Before Ode was founded in 1995, I spent 10 years working for a leading Dutch newspaper. The first couple years in Rotterdam as a reporter, four years as a correspondent in India and then a few more years back in the Netherlands on the editorial staff. These were wonderful years, during which I was given amazing opportunities to write stories about a wide variety of fascinating topics. I worked with colleagues who were also friends and I was proud of the respect and admiration my newspaper enjoyed in Dutch society. And yet at some point I knew for certain that I didn’t want to stay with the paper. Why? Because I was looking for the better story.
The strange paradox of the news business is that on any average day the world’s best papers and radio and television stations are not covering the best stories. The media’s attention is focused on loss, failure, deceit, murder and war. In short: on everything that’s going wrong. If it bleeds, it leads. Bad news sells, says the conventional wisdom. But that’s too simple. I always read the sports section of the newspaper first. I’ve done that forever and I know from experience that I’m not alone. But I recently read a quote explaining this long habit of mine from Earl Warren, the late chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court best known for his role as the leader of a special commission investigating the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Warren said: “I always turn to the sports pages first, which record people’s accomplishments. The front page has nothing but man’s failures.”
There’s a better market out in the world for better stories, if only because increasing numbers of people are growing frustrated by the side effects of all the usual stories told by the media, politicians and advertisers. Ad makers promote sugar substitutes and drugs that promise progress, but are in fact increasingly associated with illness. Business not only brings wealth and comfort, but also destroys nature. Religions promise peace, but spread hatred. And we never appear to reach the goal of security for which—the politicians say—the war was fought.
There is one huge misconception about the news: that stories can be reported with objectivity. But objectivity doesn’t exist. Every story, every observation, every vision is a human choice. In response to a terrorist attack, a politician can choose to inspire fear—or he or she can encourage citizens to embrace courage and self-confidence. That is the politician’s choice.
And: The truth cannot be found in any newspaper. The paper contains the most important news of that day, according to the editorial staff. The news they highlight is their choice, what they have selected as important from a whole world of information. So, you might ask, why do most newspapers and news broadcasts cover the same news events? Journalists display the common human trait of taking their cues from one another. Some call this pack journalism. Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina desribes how this form of “groupthink” works when it comes to the narrow vision that prevails in Western coverage of Africa—see page 49 of Ode's April Issue.
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The media publish the stories their reporters tell. Quite literally. The bar is as high as journalists are raising it. And I think it can—and should—be raised a lot higher. I am not arguing that we—journalists—should spend more time working on our writing or checking our sources more thoroughly. I’m advocating that we should dedicate ourselves to spreading better stories. The same goes for business people, advertisers, film directors and politicians.
In our April Issue, marketing expert Seth Godin writes how, “Hundreds of thousands of Sudanese have died because of bad marketing” (see article on pages 42-45 of Ode's April Issue).
That would seem a painful simplification of the truth, but it is the core of the matter. Every day, 40,000 people around the planet die of hunger because we believe in the wrong stories. The undisputed fact is that enough food and wealth is generated each year for everyone in the world, even for our large, ever-expanding population. Yet we believe in the story that poverty and hunger are inevitable, that it will take decades to solve those problems. But that story is not the truth. It’s clear there are solutions readily available, and I believe it is our duty to tell those stories. I think we can do much better.
These better stories are not an illusion; they are a choice, a calling. The truth is that every day, everywhere in the world at every moment, people are solving problems and finding answers to the challenges of making the world a fairer, cleaner and more beautiful place. Stories about those people and their initiatives are the better stories. If we believe in those stories, we can see a different reality from what’s in the media and we can realize that reality. Utopian? No, every new reality begins with a new story. Just ask Leonardo da Vinci, Albert Einstein or Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. And closer to home: people get better using sugar pills (placebos) because they believe they will get better.
The choice to tell a better story—in whatever form—does not mean denying or hiding from misery and abuse. In Ode we recently wrote a story about banana cultivation in Central and South America. That story starts off as a sad tale of exploitation, unhealthy working conditions and environmental degradation. Plantation workers are paid a meagre wage and forced to work with chemicals that undermine their health and that of their children. That is reality. Bad news. But it’s not where our story ended. That bad news was, in fact, the beginning of a story about solutions. We found other plantations where bananas are grown using ecological methods and where the workers can live healthy lives and be paid fairly. Those organic, fair-trade bananas offer consumers all over the world the option of making a daily contribution to progress. That is the better story.
It’s the kind of story that withstands what I call the Gandhi test. A wealthy entrepreneur once presented Gandhi with a business problem and asked what to do. Gandhi suggested the businessman think of the poorest woman or man he knew and ask himself whether his solution to that problem would make a positive contribution to the life of that woman or man. Gandhi said: “If that’s the case, it is a good decision. If it is not, you shouldn’t do it.”
I think this Gandhi test is applicable to most of us all the time—even though the circumstances of our lives may differ dramatically from the poverty in India then and now. Businesspeople everywhere can ask themselves whether the product they want to introduce to the market will make their customers lives better in the long run. Seth Godin puts it well: “If I knew what you know, would I buy what you’re selling?” Every politician faces the question of whether the policy he or she is presenting will be in the interest of most people even after the next elections. Every journalist can ask him or herself whether a story is truly the best story he or she could tell, whether it’s a story that will help the world progress.
A great many of the initiatives and stories that fill up the daily news don’t pass the Gandhi test. But that doesn’t mean politics, business and entertainment have to come to a standstill. Better stories lead to better policies, more customers and satisfied audiences. Sometimes, the difference between the usual story and the better story is subtle. It is the difference between the half-full and half-empty glass—not the difference between heaven and hell. There are problems in our world and things do go wrong. But we always have the chance to choose a better story. That’s not naiveté; it is intelligent optimism.
Better stories change the world—one reader or listener at a time. They promote progress, inspire the recipients and fulfill the messengers. That’s why those stories convey the same sense of accomplishment as Earl Warren found in the sports pages. As I’m writing this, I’m watching the Super Bowl. And I’m already looking forward to tomorrow’s paper.
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