Does the Media Have a Negative Effect on Innovation?

October 30, 2012

A recent article by Matt Ridley in the Wall Street Journal entitled "The Perils of Always Ignoring the Bright Side" got me thinking. Using the examples of GM crops and shale gas, Ridley makes the argument that the media’s singular interest in reporting negative outcomes has caused us to miss the potentially significant benefits of these two innovations. “Good news is deemed less newsworthy than the bad,” he writes, and as a result new technologies are harder than ever to get adopted.

It seems to me that this doesn’t just apply to innovations—where there may need to be a balancing of negative and positive—but also to new ideas that are clearly good. If good news is uninteresting to the media, then one of our most powerful tools for spreading new ideas and speeding the uptake of new approaches is lost to us. At a time when some of the most pressing problems are, at their root, issues of behavior it is tragic that the single most powerful tool for affecting behavior, storytelling, is being underutilized because the business of media perceives bad news to be the only way to engage an audience.

What are the alternatives? It is interesting to me that arguably the most successful new media venture of the last decade takes an almost entirely positive view on storytelling. TED has evolved from a cloistered conference for the technological elite to a storytelling machine consisting of hundreds of TEDx conferences a year and millions of downloads of TED talk videos. The success of this venture, and the appeal it seems to have with the young, suggests that a more optimistic approach has a market and is capable of inspiring engagement and action.

A reasonable criticism of TED is that it does a wonderful job of describing a high level idea in 18 minutes or less. This gives little time for a balanced explanation and a measured exploration of the implications of a given idea.

David Bornstein is advocating positive journalism through his organizations, and the Solutions Journalism Network. I am hopeful that Bornstein’s approach will result in deep, balanced, but essentially optimistic and helpful journalism that helps good ideas spread and scale. You can see David talking more about the thinking behind solutions journalism here.

Where are the best examples you’ve seen of balanced, solutions-focused journalism that’s helping the spread of new ideas?

Drawing by Beau Bergeron / Courtesy of IDEO.

(posted also on my LinkedIn Thought Leader blog)