Why Can't the Positive Be Newsworthy?

Earlier this summer, papers throughout the world carried photos of British World War II veterans turning their backs on Emperor Akihito when he rode down the Mall in London with Queen Elizabeth II. News stories emphasized the bitterness these survivors of Japanese prison camps still hold against their captors.

No major media outlet or news agency that I could discover, however, reported to the world that in the crowd outside Westminster Abbey were other British ex-servicemen who had suffered equally in the Japanese camps and been decorated for bravery and were waving Japanese flags to welcome the Emperor. They were part of a veteran's group in Britain specifically founded to foster reconciliation with the former enemy. One of them, Capt. Richard Channer, said, "After 50 years there needs to be a new beginning. We need to look ahead."

How much more it would have meant to the world if the story of forgiveness had accompanied the story of persisting bitterness.

Recently I was in Brisbane, Australia on the day of the Queensland elections where the results were portrayed in news reports around the world as evidence of the rise of racism in that country. But I was also there for National Sorry Day when Australians were given the chance to apologize for racist policies against Aboriginal families. Despite the fact that half a million people participated in this grassroots initiative, very little mention of it was carried in any of the world's media.

How much more it would have meant to countries trying to come to grips with the unhealed legacies of the past and to prepare citizens to face up to the changing ethnic makeup of society, if they'd learned of both sides of Australia's struggle.

This may be a much neglected aspect of the public's disillusion with the media. It is right that the public should be alarmed at the recent rash of fabricated or inadequately researched articles. But of greater concern to many is the media's lack of balance, this fixation on the negative which deprives people of the information - and the hope - needed to tackle the issues of the day.

Fortunately, many within the media are beginning to address this lack. When William Raspberry meets with editorial boards where his syndicated column is run, he likes to ask for leads to positive stories in their communities that are worth letting the nation at large know about. The awkward silence that often greets his request has convinced him that his fellow professionals "are not that interested in what works." He points out that the training of journalists, the news values inculcated, the feedback from editors, "all encourage us to look for trouble, for failure, for conflict."

James Fallows, until recently editor of US News and World Report, has made the same point. The widespread assumption that journalism's function is to root out problems has left the press unfit for another part of its job, he says. People who watch or read the news each day aren't only looking for a summary of what has gone wrong in the world, he says. Sometimes they'd like a solution.

A network of professionals in all aspects of communications around the world who share this concern have created a loose support group under the name the "International Communications Forum." Since its inception in 1991, 1,500 media people from 63 countries have been involved. I've just been with some of them at their 13th Forum, this one in Caux, Switzerland. Its theme: "The media and the community: building a creative relationship." They studied subjects such as what it takes personally to stand for values and policies that may run counter to current practice and peer pressures.

Journalists from areas of violent conflict gave a particular challenge to responsibility and balance. Senad Kamenica, for instance, head of news and current affairs programs for Bosnia and Herzegovina TV, pointed out that the media in the Balkans, divided on ethnic lines, did "more damage than weapons." Today Bosnians expected the media to help overcome the nation's problems "by building confidence." Describing his own struggle to maintain news balance and give truthful information, he said, "The hardest struggle is within ourselves."

One of those who participated in an earlier forum is the BBC's main anchor, Martyn Lewis. He has formulated Lewis's Laws for journalists which would create the kind of reporting and programming he seeks:

* Try to report negative stories at least partly through the eyes of those who are seeking solutions to them.

* Don't automatically dismiss stories of success and achievement as the products of public relations teams.

* Consider success as worthy of news analysis and explanation as failure is.

* Editors should challenge and encourage young journalists to write up positive stories in as interesting a way as negative ones.

As Mr. Lewis says, "When there is disaster, there are people trying to recover from it. Where there is suffering, there are people trying to help. Where there is conflict, there are people trying to end it."

On one plane trip I sat next to a woman who, when she heard I was a reporter, said, "Oh, I haven't subscribed to a newspaper in years and I feel so much better. It's like when I gave up smoking." We might even get her to resubscribe if she found more reasons for hope from the media.

* Michael Henderson is an Oregon-based English journalist and broadcaster. He is the author of 'The Forgiveness Factor - Stories of Hope in a World of Conflict' (Grosvenor Books UK/USA, 1996).

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