Monday, October 28, 2013

Giving Good News its Due

News reports tend to emphasize the negative about any change proposed for or imposed on society, deepening the challenge of altering the status quo. Government's failures are put on full display, while its successes are given short shrift. Proactive efforts are seldom given credit when they succeed. Expressions of worst case scenarios, meant to discourage us from attempting change of any sort, go unchallenged. This focus on bad news ingrains in the public a belief that we cannot collectively solve our collectively created problems.

An exception to that can be found in a New York Times report entitled "Few problems with cannabis for California", which appeared on page A1 of Sunday's paper. Though it begins with a paragraph filled with negative aspects of marijuana legalization, it quickly pivots towards the positive in subsequent paragraphs, beginning with a dismissal of common fears associated with legalization:
"Warnings voiced against partial legalization — of civic disorder, increased lawlessness and a drastic rise in other drug use — have proved unfounded."
Reports of communities having trouble with legalized medical marijuana are followed immediately by solutions other communities have found to those problems:
"And though Los Angeles has struggled to regulate marijuana dispensaries, with neighborhoods upset at their sheer number, the threat of unsavory street traffic and the stigma of marijuana shops on the corner, communities that imposed early and strict regulations on their operations have not experienced such disruption."
Though potential downsides to legalizing marijuana are mentioned, so are the various upsides, such as increased tax revenue, reduced crime, and evidence that people use marijuana as a substitute for alcohol. Because marijuana supposedly does not impair drivers as much as alcohol, the reduction in alcohol use could lead to fewer traffic accidents. (Not that anyone would want to drive after using either one.)

What seems unusual here is not only the positive slant, which dismisses fears and then reports on how pro-active efforts by government have paid off, but also the embedding of this positive story in the fabric of the article.

Imagine if reports of floods, rather than devoting themselves to long testimonials of victims, would instead emphasize that towns with stricter regulation of development in flood zones suffered less destruction. Or if reports of wildfires, while documenting the damage and personal trauma, gave equal coverage to those areas where proactive "fuel-reduction" burns performed in previous years had saved forests and communities. Or if reports of weather extremes would integrate into the fabric of the text the link these extremes have with the use of fossil fuels, thereby showing that action now could reduce destructive storms later.

Though readers would lose some of the spectator thrills of bad news, we would gain the empowering sense that there are solutions out there. Government would be portrayed not so much as the entity that comes in and cleans up the mess, but the entity that did what it takes to forestall disaster.

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