And now, some good news.
In the view of Harvard professor Steven Pinker, there’s a lot of it.
In fact, Pinker, a professor in Harvard’s psychology department, says humans have never had it so good.
Thanks to scientific advancements – think vaccines, refrigeration and electricity as examples – we are less likely to die of starvation or disease.
We also are better educated, which means we are better able to care for ourselves, economically, physically and mentally.
And we have learned to better co-exist and cooperate, meaning less violence and fewer wars.
Pinker makes his case in his book, “Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress.”
For example, worldwide, life expectancy even in relatively wealthy nations was less than 40 years in 1800. Now it’s more than 70.
He credits the progress to humans’ ability to reason, to act collectively and to strive for better societies.
Not everyone agrees. And even some who agree with his conclusion – that the world is a better place than it used to be – disagree about how we got to this point.
Some reject Pinker because he does not give enough credit to God and religion.
Others think Pinker is unfairly critical of President Donald Trump and his policies.
And still others dismiss Pinker because he is not critical enough of Trump or capitalism.
Even if you don’t like Pinker’s views on politics and religion, it’s worth considering his argument that we should be more cognizant of the progress made.
Writing a related opinion piece for The Guardian, Pinker says news today focuses on the negative, largely because that’s the nature of news.
“News is about things that happen,” he writes, “not things that don’t happen. We never see a journalist saying to the camera, ‘I’m reporting live from a country where a war has not broken out’ – or a city that has not been bombed, or a school that has not been shot up.”
While community newspapers regularly carry lots of good news – about fairs and festivals, students’ achievement and growing businesses – those aren’t the stories most of us remember. And those sorts of stories get little or no attention from national media.
But Pinker’s notions of good news are bigger, and the developments are often too incremental to gain much attention.
He cites research by Kalev Leetaru to argue that papers such as the New York Times have grown increasingly negative. Using huge databases of articles over about 50 years, Leetaru’s analysis showed newspapers tended to grow more negative over the decades.
In his Guardian piece, Pinker focuses on the consequences of this negative focus – pessimism, lack of hope, misplaced fears, poor risk assessment.
For journalists, an equally important consideration is accuracy.
Are we accurately reflecting the world when we typically react to negative events and seldom focus on trends and developments that make lives better?
Pinker is no Pollyanna. He suggests in The Guardian, for example, that the media’s negative tendencies aided Trump’s campaign, as Trump exploited voters’ fears – fears nurtured by news that focused on bad things happening to people.
I don’t wholly agree with that premise, but the data collected by Pinker and others ought to make news organizations and news consumers pause and think.
We should question how well informed we really are about our world.
In an interview with PBS to promote his book, Pinker said:
“… People have become so cynical about our ability to deal with problems that they either withdraw from politics altogether or embrace radicalism, the calls to smash the machine, to drain the swamp, to burn the empire, to hand power to charismatic would-be dictators, as only I can fix it.
“That’s appealing if you think that the incremental technocratic solutions are failing. It’s only when you zoom out and look at the historical trajectory, you realize that some of these incremental measures really can work over the long run.”
So, just because there’s no “breaking news” tagline on the screen doesn’t mean it’s not news. We often need the context of history and a sense of the larger world to accurately represent today’s events and to inform our decisions about tomorrow.
A native of Garden City, Julie Doll is a former journalist who has worked at newspapers in California, Indiana and New York, as well as across Kansas.