Why isn’t the news more cheerful?

Flood hell

Earthquakes, cyclones, war, malnutrition, disease, crime, poverty, sexual abuse. It often seems as if it’s not really news unless and until it’s very grim. News is the disturbing, tragic, appalling stuff. The job of the media is to puncture complacency, keep the bastards honest, reveal corruption and punish hypocrisy. Does the news have to be sad and nasty? Only if you’re doing it right.

There are some more of them in the Ribble river

In the circumstances, it’s not surprising that a reaction has set in: a movement in favour of a greater supply of more positive stories. We’re told that the number of white-clawed crayfish in the Yorkshire Dales is on the up. A grandmother in Germany has given up money and lives by barter. In Scotland, the recycling of domestic waste is going better than you might think. In Holland, some children have a pedal powered school bus.

In isolation, these are charming. En masse they are very, very annoying. Being told to cheer up is grating – whether the order is coming from an over-chirpy friend or a sequence of headlines.

At the Philosopher’s Mail, we’re not into good news or bad news. We start from a different place. Our primary move in selecting stories is to ask, ‘Would it be helpful to know this?’ This determines whether a story goes in or out. In order to live your life well, you need to deal with negative and positive information. News can very well be helpful when it is talking about appalling events. And it can be extremely unhelpful when the stories it tells us are cheery. That’s why we prefer to cut the cake into four slices rather than the usual two. We think there are four kinds of news stories:

Complete chaos in a hospital. The IT system has failed – again. The melting of the ice-caps is happening even faster than previously thought. The nation’s children are hopeless at maths. Bad news. But what identifies this as bad bad news is the tone in which the information is conveyed: the suggestion is that there is nothing we can learn from the sombre facts. We can’t atone or mourn in a dignified way. There is no sliver of redemption of any kind, no suggestion of resilience, just an air of panic or depressed, angry hopelessness. One is up against the rage, cruelty and sheer unreasonableness of people you’ve never met. In big doses, this kind of bad bad news saps the will to live.

And it’s about to get even worse

Then there is the better kind of bad news, which we need to hear for two reasons. Firstly, and most predictably, so that people can start to fix the problems being evoked. We need to know if politicians are stealing, so we can make public life more honest. We need to know if the transport system has been badly designed, so we can square up to our mistakes. Fault-finding is part of building a better society. Our unhappiness is what generates a mandate for governments and others to make the necessary changes.

Then there’s a second, less candid, reason why we need certain kinds of ‘bad news’. We need evidence that we are not alone in suffering. It isn’t just us who find life hard. Indeed, think how much harder it is for the Syrian children, the refugees in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the relatives of those who died in the plane crash… It is a pity that the sufferings of others are quite so extreme (we didn’t necessarily want anything quite so bleak), but the darkness is deeply reassuring nevertheless. Humanity suffers. We aren’t alone.

Then there’s the irritating good news: someone won an Oscar, a fashion house in Milan is garnering accolades, a socialite in Sydney has redecorated their house in retro chic. Sounds cheerful, but these things don’t in any way help anyone else to live. It’s good news but not for you. Quite the opposite. You’re not included. The stories are unkind because they don’t acknowledge envy and feelings of inadequacy. They expect us to have a natural mastery of a highly complex skill that most of us can manage only for very brief moments across our lives: knowing how to be happy for others when there’s nothing in it for us.

Then, lastly, there are positive stories that help because we feel in some way, even if only unconsciously, involved or encouraged. For example, through the dark winter and the troubled economy, Crossrail has been ploughing on with its huge construction venture that will, eventually, make a radical improvement to transport in London. The impact will be felt for decades to come. While we are bemoaning the current state of things, Crossrail is looking years ahead, their sights are set on the needs of people journeying form from Heathrow to Canary Wharf in 2035. Their confidence in our future is heartening – because it is greater than our own.

We can be happy by proxy, too when the story is one that belongs both to someone else and simultaneously, in a curious way, to us. Millions were touched by the birth of Prince George because babies and their parents are universals; we’ve been there already or we might be headed there in time. Kate and Wills are joining a heavily subscribed club. Their delight in the birth of their son is an endorsement of our own deeply remembered or anticipated emotions. We can be happy for them and, at no cost for us, for ourselves.

These four varieties of news lead us to want to cut an unusual path through the debate: we’re into good bad news and good good news. We’re into useful tragedy and helpful victory.