic dream is becoming reality – but how long can he sustain it?”

Well, not forever, Politico. Not forever. I suppose that’s bad news.

Mark Jacob, a former metro editor at the Chicago Tribune and co-author of eight books, is a consultant for Courier Newsroom.