In just the last few days, the bodies of the three kidnapped Israeli teenagers were found in the West Bank, a teenager from Livingston was gunned down in West Orange and another teenager leaving a party in Maplewood was shot multiple times in his legs.
People die by the hundreds in storms, wars and famines, but put a face to a senseless death, and make it a teenager’s, and it’s just heartbreaking.
These, at least, were all valid news stories for me to know about. The first is a story of international proportions. The latter two took place within 10 miles of my house.
But Gawker — which shows up in my Facebook feed — makes sure I know of every senseless death it can find, including ones with neither political nor geographical relevance to me: The man who caused a fatal accident by trying to rescue a cat on a highway, a 24-year-old who got killed when she puked out the window of a moving vehicle, the 18-year-old who drowned after being tied to a shopping cart just hours after he graduated from high school, the bride killed on the way to her own bachelorette party.
News has always been largely about bad stuff. We don’t make stories about rainbows and unicorns. But lately, because of the way news is distributed, passed from acquaintance to acquaintance through social networks, we’re getting more news hand-selected for its lurid appeal. The younger the victim, the stupider their mistake, the closer to a happy milestone like a graduation or a wedding, the better. Connect the death to an act of Good Samaritanism and you can hit it out of the park.
And this is only one reason it’s depressing to be in the news business these days.
As it happens, I was simmering in my own little stew of discontent the other day when it was time to attend a workshop I had signed up for weeks ago. Called The Happiness Advantage, the workshop featured videos of the preternaturally cheerful Shawn Achor, a Harvard-trained scholar of positive psychology.
Among the things we learned about was The Tetris Effect, discovered after a Harvard experiment in which students played the game Tetris for hours on end. As it turned out, people who play too much Tetris train their brains to scan constantly for shapes and how they fit together. Take them to a grocery store, and they’re likely to want to rearrange the bread.
Now, take away the Tetris and let the brain scan for something else. Take a fellow at an accounting firm whose day job is to scan tax documents for preparer error. He gets so good at scanning for errors that he comes home and does the same thing around the house — pointing out his wife’s and children’s mistakes. You can guess how that goes.
Now consider how journalists are trained to approach the world: to listen for senseless killings and fatal accidents, ferret out corruption and misspending, drive into storms and interview people who’ve lost everything, and watch people whittle fortunes away fighting each other in court. We scan the world constantly and efficiently for conflict and distress.
We are trained to do this very, very quickly and God forbid we ever make a mistake. “Corrections,” Chip Scanlan wrote on Poynter in 2007, “are journalism’s equivalent of Puritan-era stocks, clamping a wrongdoer feet, hands or head inside heavy wood frames, on humiliating display in the town square.”
This was always the case, why actors like Ed Asner and Edward G. Robinson were cast to play journalists. But now, journalists do this dirty work of information shoveling in newsrooms depleted by staff cuts and always under threat of more — scanning constantly for bad news about ad sales or a boss’s averted glance.
And we’re all expected to scan as well for future business models, new technologies, what’s trending on Twitter and where all the hot shots in the business are going.
I’m not saying that garbage collectors or morticians have the life of Riley, or that the public should be taking out their handkerchiefs to weep for us. What I am saying is that we may have a systemic problem with mental health in our business.
Perhaps that’s why we like award ceremonies so much.
The solution? Other than giving ourselves more awards?
According to Shawn Achor, society trains us to believe that we’ll be happy if we’re successful, but it’s really exactly the reverse: Happiness breeds success.
Moreover, he argues that happiness can be inculcated by developing some rather modest good habits. If we train ourselves to write down three things we’re grateful for every day, he says, we’ll start scanning the world for things that make us grateful. We should meditate more and multitask less. Keep a box of thank you notes on our desks, and use them. For 21 days, choose one of the above. (It takes 21 days for a new pattern to become habitual.)
I can’t guarantee that any of this will work, particularly for hard-bitten journalist types. But I do know that we’re not very good to ourselves. I remember participating in a #wjchat Twitter session where the question came up of how newsrooms could be pleasanter. The biggest dream anyone had was for coffee that hadn’t been sitting in the pot for hours getting bitter.
I’ve been in Google offices in both New York and San Francisco, and seen what our Brothers and Sisters of Search take as their due: bubble tea, massage rooms, sleep pods. Best yet — and this is something that news organizations should borrow a page from — is “20% time,” the one day a week Googlers are allowed to work on projects of their own, rather than assignments.
And would it kill us to occasionally find some good news to report on? To take a break from cannibal cops and deranged gunmen once in a while? I know it wouldn’t. It’s actually part of the mission of three news sites in Newark: Glocally Newark, Newark Pulse and Brick City Live.
When Derek Ware, publisher of Glocally Newark, first told me he concentrates on good news out of Newark, I was a bit taken aback. That’s not what real journalists do. In fact, it’s the opposite of what real journalists do. Now, I understand. Yes, Newark hit the triple-digit murder mark on Christmas night last year. But then there’s much to celebrate in Newark as well. Like unofficial city historian Clement Price, and his favorite landmarks. How did I never notice the statue of Abraham Lincoln sitting on a bench next to Essex Historic Courthouse?
There — something to write down in my gratitude file.
I’m not saying that good news stories, gratitude, and bubble tea will save journalism. Maybe nothing can save journalism. But even as the Titanic went down, the band played on.
Debbie Galant is associate director of the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State. Before starting at Montclair State in 2012, Debbie ran Bartistanet, one of the first hyperlocal only sites in the country, which she founded in 2004.