Turning the Page on “If It Bleeds, It Leads”: A Solutions-Based Approach to Journalism

Turning the Page on “If It Bleeds, It Leads”: A Solutions-Based Approach to Journalism

As a child in the early 1970s, my family had a familiar Sunday night ritual. Dinner was finished and the table cleaned by 7:00 p.m. sharp. Either my mother or father would wryly declaim, “It’s time for ‘Ain’t It Awful’.” And the TV would be tuned to CBS in time to catch the ticking of that iconic stopwatch.

For much of my childhood, “Ain’t It Awful” was to me, in fact, the real name of 60 Minutes. A funny story, yes. But one that offers an increasingly apt metaphor for our modern context.

Later, I grasped that my parents’ glib nickname for one of the most seminal of all news programs framed a difficult truth about the news – and the enterprise of journalism. The old adage “if it bleeds, it leads” seemed to direct those infamous “gotcha” segments, in which peering through hidden cameras and chasing bad guys out the back door somehow became a signature 60 Minutes style.

The caricature became so quickly established that the show ultimately moved away from this segment type in favor of its more thoughtful in-depth interviews and reporting. But the popularity of that particular breed of journalistic sensationalism demonstrated a reality that persists to this day.

The Double Edge of Unceasing Negativity

Paradoxically, when it comes to the news, what initially seems to draw an audience in can ultimately push its members away.

A shocking revelation. A blaring headline. Flashing lights, gutting fires, police tape, a body under a sheet on the ground. A CEO being led out of a gleaming glass tower in hand-cuffs. An elected official making outrageous, ugly statements. Opposing groups angrily clashing in the streets. Hate. Scandal. Corruption. Despair. Disaster.

The “if it bleeds, it leads” mindset exists because sensationalism tends to drive readership and ratings. This pattern goes way back, surely right to the beginning of reported news. Along with the mass distribution power of the printing press came the equally significant power of moving the masses through shock and heightened emotion. This device is not unique to our current moment.

Yet the law of diminishing returns is also at work here. The more intense, negative and despairing the litany of news stories, the more likely the audience may be to start tuning out.

The late 2017 “Stress in America” poll by the American Psychological Association (APA) found strong correlations between personal stress and news consumption. According to the study:

Adults…indicated that they feel conflicted between their desire to stay informed about the news and their view of the media as a source of stress. While most adults (95%) say they follow the news regularly, 56% say that doing so causes them stress, and 72% believe the media blows things out of proportion.

A national snap poll fielded by G&S Business Communications in late May 2019 found that 69% of Americans agree that watching or reading news reports stresses them out.

It’s hard to find precise data on exactly how many people are actively reducing or refraining from news consumption specifically due to these negative feelings. But one need only Google the phrase “unplugging from the media” to access a tsunami of news and social posts on (ironically) the desire to engage less with news and social posts.

(Re)Building Accountability, Engagement and Trust

We live in a big, messy, challenging and, in many ways, highly challenged world. Is it any surprise we feel stressed out? Can we fault the news media for reflecting the context in which we live? Are we asking our nation’s journalists to ignore vital, deeply necessary stories in favor of videos of fluffy bunnies?

Certainly not. A free press, expansive and wide-ranging in its purview – and unafraid to dig into even difficult stories – is an essential foundation of any democracy. We can and should, however, explore different approaches to reporting.

That is why it was so fascinating for me to moderate a conversation with a senior leader of Solutions Journalism Network (SJN) at the 2019 G&S Global Street Fight event. Vice President of Newsroom Practice Change Liza Gross – whose significant credentials include work as Managing Editor of The Miami Herald, among other senior positions – described the organization’s work in training newsrooms and individual journalists to cover what today’s news stories often overlook: how real people are responding to real issues in society.

As they share on their website:

Even hard-nosed investigative reporters agree that the news provides an excessively dismal view of the world. Audiences regularly come away from the news — even high quality news — feeling powerless, anxious, and resentful. When the daily news product makes people want to tune out and disengage, it doesn’t bode well for the news business — or for democracy.

Founded to disrupt these negative patterns, Solutions Journalism Network promotes rigorous reporting on real responses to social problems. They devote attention to actions or ideas that actually move the needle in communities both big and small around issues that can otherwise feel overwhelming or intractable.

