Tuesday, Aug. 21, 2018
With the Google Assistant, users can search the internet, schedule meetings, set alarms, send texts, play music, dim lights and a long list of other tasks.
And now — thanks in part to the research of a Virginia Commonwealth University journalism professor — the Google Assistant is able to tell users about good news stories happening in the world.
After a recent update, users can say, “Hey Google, tell me something good,” and the Google Assistant will read a two- or three-sentence news summary from the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organization that aims to expose people to news stories that help them understand problems and challenges, and show them potential ways to respond.
Google set out to develop the feature as a way to lessen the effects of negative news fatigue and reorient users toward emerging solutions, rather than just existing problems.
As part of that process, Ryan Burke, creative producer with Google Creative Lab, reached out to Karen McIntyre, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture in the College of Humanities and Sciences and a leading scholar in the field of solutions journalism, which involves rigorous reporting on how people are responding to social problems.
“I contacted Dr. McIntyre after reading a few of her papers,” Burke said. “I was interested in working with a solutions and constructive journalism expert to consult on the initial feature development and an academic to help evaluate the feature’s effectiveness during user testing. Dr. McIntyre was both.”
Burke and McIntyre worked together to determine what kind of news content the feature should provide. A key goal was to ensure that it would go beyond simply providing positive, upbeat news.
“Positive news is more like, ‘Let's just only report on the wonderful things in the world.’ Those kinds of stories tend to make you feel good in the moment, but do not have widespread social significance. [A story] like: Firefighter saves cat from tree,” McIntyre said. “Constructive or solutions journalism involves important hard-hitting news issues. It is very much like investigative journalism. It always involves rigorous reporting, but about how people are responding to problems. It is more productive, more forward looking, more solution focused.”
McIntyre and Burke then conducted a research project to test the feature with a sample of Google employees, with news content provided by Good Media Group using an editorial rubric jointly developed by McIntyre, Creative Lab and the Solutions Journalism Network.
“A key part of our feature development process is user testing,” Burke said. “It’s important to get feedback on core functionality, ease of use, etc. For this project, self-selected participants were asked to complete pre- and post-exposure surveys. We were interested in users’ feelings, attitudes and behavioral intentions after having access to the feature for two weeks.”
Hey Google, Tell Me Something Good
The participants were then broken into two groups, one that used the feature for two weeks and one that did not. McIntyre found that the group that used the feature for two weeks were significantly more likely to feel more positive about the news in general. That matters, she said, because when people feel more positive, that can help reduce the effects of depressing news.
“Positive emotions can do much more than just make you basically feel positive for a fleeting moment. They help you build intellectual and social and even physical resources that you can then use later and that can help mitigate the effects of negative news,” McIntyre said.
“So in other words, if you're ingesting a lot of negative news and it makes you feel pretty down, if you then incorporate some constructive news into your daily media diet, that can help mitigate the negative effects of negative news,” she said. “There are a lot of negative effects of negative news. It’s linked to all kinds of negative health outcomes.”
McIntyre presented the study’s findings on Aug. 6 at the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication’s conference in Washington D.C.
Google’s feature, she said, reinforces the idea that journalism can be done more productively.
“Ultimately, we're trying to push society forward and build a healthier public climate,” she said, “not depress everyone and disengage them.”