When is news ‘negative?’

Published 5:52 pm Tuesday, September 19, 2017

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Newspaper critics, particularly those in or closely associated with government, have always publicly wrung their hands over what they see as the propensity of papers to print “negative” rather than “positive” news stories.

Depending on how you measure such things, they are right — or wrong. It’s often a matter of perspective.

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“News” is simply events that occur. “Newsworthy” events are those that are break the pattern of day-to-day life in a significant way, and are likely to be of interest to the general public. It’s a simple fact that newsworthy events are often negative.

Let’s say, for example, that several thousand people cross an intersection every day on their way to work and they re-cross it going home, and no one is hurt doing so. That’s good news, and we could certainly report it, but not many people would be interested in reading about it.

If two or three of those people were struck by a drunk driver and killed, however, that would be a very newsworthy — and negative — event.

Put another way, that which is “normal” in life is generally positive. We go about our daily lives and nothing really outlandish happens. That’s good. So, when something breaks that routine, it is all-too-often negative. It would be a depressing world if we didn’t view ordinary life as generally good and positive.

Of course, that’s not what the critics mean. They’re talking about stories that, in their view, make their particular political viewpoint or their favorite agencies, boards, councils, etc., “look bad.” But whether such stories are negative or positive is, again, all in the eye of the beholder.

Many stories are negative or positive, depending on your perspective. An example is a story on page 1 of last week’s paper about the school administration decision to loosen rules on the use of electronic devices by students. If you’re a high school student, that’s a really positive story. If you’re a high school teacher who must now police cell phones on new, looser standards, it may be a bit more negative. It’s all a matter of perspective.

The current debate about Civil War statues is another example. When Isle of Wight NAACP President Valerie Butler and retired Surry Judge Gammiel Poindexter asked that respective Boards of Supervisors to remove Confederate statues, some local officials and statue supporters were unhappy that we wrote about the issue in considerable depth. But other readers thought Diana McFarland’s detailed story of the statues’ histories and the history of such statues throughout the country was helpful, and thus positive. Either way, we don’t apologize for offering important perspective on an important public issue.

Stories about most controversial issues can almost always be viewed as either “positive” or “negative,” depending how you feel about an issue. If we report that there is strong opposition to a proposed rezoning, than the zoning applicant is going to be furious that he has to read about the opposition in the newspaper, but the critics will think having the issue in the open is a good thing.

The Cypress Creek Bridge’s deteriorating condition is, by anybody’s measure, a very negative thing for this community. And the closure or partial closure of that facility to rebuild it will be an extraordinarily negative thing. We have and will continue to report on those plans, however, because they are of immense importance to the community, and by engaging the community in a discussion of that pending difficulty, positive ideas might just emerge. If nothing else, though, the public and local businesses know what’s coming because of the reporting. And that’s important.

And all this applies to only a relatively small percentage of what we publish each week. Most of what we print is unabashedly positive, from feature stories about students releasing butterflies at school to Ms. McFarland’s monthly informative stories for senior citizens.

Of course, a true cynic can find something negative about even stories like those, and we have had some who’ve tried, but that’s human nature, and it’s not likely to change.