Hlaudi Motsoaneng, caretaker chief operating officer of the South African Broadcasting Corporation, took an interesting stand in August 2013. He stated regarding the news, “I believe, from the SABC’s side, 70% should be positive stories and then you can have 30% negative stories.” This astonishing statement was roundly set upon by opposition politicians and respected media outlets like the Mail & Guardian. Surely, it was felt, a policy like this would lead to pro-government whitewashing of the news, and the result so far according to Phillip de Wet at the M&G is that “a whole lot more people are watching SABC bulletins much more closely – with a view to denouncing any sign of the policy being implemented”.
Frankly, this kind of holier-than-thou attitude, which pervades all the negative news coverage those who choose to tune into the mainstream media have to put up with, does not serve anybody, particularly not in this much-loved bi-polar nation of ours. And I’m not an apologist for the government, and I do respect the fact that the M&G tends to tell it rather more like it is than the SABC and may have some valid reasons to fear some future news that might become 'positive' without actually being journalism. But the truth is, 70% is not nearly high enough. Researchers indicate that for information to have any kind of positive motivational effect, the positive should outweigh the negative by a ratio of at least 3 to 1 and ideally 5 to 1. Can we raise positive news stories to 84% of the total please? Not yet, and for a number of very clear reasons, mostly nothing to do with truthful reporting and rather more to do with economics.
Negative stories sell. They sell for a really good evolutionary reason: we want to be pre-warned about negative stuff, we’re hard-wired for it, since the days when we needed to know which of our enemies was round the next bend. It activates our sympathetic nervous system and then we are all flight-or-fight response to stop our babies getting massacred. It stresses us out, reduces our productivity and efficiency and sense of community and connection with others, but that’s not important to the SNS. And the SNS has the evolutionary upper hand because those of us that had an effective SNS made it this far – we went into emergency mode when we needed to. But nowadays our SNS gets activated way, way more than is healthy, and way more than it ever did in those pre-multimedia days.
The antidote to stress is, pretty obviously, laughter and happiness. The kind of feel-good factor that makes for successful people and organisations activates the parasympathetic nervous system, a far more healthful mode to be in for most of the time. Yet our stressed-out negative media-driven society is seriously lacking in activating the PNS. In the 1950s adults everywhere laughed on average 3 times as much as we do today. Negative media isn’t the only problem but it sure is part of it.
Now, if the SABC was really going to alter its practices, without getting media-watchers in a twist, it would have to investigate and report on all the people in South Africa and round the world that are making a profound difference to people’s lives for the better. Imagine that – not a whitewashing but a positive kind of investigative journalism. And only the SABC could do it, actually, because it gets a licence fee from the state that might help it out when the advertisers drop off – as ratings would inevitably drop initially, since the bad-news addicts would go elsewhere for their shot of gloom. I don’t see it happening in a hurry. But I can dream.
And that is a serious matter. Because, besides active laughter and playfulness, one of the key activities that promotes the PNS is dreaming and visioning a positive future. Yes, I’m glad there are some people keeping an eye on government corruption and you can have your 5 minutes in a half-hour news bulletin to keep us on our toes and our SNS alert and keep me signing those important petitions for change. But for the rest – if there was enough positive promotion of really good stuff in the news, it would make those telly-watching corrupt guys wake up to what they could actually be doing to make lives better, and to make their own rather lost souls feel a little happier about their purpose here on this planet. I think it’s common sense, whatever the M&G thinks about it. And luckily, the scientists (who have only really been researching the importance of happiness for the last 15 years, believe it or not) give lots of evidence on this topic that even the M&G can’t ignore. In fact, in the same end-of-year edition of that paper, there’s an article about Bhutan, that little enlightened state where they ignore GDP in favour of GNH (gross national happiness).
And in the mean time, I will happily admit that I don’t read or watch that mainstream media stuff much any more, and I recommend you don’t either (sorry Hlaudi, and good luck and all). Because you could get up and plug into the negative media over breakfast. Or you could spend a little time laughing with your friends or your partner (maybe even about yourselves, wouldn’t that be radical?!), dancing with your cat, and playing with your kids, and it doesn’t take a genius to work out who’s going to have the happier, healthier, more productive day that would benefit self, community and country after that. Boom boom.