Shoptalk: Why Add Stress to Your Audience?

By: John L. Robinson

What if you knew that one of the major story lines in your paper added to the daily stress of your readership? Would you react to that? Would you figure out how to help your readers process that storyline differently?

What if you knew that “news” in general, added to the stress of your viewership? Would it change your news judgment on what and how you broadcast?

A recent report by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, not on news per se, but on American stress said that “Americans cited ‘hearing about what the government or politicians are doing’ as the most frequent daily stressor on their lives, and at a substantially higher rate than the usual annoyances like commuting, chores and general schedule-juggling.”

Think about that for a moment: “The most frequent daily stressor on their lives.”

No. 2 on the list was “Watching the news.”

What does this mean for news organizations? A great deal, but my guess is that few will give the survey a second thought. They have enough surveys and enough problems. After all, news consumption is up, even as people actually paying for newspapers has declined for years and the audience for broadcast news is sinking.

But it’s a huge opportunity for those that want to think seriously about their future. Yes, the news is stressful, but your reporting of it doesn’t always have to be. Go out and talk to people and listen to what they tell you. Here is a short version of what I’d say:

Give less about political bickering. Fights between politicians create a great deal of smoke but little fire. One story ( about an ethics accusation that is quickly disproved is a good example. Most people don’t care about the kind of middle-school fighting that makes up today’s politics. I know when it’s election time these stories happen. But understand that people are angry at politicians and government. Figure out how your coverage acknowledges and adapts to that.

Give me less about government operations that have little impact on people. Rather, present government stories from the vantage of how actions affect real people, rather than politicians.

I know better than to suggest TV turn down political ad money. But you must realize that people hate attack ads. They even make me—a political junkie—change the channel. This is my favorite ( “People don’t like political ads.” I don’t know how you alleviate that—would fact-checking them hurt your bottom line?—but I’d get your experts working on it.

The axiom of “if-it-bleeds-it-leads” may work to increase viewership, but it is a dereliction of your community responsibility. This fear-mongering is wrong on every psychological level. And there is data for that ( and the unnecessary stress it puts in viewers’ minds. Most of us are not consumed by murder or break-ins or traffic fatalities. Few of your viewers know the victims. What is the public service value you’re offering?

Give me more of two things: investigative reporting and stories of success (

Investigative reporting implies negative reporting about government. But focusing on issues that matter to your readers and viewers is the key, which leads back to asking them. For me, I’d say cut through the bullshit ( and tell me what’s what. If a politician speaks political double-speak—and watch “House of Cards” for what that is—don’t quote them or call them on it.

Stories of success—last year I called the good news stories (—inform and reflect the community more than political stories or crime stories. They reduce stress in people’s lives, and they get talked about.

Plotting your future in this news world is tough. What we know is that ignoring customers, doing little different and playing it safe isn’t the correct path.

John L. Robinson is a former newspaper executive, most recently serving as the editor of the News & Record in Greensboro, N.C. He currently teaches at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and writes the blog, “Media, Disrupted.” Contact him at his blog site at

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