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Is Mandating Positive News Good for Us?

written by Senia Maymin 3 May 2007

Senia Maymin, MBA, MAPP, PhD, is the coauthor of Profit from the Positive. Maymin is an executive coach to entrepreneurs and CEOs. Maymin runs a coaches network and is the founder and editor in chief of PositivePsychologyNews.com. Her PhD is in organizational behavior from the Stanford Graduate School of Business. Full bio.

Senia's solo articles are here, her articles with Margaret Greenberg here, and with Kathryn Britton here.



What do you do if you’re running a news radio station, and suddenly your new management which has heavy ties to the government comes in to tell you that you now must report at least 50 percent positive news? 

The New York Times reported last week that this happened to the employees at Russia’s largest independent radio network.  Listeners are asking, “How independent is it, any longer?”  If you were that employee, you may start to realize that something is very, very wrong, and that you are being puppeteered. 

The public radio program Fair Game wanted to know what positive psychology thought of this story.  Having found Positive Psychology News Daily, they wanted an opinion on whether mandating positive news is good.  They interviewed me, and the program appeared in 25 markets in the U.S. (you can listen to the 6-minute interview here or read more detail here).

Is It Appropriate to Mandate Positive News?

You might think that as Editor of Positive Psychology News Daily, I would wholeheartedly support more positive news in the world (“What is Positive Psychology?“).  The interviewer for the radio program thought so too.  But it really doesn’t matter what a Positive Psychology-trained coach would think about the benefits of “positive” news – some Positive Psychologists may be for more positive news and some may be against.   What matters is what it is moral to do.  The news is the news is the news.  If you are the government and you censor the news, then you are taking away the people’s right to hear. 

The specific mandate, as reported by the New York Times, was that news about Russia must be “at least 50 percent positive,” and that “opposition leaders could not be mentioned on the air and the United States was to be portrayed as an enemy.”  Not only is this not positive news, but this is clear censorship

On the other hand, if you are the owner of a radio station, and you decide to run a “positive news only” radio station, then you are on solid moral ground. It’s when the government steps in to voice its position and forcibly requires new rules that change the content that it’s a violation of principle – the news staff was forced into this new arrangement.  On this site, we cover positive stories (such as great schoolspraise and performance, and savoring) as well as non-positive stories (such as the Virginia shooting, cancer, and the Holocaust)  I happen to be a big fan of the Good News Network and of HappyNews – those sites are positive by editorial choice, which is entirely different from this news story about the new Russian mandate.

And it doesn’t even matter what the Russian government’s motivations may be.  Suppose that all psychologists everywhere found out decisively that we need more positive news.  It would be wrong to base news policy on a finding like this.  Let’s take the more extreme example I described on air – suppose that all psychologists found out that getting rid of all journalists makes the world a happier society – even if that were the case, it would not be moral to do.  Nobody can treat people as slaves and decide for them what is best for them – what they can and cannot hear, who can and cannot live.

Why Do We as Americans React So Strongly? 

There was a bittersweet tone to our joking during the interview.  The host and I both reacted strongly to this news as a frightening direction for Russia.  But why psychologically-speaking did we react so strongly?  Maybe because we see the same direction of censorship gathering momentum in the U.S. as well.

As an example, the Fairness Doctrine that is being brought into the Senate by Bernie Sanders would limit the media’s editorial choice of what to include and what not to include in a news story.  As another example, the Patriot Act has allowed the government to impinge civil liberties and search library records through “sneak and peek” searches.  While we’re laughing at the crazy Russian mandate, in a sense we may be laughing at some of what we see around us.

Image: Pravda.

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Kathryn Britton 4 May 2007 - 5:13 pm


When I read your story, I remembered 5 years of work on a school district task force as a parent volunteer. Every time ANYTHING about what we were doing was reported in the local newspaper, it was reported in terms of outrage — with the apparent intent of striking sparks in the tinder of people who had special interests that might have to sacrifice something to the good of the whole. There was NEVER a story about the work we were doing to learn about and balance interests that initially appeared conflicting. Never anything about meetings we had with teachers to brainstorm possible implementations.

My husband used to say, “Well that’s what sells newspapers.” But what if there had been an incentive for the newspaper to dig a little deeper — to see the real issues, to celebrate the persistence and … dare I say bravery … of people who worked out the proposals?

As the child of a librarian, I was raised on resistence to censorship. But I don’t think this is necessarily so (OK – blanking out the opposition voice clearly is). It’s a little bit like asking McDonalds to start having a few healthy options. They won’t necessarily make money of it — at least in the short term. But they can have an impact on the public good.

I think your point is well taken that we are not immune to censorship here. But perhaps asking for views of the positive is not so much limiting the choice of the media — which is already limited by the bandwidth of the public and the prejudices of the the people making the choices — but instead asking them to try pointing the lens differently.

Also, perhaps it is not just what they write/speak about, but also the way they frame it. Remember Kahneman’s examples — saying you have a 10% chance of dying sounds quite different from a 90% chance of living.


