Kaya Williams: The optimism bias
Is optimism a bias, or a necessary balance in journalism?
Late in May, for the first time in who knows how long, I got to shoot the breeze about journalism with a reporter friend completely outside the context of our day-to-day work and without any sort of prompt to get us started.
It was the kind of “last two kids in the newsroom” conversation that I didn’t realize how much I had missed when working from home throughout the pandemic. We talked about sourcing stories, generating ideas and weighing ethics in a way that scratched a very big idea Journalism-with-a-capital-J itch. (By journalism standards, ethics and sources can be a very lively conversation. Yes, we’re dorks. It comes with the territory.)
Then he asked me a stumper: Is optimism a bias?
I’ve been thinking about the answer for more than a month, and I still don’t think I’ve reached a solid landing point.
See, I’m the kind of perennial optimist who used to win awards for how annoyingly cheery I was.
Seriously: I proudly boasted that I was the four-time winner of the school music department’s “Optimist” prize in the annual not-so-serious awards. It was sort of an honor but mostly a collective eye-roll at the perkiest student in the band, and I’m pretty sure I bordered on handing out campaign buttons to win.
I’ve grown a lot since then (read: still chipper, just not so obnoxious about it), especially as I came to realize that it’s not only OK but in fact necessary to feel more than just happy, overjoyed or ecstatic.
Hey, sometimes things aren’t going great; grin-and-bear-it isn’t always the best strategy for dealing with frustration or disappointment, especially when it builds up to an annual emotional release prompted by something mundane like the end of a vacation or a nice movie.
But there’s still a part of me that always tends to look at the bright side, the positive angle, the silver lining.
A lot of the features I write reflect that. They’re feel-good stories (some readers have called them — and me — “fluffy” or “fuzzy”), where the upshot is that things are looking up: folks looking back fondly on their careers, organizers excited about new events.
Is that inclination a bias, though, or part of a necessary balance in journalism?
My Sunday through Thursday schedule means I often end up writing weekend breaking news stories to which there is no warm-and-fuzzy angle; for all the profiles and event previews I write, there’s also a fair amount of number-crunching stories about school funding and municipal spending and deep dives into child care and housing issues.
When there’s a particularly rough day on the breaking news desk, the promise of a warmer story on my budget helps bring me back to solid footing; after a string of energy-intensive features, I get a hankering to ask those tough questions that unearth bigger stories.
And in a field where the rate of burnout is notably high — some of my recent-grad peers got so fried on news that they’ve already pivoted careers entirely — I’m grateful that I have the opportunity to do both.
I think of it as cross-training for my brain: just as I might take an easy bike cruise east of Aspen one day and run up Hunter Creek the next, I might cover a concert on a Thursday and a quickly snuffed fire Sunday; each practice helps make the other sustainable in the long term. I happen to believe that readers need the mix, too: life isn’t all sunshine and rainbows, but it isn’t 24-7 doom and gloom either, and sometimes we all need a reminder that there’s hope (or just respite) in what can feel like the end of the world.
It’s not that I’m turning a blind eye to mischief or malfeasance; when I get tips alleging either, I have a journalistic responsibility to sniff them out. Rather, it’s that I’ve always got one eye out for warmth, no matter what’s on the road ahead.
For the record, I’d consider the friend who asked me about the optimism bias to be a pretty cheery guy himself. He’s also more inclined to dig for the thing that’s amiss, to look for what’s not right and apply a bit more doubt to his line of questioning.
The fact that both of us in journalism — the optimist and the cynic — is an assurance that neither hard-hitting news nor warm features are going anywhere any time soon.
There’s a reason there’s more than one person reporting on the news of the day around here, and it isn’t just because there’s a lot more news than any one person can cover.
Kaya Williams is grateful that instead of a news desert, Aspen is an all-you-can-eat news buffet where other reporters will shoot the breeze with her. She covers education and the town of Snowmass Village for the Aspen Times and the Snowmass Sun. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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