Reading Changes Your Brain – Positive Journalism Can Change Our Concepts

Words shape the Brain. Image CC0
Words shape the Brain. Image CC0

For me, the topic of sustainability is primarily about global governance, ethics, policies, social and political action. When talking with others, however, many steer the discussion immediately towards individual decisions with respect to private consumption, biking, car or airplane use, recycling behavior, etc.

These are important topics. Education and altruistic behavior play an important role in laying the foundations for the societal acceptance of change. But it is not the solution. Very few people are able to gather all necessary information to make fully informed decisions. And even fewer people are able to always make rational decisions – I included. We need to feed the market decisions system with the right information. We do need trusted labels to inform responsible consumers. But we also need taxes and border-taxes (tariffs) to make sure products are priced such that the costs to society, the environment, and future generations are included. And we do need regulation: Some things need to be prohibited. Like installing sharp metal spikes on the front of your car, just because you like that look.

Why are these, political aspects of the discussion so often off the radar for many people? One interesting answer can be found in a recent Guardian article: Neoliberalism has conned us into fighting climate change as individuals (July 2017).

I agree with much being said there. But I have a suspicion that journalism and social media also has a role in this:

Bad news about the world – its state or future – are bad. Without clear options for action, most likely they cause fear, resentment, and denial. They do not motivate action. And a flood of bad news may lead to political alienation or votes for fascist candidates (which promise to be the strong solver of all problems…). To overcome this, communicators can:

  1. Engage in something I call “Positive Journalism” (I mad that up – is there an existing name?), selectively seeking and publishing positive news, even if they only report secondary aspects or small progress of a major topic. John Foley says: “Want to actually make the world better with scicomm? Talk about hope more than fear, solutions more than problems, stories more than data.”
  2. Engage in “Constructive Journalism”, which reports the bad news, but goes into enough depth to name causes and explicitly show options for positive, constructive action. (in German see, e. g., Wer gegen Konstruktiven Journalismus ist, hat ihn nicht verstanden) It will gladly embark on progress and positive news, but will show progress in relation to targets and will highlight gaps.

Both options are valid. I believe the second is better, but the first is easier. In some cases and for some audiences, it may be the only realistic one.

But I believe one effect of the first option is underestimated: it changes our perception, our concept of a topic (i. e., the semantics of the semaphore). So, if we largely fail to make good progress in decarbonizing our energy system as a whole (i.e., including transportation, heating, etc.), but making good progress in increasing renewable energy in the electrical power sector, much good news about the latter will be reported. And as a result, many people believe that achieving 33 % Renewable energy in the power sector means that we have progressed one third towards the solution of decarbonizing the energy sector (whereas in reality only about 10% of global energy consumption is supplied by modern renewables (wind, water, solar; data for 2015 from Renewables 2017 Global Status Report, ren21.net).

If among the 17 sustainable development goals we make good progress in some but have problems in others, Positive Journalism would large report on the ones making progress. As a result, the public perception of what sustainable development is about, being changed.

And similarly, if most positive stories relate to individual consumer decisions, our perception of the priorities of the sustainability agenda shifts from the political sphere towards the private consumer sphere.

More Constructive Journalism, please. And more courage to explicitly name the gaps (also known as bad news), including perhaps who is working on it and is underfunded…

I look forward to your feedback …

Gregor Hagedorn (updated 2018-01-12)


(© Gregor Hagedorn 2017, CC BY-SA 4.0, publ. 2017-11-06, updated 2018-02-04)

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