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Constructive journalism: Is it the news we really need?
Imagine if journalism helped solve the world’s biggest problems?
Imagine if journalism helped solve the world’s biggest problems?
Zoo Tiger Kills Man. Earthquake in Nepal. Three-year-old Kills Self with Gun in Mum’s Purse. The Health Threat Bigger than Ebola.
These are real headlines from recent months. If they make you feel depressed—you aren’t alone. Recent research tells us that the incessant streaming of negative news causes disengagement, avoidance, apathy and anxiety. Yet it continues to dominate mainstream media.
But perhaps you’ve noticed the odd story here and there which makes you feel less despondent; a man growing fields of furniture, an iron fish solving nutrition deficiency in Cambodia or the city of Utrecht introducing a universal income model in hopes of equality. They may be quiet, but new conversations are stirring. We think we’ve been having these conversations for a while now at Dumbo Feather, but only recently did we learn that they have a name: Constructive Journalism.
Before you picture a cat on a vacuum cleaner, or an Upworthy clip in which you’ll “never believe” what happens at 5:20 minutes, let me explain that constructive journalism isn’t propaganda or blind positivity. Put simply, it is journalism that explores solutions with the same rigour as problems—adding a sixth “W” to the traditional “Who, How, What, Where, Why” of journalism: What Now?
I learned more at a workshop in London run by the Constructive Journalism Project. The organisation, who are also behind Positive News in the UK, explain how constructive journalism uses positive psychology techniques to shift the dialogue from a limited to a growth mindest by examining people, institutions and communities who have developed answers to ongoing issues. It looks not only at what is working, but how and why (or why not). The “why not” is especially important, because it ensures that constructive journalism is practised with the deep level of analysis required of any good journalism.
Why do we need a new take on journalism? As a a journalist you learn quickly on the job that there is nothing more humiliating than feeling naïve—than the idea of being duped by someone’s story. Vulnerability is terrifying. So you develop a shield of steel: cynicism. Unfortunately, says The School of Life, this means newsrooms often confuse nastiness with good journalism. “Yes, it is the task of journalism to be sceptical, to probe beneath the official story and to ask awkward questions in order to uncover the truth. But meanness has nothing to do with this sort of patient forensic scepticism towards complex situations. Meanness has already made up its mind, it knows the story before it even begins to assemble it: it is convinced (through prejudgement) that something or someone is awful, it has shut its ears to any other information, and just wants to kick the boot in with brio.”
At its core, I think constructive journalism is just really good journalism; journalism that shoulders the responsibility of looking at solutions in addition to their problems. It does this not only through its content, but in its form, structuring stories in such a way that they leave us with an open mind and readiness for dialogue, rather than feelings of helplessness.
Psychologist Barbara Fredrickson and author Daniel Kahneman describe this as the “peak-end” rule: we remember experiences most fondly when they reach a high point in the middle and end well. Journalist Catherine Gyldensted tested this by reporting exactly the same facts using different story structures. Readers found the article structured with the peak-end rule to be most engaging, trustworthy and memorable.
In another experiment by the Solutions Journalism Network, people were blindly given either a “solutions” article or “non-solutions” article to read on one of three issues: the effects of traumatic experiences on children in American schools; homelessness in urban America; and a lack of clothing among India’s poor. While the non-solutions article focused only on the problem, the solutions version reported identically on the problem and added a potential response to mitigate it. The results showed that readers of “solutions journalism” felt more optimistic, informed, interested and had a stronger desire to share and learn more about the issue.
While negative content still dominates our newsfeeds and televisions, global media outlets are beginning to recognise the merits of telling stories in this way. Editor-in-chief of The Guardian for 20 years, Alan Rusbridger signed off with the “The Biggest Story in the World” podcast and “Keep it in the ground” campaign, which called for reader participation to make moves toward resolving climate change.
The Huffington Post too is “prioritising solutions as seriously as covering corruption and speaking to power, which is a very big departure for journalists, because [stories like these were] traditionally seen as fluffy,” writes Arianna Huffington, while The Better India cites tangible impact like readers donating solar lamps, volunteering and starting new initiatives as a result of their solutions-driven reporting. Given constructive journalism is more “shareable,” it also gives newsrooms a sound financial reason to prioritise it.
The philosopher Plato describes a cave in which prisoners see only a projection of reality via the shadows made by puppeteers on its wall. Knowing nothing of the outside world, they mistake the shadows for reality. “To them,” he writes, “the truth would be literally nothing but the shadows of the images.” So while it’s easy to equate a newspaper’s deep-set ink or a TV news report with truth, we must not forget that newsrooms are full of fallible human beings, people who are often chasing the biggest headline. Like prisoners in a cave, the public often has little choice but to rely on this media for its “truth,” but there is no such thing. And yet, this imperfect and increasingly constant presence is what shapes our view of the world and each other.
As the media landscape shifts, we need to identify constructive journalism, to pick out where it is happening, who is doing it well and, just as importantly, who is doing it poorly. We need publications like GOOD and TakePart. We need mainstream papers to cover all news, not just the bad, with sections like The New York Times’ “Upshot” and The Huffington Post’s “What’s Working.” We need to stay critical if not cynical. We should be suspicious of any spin on the news whether positive or negative. But I hope we are moving to a model where being solutions-driven is just part of the language of journalism. As children, as students, as team players in businesses, the value of “constructive criticism” is impressed upon us. How can we not employ this technique in one of our most sacred public spaces?