Nick Hall 5 May 2007 - 12:09 am

I agree with Senia. It is one thing if the editor-in-chief of an independently run newspaper comes in and says “50% positive stuff, people!” It’s his call. He is free to do that. It is entirely something else when the government comes in and tells you to do that. The government is there to support the environment so that everyone can be free… free to be positive OR negative! 🙂

This brings me to another thought regarding positive psychology. We may look at PP as the gospel to happiness and the good life. We must remember that ours is an emerging science. Just because we may, through scientific study, discover that this or that behavior/thought/social norm is correlated with unhappiness, depression, lowered self-esteem, or what-have-you DOES NOT make it imperative that we MUST wipe it out. The world is still FREE to choose happiness or its less-than-ideal alternative.


Oh, p.s. Hooray for our editor getting on national radio!!

Margaret Greenberg 6 May 2007 - 9:33 am

Senia, I am so HAPPY that you represented the field of Positive Psychology so well – both objectively & balanced. Congratulations! Margaret

Senia 6 May 2007 - 11:10 pm

Kathryn: Thank you for the thoughts. It is sometimes very dark to read the papers – just like you say, a group of people might be working on something only to have that work presented in the media in a certain way. That’s unfortunate. However, in that situation, I wouldn’t say that it’s right for the government to say to a newspaper, “Please be nicer to all groups” or “Please be nicer to this group over here – they’ve pulled the short straw too many times.”

And with the McDonald’s example, absolutely not. If I am the CEO of McDonald’s, and the government tells me that I should have some healthy options, I think that’s absolutely wrong – for everyone. It’s just like the parent saying to the child, “clean your room because I say so.” If, on the other hand, enough consumers fill out the little comment cards and ask for salad, and then McDonald’s starts offering salad, then that’s great.

It’s like the difference between push marketing and pull marketing. If the government pushes something, then all the incentives and dynamics mess up. If the customer pulls something (like salads at McDonald’s or more positive news stories), then all the incentives line up. (And there are ways for editors to keep a finger on the pulse of readers’ desires for more positive news stories.)

I completely agree with you – that Kahneman’s research shows that people have interesting biases. Still, mandating positive news creates the wrong incentives and holds no moral right – I really see censorship as black and white.

Nick: I agree with that – Positive Psychology is very much an emerging science, and it’s like Martin Seligman says, “We can be descriptive, but not prescriptive” in our findings. Furthermore, this is very true: “The world is still FREE to choose happiness or its less-than-ideal alternative.” Thank you for these thoughts.

Margaret: Thank you much.

Kathryn Britton 7 May 2007 - 11:23 am


There’s where you and I differ. I don’t see much of anything in life as black and white.


Angus Skinner 7 May 2007 - 1:07 pm

What a fabulous interview! Really well done – feisty and human and balanced and all sorts…
Yakov have you listened to this? You should.
Well done Senia, you took them by surprise by stressing the moral dimensions and continued to take them by surprise. I think this is a great snippet of what positive psychology is about – articulated with courage, confidence and insight.

As to the mandate questions – well is it the government or the moghuls? On election day in Scotland last week the Sun (owned by Rupert Murdoch) had a front-page wholly devoted to a graphic of a noose and the words that voting for the SNP (the Scottish National Party – in favour of independence) would be putting Scotland’s head in a noose. The Record (twice the circulation) devoted its front page to similar (less graphic) frighteners against voting for the SNP. I am not sure whether the SNP’s most important opposition was the incumbent government or the incumbent media.

The SNP won, by one seat, and arguments and discussions will continue as to how to move forward (and there are legal actions reminiscent of Al Gore’s lose).

If our brains tend to the negative then it is easier for the media (with incredibly short deadlines – and no need to maintain consistency, indeed no posibility for doing so) to always report the negative (quicker to write, and more likely to attract attention). But in terms of exploiting these dynamics surely US and US media moghuls are as far ahead of Russia as the US was in respect of atomic bombs.

I think that for the human world to survive then we must find some ways to recalibrate media – and young people seem to be doing exactly that.

Great piece Senia – and great interveiw,

Best aye

Senia 7 May 2007 - 5:13 pm

Angus: Thanks for the comments, and you’re right – Yakov should hear this! (I’ll email him!)

>>As to the mandate questions – well is it the government or the moghuls?

In this case, if you read the article (which is subscription only unfortunately), it was the government. I completely see your point about media moguls having a very large say in the tone of news. That is a serious truth. It just depends how people decide to deal with it and how people choose what to hear and see. People pressured McDonald’s and Burger King to have healthier menus. People can and may in the future pressure the news organizations. People make huge choices by what they buy, watch, listen to, and read. Thanks, Angus!


Jeff Dustin 7 May 2007 - 8:02 pm

Government has a responsibility to promote the welfare of its citizens. While I am an advocate for free speech and other related First Amendment rights, I don’t fully understand why it is ok for a private business owner to say: “Ok boys and girls, 50% happy stories, 50% macabre.”

