South Africa

Analysis: Is good news no news?

By Rebecca Davis 2 September 2013

SABC executives reportedly want to see 70% positive news stories in every bulletin. ANN7 also wants to give the public “sunshine journalism”, and both feel the media should have a role to play in nation building. Chinese media outlets entering the continent have stated a similar aim. It’s an idea quite at odds with the alternative conception of South African journalism’s role as the watchdog of government. Should we take it seriously? By REBECCA DAVIS.

It was the SABC’s seemingly permanent “acting” COO Hlaudi Motsoeneng who invoked the 70% figure in an interview with the Mail & Guardian last week. “The media normally focus on the negative publicity,” Motsoeneng said. “I believe, from the SABC’s side, 70% should be positive [news] stories and then you can have 30% negative stories.” And later: “The majority of the country believes we should highlight good-news stories.” He didn’t give a source for this claim.

In fact, there already exists a media outlet in this country devoted entirely to positive stories: the South Africa The Good News website. Founded six years ago by Steuart Pennington, the stated aim of the website is to correct what they call an “information imbalance” in South Africa, whereby bad news is focused on by the mass media at the expense of good news. “We respect the role of the media, but we feel strongly that ‘news’ is not just ‘bad news’,” the website states. “We believe that the ‘truth’ of our country is represented by both the good and the bad.”

The website claims 60,000 to 80,000 unique visitors every month. Good-news stories published in the last week included the fact that South Africa’s economic growth in the second quarter outstripped the first. Another article highlighted the fact that South Africa’s mining industry ranks highest internationally for gender diversity in the boardroom. Those of us of a less sunny disposition might carp that 21.05% – the percentage of women sitting on the boards of South Africa’s top 100 mining companies – is still far lower than it should be.

It is also hard to avoid the churlish observation that, if South Africa The Good News is anything to go by, good-news reporting seems to be good news for corporate PR offices. Engen’s paraffin awareness campaign, Anglo American’s investment in childhood development centres, Sasol’s Mandela Day initiatives, Netcare’s training programmes are all subjects of recent articles on the website. It’s a reminder of the words of British newspaper baron Lord Northcliffe: “News is what somebody, somewhere wants to suppress; all the rest is advertising”.

South Africa The Good News stays in existence, in fact, through corporate sponsorship. Up until recently, the website notes, FNB was its sole sponsor, but has recently had to bow out. “We need additional corporate sponsors,” the website states, a paragraph below their assertion that, “You the readers have proved beyond doubt that there is an appetite for what we do and that ‘good news’ sells!”

Financially-speaking, it’s tough out there for South African news websites regardless of their slant, as Daily Maverick knows well. But does good news sell?

There’s a fair amount of international evidence to suggest that the answer to that is: not really – however much people might mouth off about being sick and tired of negative news. In 2007, the Pew research centre published a review of two decades’ worth of American news preferences. They found a remarkable consistency in what people found interesting over the course of 20 years. Between 2000 and 2006, people were most interested in consuming news about the following topics, in descending order: war/terrorism, bad weather, money, natural disasters, man-made disasters, health and safety, crime and social violence. Cheery stuff.

Summing up the report’s findings for the Guardian, Roy Greenslade wrote: “It implies that the regular calls for papers to publish ‘good news’ rather than bad is largely a waste of time. People are stimulated to read by the latter. They want to know what has gone wrong rather than what has gone right.”

There is a basic survival imperative at play here. “Many studies have shown that we care more about the threat of bad things than we do about the prospect of good things,” says a Psychology Today report from 2010. “Our negative brain tripwires are far more sensitive than our positive triggers. We tend to get more fearful than happy.”

(There’s one area in which this prioritization of bad news may not hold, interestingly, and that’s social media. A social psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania analysed the most-emailed news articles on the New York Times website over six months. His results, reported on in March this year, found that the more positive an article, the more likely it was to be shared via email and social media. This is credited to a preoccupation with self-presentation on social media: sharing positive material is a way to present yourself positively to others.)

Another factor to consider is that the reporting of good news may be resented, rather than appreciated, if it is suspected to be concealing bad news. This is particularly likely to be the case in a country where the state broadcaster was used for propaganda purposes for decades under Apartheid. In 1997, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission heard testimonials from former employees about the manner in which the SABC actively promoted Apartheid and minimized its effects. The TRC was told, for instance, of how the SABC willingly complied with government orders not to report “the views of terrorist organisations or actions which could undermine a free-market economy”. Security forces could only be portrayed in a positive light.

The DA has already suggested that if the public broadcaster were to put Motsoeneng’s 70% happy quota into practice it might amount to a breach of the Broadcasting Complaints Commission’s Code of Conduct, which requires news to be reported “truthfully, accurately and fairly”, in the correct context and in a fair manner. “Truthfulness, accuracy and fairness are what the SABC should be aspiring to, not some artificial construct of ‘happiness’,” wrote DA shadow minister of communications Marian Shinn acerbically in response.

Other media outlets scoffing at Motsoeneng’s idea will no doubt be taken as further evidence of the ever-invidious “liberal media” working to undermine the government, as seems to be the narrative of choice. If the SABC were to implement and rigorously enforce the quota, however, it would make for a fascinating experiment. Would there be enough good news to fill bulletins daily? How would journalists distinguish between good news and merely neutral news? Does “good news” mean “good news for the ANC”? And most interestingly, would it positively or negatively affect their viewership and the advertising bottom line?

After all, the New Age newspaper promised that one of its unique selling points would be the telling of South Africa’s neglected good news stories. But since they still refuse to release audited circulation figures, we have no way of knowing whether anyone wants to read them. DM

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Photo: President Jacob Zuma speaks at the launch of the SABC’s new 24 hour news channel in Johannesburg on Thursday, 1 August 2013.  Zuma encouraged the SABC to tell African stories that reflected the continent’s progress.Picture: GCIS/SAPA



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