Remember the three monkeys, one advising, "Hear no evil," the second adding, "See no evil," and the third counseling, "Speak no evil"? From time to time, some readers sound a lot like those three monkeys, asking newspaper editors why they don't publish more good news and less bad news.
Recently Thomas W. Jobson, managing editor of the Asbury Park (N.J.) Press and chairman of a national editors' committee, took up this topic in an article he called, "Is News Bad (for Editors) If It's Good?" Mr. Jobson argues for more upbeat stories that tell of individual achievements, that rouse feelings of pride and occasionally relate episodes that provoke a laugh or a smile. He thinks editors don't try hard enough to find such stories and get them into the paper. The editor acknowledged that defining "good news" is a problem in itself. He cites a gruesome extreme -- an execution could be "good news" if the reader favored capital punishment. "The fact is that good news is in the eyes of the beholder," he adds.
Strangely, while people profess to want news about good people doing good things, it is the bad news that they really read, talk about and are concerned about -- conflict, misconduct, crime, crashes, hurricanes and disease, for example. This affects editors' decisions as they try to wedge hundreds of columns of material into dozens of columns of space. "Editors can't find enough space on any given day for the bad news, let alone the good news," an editor pointed out.
Mr. Jobson, chairman of the Associated Press Managing Editors committee, told about an AP story last May reporting that a three-year study of midshipmen at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis found there was no indication of drug use. The story received little attention.
"Had the situation been reversed -- 'Middies Found to Use Drugs' -- the story probably would have received wide exposure," Mr. Jobson writes. (The Post did use a brief item on the "good news" in the Metro section, but then Annapolis is close by.)
Sometimes "good news" writers are at the mercy of their sources. Last week, for example, Post reporter Christine Russell wrote on page 1 about an exciting new cancer therapy, noting some cautions in her sixth and seventh paragraphs. Newsweek made it a cover story, and some network anchors conducted first-person interviews. This week, though, there was less enthusiasm -- and some bitterness -- when it was disclosed that a patient using the therapy had died.
There are some special efforts at The Post to recognize achievement -- to serve as a sort of community honor roll. The list includes some of the Style profiles, tributes in Sports columns, promotions noted in Business and Finance, government appointments announced inside the front pages and Metro section and honors bestowed in the various District, Maryland and Virginia weekly sections.
Sometimes "good news" breaks out on page 1. Thursday's article by Stan Hinden, headlined "Area Becomes Stronghold for Investors: Washington Ranked Fourth in the Nation," was "good news" for the business community, particularly the securities division, and for all who commend savings and investment. Benjamin Franklin lived in Philadelphia, but his principles are accruing interest in Greater Washington.
A week earlier, Blaine Harden's dispatch from Korem, Ethiopia, reporting "Famine's Grip Loosened in Ethiopia -- Morgue at Feeding Station Empty After International Drive," was featured on page 1. Mr. Harden contrasted his most recent visit with that of a year earlier, when disaster abounded in the famine camp. Last year there were "as many as 100 corpses a day"; this time there were none. He saw instead "fat-cheeked children" playing and singing.
Both stories represented special efforts by reporters and extra interest by editors to capture good news and present it prominently on page 1. Mr. Jobson's message to the editors of big and little papers is to try harder to shoehorn in more "good news." It takes work, but it wears well.