Why is it ok for the private sector to make decisions which are only accountable (at best) to the stakeholder when government is accountable (at best) to its contituents? I see the private sector as far less accountable (Enron is the poster child for this kind of rampant corruption). When a news mogul mandates a percentage of happy news, that is not necessarily a good thing either.

The media is obsessed with attaching smiley faces to EVERYTHING EVERYTHING to do with happiness research. Is that a good thing?

Senia 7 May 2007 - 10:46 pm

Hi Jeff,

Let me clarify. If a media owner decides that she wants specific content, that doesn’t bother me – there’s nothing wrong with that MORALLY. She is deciding what content she wants in order to run her business. It’s her station.  A private media owner can put anything she wants in her magazine (as we can see by the huge number of topic-specific magazines, online sites, TV shows, etc.). If a news station owner mandates a percentage of happy news, I can switch channels. The news owner doesn’t owe me anything. The government owes me to keep my rights and to not take away my rights.

The government does NOT know what is in my best interests.  The problem as I see it, Jeff, is that scientific studies are based on averages and general results. And to extrapolate from those to something that will be good for everybody is faulty. It may not be good for you, for Jeff, and why should you have to deal with that – even if it may be theoretically good for 90% of the people, for example? Some things need to be decided on principle, like free speech.


p.s.  Jeff, I think the media attaches a smiley face to happiness research because it’s easy.  It’s just like the media attaches a mountain image to goal-setting research and your email inbox still shows an envelope icon – it’s easy.  It’s a shortcut.  This happiness-related article in NY Magazine from last year was especially enthusiastic about using the smiley (e.g. rubix cube smiley), in fact getting artists to make personal versions of the smiley face illustration.  Also, in this article, Chris Peterson has a great quote (this page):

Peterson, the inventor of the Authentic Happiness Inventory, is clearly aware of how easily these ideas can be trivialized. The afternoon I visit him in Philadelphia, he lingers in his doorway before saying good-bye, telling me he has one final request.

“Harvey Ball,” he says, “was a Massachusetts graphic designer who was commissioned to do an ad for an insurance company. He was paid a whopping $45 for it. Neither he nor the company thought to trademark it. It belongs to the world.”

Interesting, I tell him, though I’m uncertain where this is going.

“He created the yellow smiley face,” he says. “Please don’t use it to illustrate your story.”

Erika 26 May 2007 - 5:41 pm

I am surprised that no one has brought up the difference between the government mandating a particular behavior (McDonald’s must have healthy food) and the government encouraging a particular behavior (imposing a tax on unhealthy food items similar to those on tabacco or alcohol). I feel that the later is generally unacceptable but the later is generally fine.

(Of course, there are the separate issues of determining whether a regulation is useful and whether the regulatory goal itself is acceptable. The government does not seem to be terribly good at evaluating the former. The later is largely a matter of opinion. However, in determining whether a goal is acceptable, the government is in a better position than private businesses since, as much as people can vote with their pocketbooks, they usually do not.)

Senia 26 May 2007 - 6:59 pm

Hi Erika, thanks for your comment. I believe both are absolutely unacceptable, and not the appropriate role of government.

Jeff Dustin 26 May 2007 - 9:17 pm

Government in the USA is supposed to be of by and for the people. If the people choose to regulate an industry, then they by their consent tacitly agree to abide by the laws passed to encourage the particular initiative.

Smoking kills people, so do car accidents. These things cost big money to the nation, not just government but for businesses and taxpayers. Laws can provide better outcomes through locking up repeat DWI offenders and encouraging seat belt use. If the citizenry is offended by something the government is doing, the BURDEN on them is to vote out the individuals who support certain legislation and to vote in those who are likely to support more value driven laws.

In sum, the government should regulate whatever the people and the Constitution allow.

Kathryn Britton 28 May 2007 - 10:20 am

Ah, I hadn’t seen that this conversation about regulation had continued to rage on without me.

I think a 50-50 rule is pretty silly, but I also think, as Angus points out, that the media is not neutral and that for them, the easiest and quickest money makers come from focusing on negative events — or on the negative side of events that also have positive sides.

Governments do pass laws for the public health over the freedom of individuals, and I think appropriately so. In Seattle, you can’t smoke inside any public building — though I have heard there are “speak easy” type bars where people can still smoke. That certainly restricts the freedom of people addicted to cigarettes. I personally am very happy not to be subjected to secondhand smoke in my place of work any more — and I live in North Carolina, in the center of the tobacco world.

I don’t think it is a very far step from regulations that contribute to the physical side of public health to ones that contribute to the mental side of public health. I just think we know far, far less about how to do it effectively. We don’t want to do silly things, but we also may need to even the ground a little between negative news that is cheap to produce and fast to produce results and the positive side of news that has less impact (positive has less salience than negative). I’m not saying to stifle the voices of special interests, just to find ways to give voices to the other sides of issues. I like Angus’s words – recalibrate the media.

Maybe this will come from decentralizing news – moving from Murdoch controlled papers to many little Web sites / blogs. I certainly look forward to seeing what role the Web plays in the next American election. It would be wonderful if the grassroots could take away some of the power of the purse.



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