Positive stories are not newsworthy

Terminal 5 has been operating almost without a glitch for some time now and most days passengers are getting their bags - yes all of them - within 15 minutes of reaching the arrival hall.

But most people will not know this, or at least they will not have read it in a paper or seen it on a news bulletin. A disaster story is so much more appealing than one of recovery.

I used to take the view that the press do not report bad news per se, they report the unusual. It just so happened that when something was out of the ordinary it tended also to be bad. This is because one expects things to work normally - a plane landing smoothly at Heathrow is not news. It becomes news when the plane lands short, as one did a few months ago. This is reported not because it is bad news but because, thankfully, it is unusual.

In their defence, the press also report good news, when it is unusual. The big change in the reporting of the global credit crunch in recent weeks has been the move from speculation that we are all doomed, to coverage of a variety of statements from bankers and politicians that the worst of the banking crisis may be over. But that is newsworthy not because it is good but because it is unusual.

However my complacency about the fairness of the press approach has been shaken in recent weeks by, of all people, Alastair Campbell. Talking about the state of the press recently he said that an analysis he had done when in Downing Street showed that in 1974 the ratio of stories in the national press was three positive to one negative. By 2003 however this had shifted to one positive to 18 negative. If you believe that the press tend to reflect society rather than lead it this represents a massive cultural shift.

The Sunday Express sold 3.3 million when I worked for it in 1973 compared to well under one million now. If you believe the collapse in newspaper sales since the early 1970s shows that newspapers no longer reflect what the market wants, there is still a major problem. In the face of such unrelenting negativity there seems very little that can be done in PR terms other than to keep pressing home the positive messages. News is ephemeral. In the longer term the true story will get through.

Anthony Hilton is City commentator on London's Evening Standard.

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