According to a new Politico report, Joe Biden’s presidential campaign is rolling out an unconventional digital strategy: Instead of the in-your-face tactics favored by the Trump camp, the Biden plan is to reach “suburban Facebook empathy moms” with positive content that “reminds one of Upworthy, the go-to site for feel-good news.”
The Upworthy approach— fight bad news with good news and hatred with goodness — is an increasingly familiar one these days. In fact, it’s become the go-to strategy for a large chunk of the news media.
And why not, you might ask? After all, these are very feel-bad times. There’s a pandemic going on, with daily U.S. death tolls in the thousands. Beyond that, we’re in the early stages of a massive economic meltdown, unemployment is soaring, most of us are stuck in our homes, and there’s absolutely no certainty about when any of this will be over.
Amid all of that, everybody’s looking for an escape wherever they can find one. So into the breach have stepped multiple media efforts to encourage good news, and happy news, and to give consumers something to smile about — and keep clicking about— in these dark, depressing days.
Actor and director John Krasinski has launched a popular YouTube show called Some Good News, which seems to have gotten a foothold, with 16 million YouTube views on the first episode. An existing platform called The Happy Broadcast has just been optioned for an animated TV broadcast. While Krasinski isn’t a journalist and doesn’t claim to be one, various newspapers and TV news stations have been featuring segments called “Good News Only” (Fox Detroit) and “Just Good News” (BBC).
Clearly, there’s an audience for such content, and a lot of people love it. If segments like this are getting people through a tough time, that’s great.
But that said: There’s something about this “good news only” stuff that makes me deeply uneasy. Too much of the time, it’s sappy, unjournalistic, and puts every incentive in place to encourage the most saccharine nonsense imaginable. And even worse than that, it represents news outlets not leveling with their audiences.
This trend encourages news consumers to put their heads in the sand, rather than engage with what’s actually going on.“Good news only” sends a message that news consumers should forget about all of the death and misery and embrace empty-calorie happiness instead.
Take Wales Online, which has a website header that’s titled “Live coronavirus updates that are strictly good news only.” If you’re providing “live coronavirus updates,” by definition, the news isn’t only good.
After all, this isn’t a time of good news. People are dying and losing their jobs all around us. The actual news is very bad!
Yes, the stories are often about legitimate heroism, and they absolutely deserve to be told. (Most of them, at least.)
It’s more of a problem how they’re packaged.
For one, when you look closely, it just seems to be the same six or seven stories over and over. People in a city clapped or honked their horns for doctors and nurses. A soldier, police officer, teacher, or dog did something nice. Someone left an unusual restaurant tip. A bunch of people, sometimes famous ones, got together and had an unexpected singalong. Or, there was a “breakthrough” for a new coronavirus treatment (or maybe not).
Good News Network’s “Dogs Are Joining the Fight Against COVID-19 By Learning to Sniff Out the Virus” might be the quintessential article of this trend. (All it needs is city dwellers clapping for the dogs.)
Again, there’s nothing wrong with most of these stories on their own. Many of them are quite heartwarming and charming.
But presenting them as a package of good news feels forced, as if news outlets are aggressively trying to push a universal feeling. That is a somewhat problematic thing for journalists to do — whether that feeling is fear, jingoism, or over-the-top joy.
Worse, this trend represents a doubling down on some of the very worst existing tendencies in news today. It’s like a hundred little Upworthys have all sprung up at once.
For media outlets to seek audience by emphasizing good news is far from a new idea. It’s been floated from time to time over the years, often by news higher-ups looking at data that audiences prefer good news to bad. This strategy hasn’t usually survived the realization that sometimes, bad things happen, and reporting on them is necessary.
Like most of the worst journalism trends of the 21st century, this one was wholeheartedly embraced by Arianna Huffington, who launched a HuffPost Good News vertical and stated in 2013 that good news was “not just good for the world; it’s good for business.”
The “good news” idea has seemingly ramped up throughout the last decade. There was, of course, Upworthy, which in the 2010s built a whole business model on aggressively happy clickbait, often with cringey headlines that ended with phrases like “…and what happened next was amazing” or “…what happened next will restore your faith in humanity.” That site’s trademark headline construction was said to have inspired Facebook to adjust its algorithm to discourage it.
An entire good-news newspaper called Northside Vibes launched in Virginia in 2014, with a mission to “highlight people who are having a positive impact on the community.” More recently (in 2019), The Philadelphia Inquirer in 2019 launched a weekend “good news” section called The Upside — a name also adopted by The Guardian for its feelgood section. CNN has a newsletter and occasional on-air segment called “The Good Stuff.”
A company called The Good News Movement launched in January and made news after Prince Harry and Meghan Markle endorsed it. Even Silicon Valley has gotten in on the act: In 2018, Google launched a “tell me good news” feature which allowed Google device users to say “tell me something good” and have recited to them “a brief news summary about people who are solving problems for our communities and our world.”
What’s more: It’s not as if such stories aren’t being told already. Implicit in the good-news efforts is the idea that the media are normally too negative and never promote “positive” or “inspirational” content except as part of a dedicated “Good News” vertical. But they do! Constantly!
Have you looked at a local TV station’s Facebook page at any time in the last several years? Or watched The Today Show? It’s a nonstop parade of Kids Overcoming the Odds and This Dog Did Something Amazing and This Baby Said Something Funny and Cops Doing a Cute Choreographed Dance and non-ironic use of the phrase “not all heroes wear capes.”
Or else it’s stories that are presented as uplifting and inspirational but actually say something unintentionally dark about late capitalism: colleagues pooling their vacation time so a coworker can have maternity leave, or children raising money mid-pandemic to pay off classmates’ lunch debt, or something along the lines of “This Employee Has to Walk 10 Miles To and From Work — So His Boss Bought Him New Shoes!” And that’s not to mention the ones that turn out to be fake. Remember the couple, the homeless man, and the GoFundMe campaign?
It’s all the forced-inspirational pap that was associated with the heyday of Upworthy, and soon after became the house style of way too many of America’s news outlets.
Another drawback to all this is that news expressly dedicated to highlighting people doing good works often ends up looking a lot more like public relations than news. Because in a lot of cases, “people who are solving problems for our communities and our world” is another way of saying “people brought to our attention by corporations or famous people engaged in aggressive PR efforts to show exactly how much good they’re doing in our communities and in our world.”
That’s also true of news stories about celebrities or companies who “quietly donated” to relief efforts. The donation is appreciated. But if you or your representatives told the media that you did something, then by definition, you didn’t do it “quietly.”
News media should report good news … when the news is good, instead of all the time. Especially at times like now, when the news isn’t good. Doing it this way is forced, manipulative, and goes way too far in encouraging viewers to feel a certain way. And if Joe Biden gets elected president this November, it probably won’t be because he jumped on the “good news” bandwagon.