The impact of these efforts speaks to the ability of balanced reporting to enhance knowledge and accountability, strengthen audience engagement and help restore trust over time. Moreover, it gives a welcome boost not only to the issues and communities covered in the news but also to the long-term relevance and viability of the outlets themselves.

Creating Space for Constructive Discourse

During the Global Street Fight session, our discussion focused primarily on the opportunities to help bridge public discourses that today are deeply polarized, partisan or, in some cases, nearly non-existent.

How can we persist as a democracy if we quite literally cannot talk with one another? When highly charged issues become lightning rods for negativity and breeding grounds for confirmation bias, the path forward seems impossible to find.

These Days, It’s Not About the Polar Bears,” a May 12, 2019 article in The New York Times by Benjamin Ryan, addresses one prominent example of these polarizing issues: exploring the challenges of reporting on climate change. Ryan begins by citing the “messaging problem” that plagues climate science, asserting that “the well-worn tactic of hitting people over the head with scary climate change facts has proven inadequate at changing behavior or policies in ways big enough to alter the course of global warming.”

One of the experts quoted in the piece describes the challenge this way:

“The main reason people reject the science of climate change is because they reject what they perceive to be the solutions: total government control, loss of personal liberties, destruction of the economy,” said Katharine Hayhoe, director of the Climate Science Center at Texas Tech University. “But ironically, what motivates people to care and to act is an awareness of the genuine solutions: a new clean-energy future, improving our standard of living, and building local jobs and the local economy.”

The article goes on to examine research from social scientists regarding individuals’ greater desire to engage in activities and solutions with a personal or local focus. That is, what are real people actually doing to make changes that address the larger challenge, even incrementally? What actions could you or I take to contribute to this communal effort? While the truly heartbreaking statistics on the decimation of polar bear habitats are vital to report, they do little to inspire people to act, or to feel that they can. The challenge is to bring together more pieces of the puzzle to reveal the fuller picture

Speaking of pictures, even a shift in visual storytelling can have an empowering impact. This could mean showcasing a family or business installing solar panels on their roof, as opposed to yet another shot of a scientist or politician at a lectern delivering a speech on climate issues.

Shifting the locus of reporting in this way can – and does – still address the core of the issue. We must continue to cover difficult stories about real occurrences, from local crimes to political scandals to corporate corruption.

Yet this new approach to reporting widens the lens to take in more of the real ideas and constructive actions – those actual solutions – that can help prevent “tune-out” while building awareness and engagement.

When journalists and media communicators alike commit to portraying this fuller picture, they not only minimize the shock and negativity that can push audiences away; they also draw people closer to the issues with the kind of clarity that empowers communities to envision solutions.

In the world of “if it bleeds, it leads,” every news headline contributes to the chaotic frenzy of negativity and the reluctance to engage. But in a world of solutions-based reporting, even within important stories of crime or corruption, journalism can fulfill its function as a call to engage, an opportunity to act and an inspiration to shape positive change.

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    Anne Green is an agency principal and managing director, New York. As a business leader and communicator, Anne relies on deep reserves of curiosity, empathy and boundless enthusiasm for learning new things and making strategic connections. Anne is a 25-year industry veteran who oversees the G&S New York office with responsibilities for ensuring client service excellence, talent development and business growth. She also provides senior-level counsel for several accounts, including Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, Fiserv, Coldwell Banker Real Estate and The Physicians Foundation. Before taking on her current role in 2018, Anne was president and CEO of CooperKatz & Company, the award-winning independent agency whose team she had helped to grow for 22 years prior to its acquisition by G&S. She earned a B.A in English from Vassar College, with concentrations in women’s studies and vocal performance; and an M. Phil. (A.B.D.) from New York University, with a focus on 19th century American literature. Inspired by life-long lessons from her parents to bring the very best to all you do, Anne serves as an industry and community leader, with roles as a board director for PR Council and board president of LifeWay Network, a New York-based charitable organization that provides long-term housing to survivors of human trafficking. From her personal experience as a singer married to a drummer, Anne appreciates the value of collaborations that blend impact with creativity.

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