The theory and practice of Constructive Journalism has been coined a ‘mega trend’ by Director of News at Danish Broadcasting Ulrik Haagerup in his newly published book Constructive News. But prominent South African journalism academic and commentator Anton Harber argues that news is “only constructive if you want a sleepy, complacent society, not if you want active, engaged citizens.” Ashleigh Tullis extends the debate.
Haagerup claims that the concept is not an alternative to critical ‘watchdog’ journalism, nor is it about putting a positive spin on news “it argues that good reporting can inspire solutions to the problems facing society, giving way to a new and more meaningful role for journalism.”
David Bornstein is the co-author of the Fixes column at the New York Times and he is the co-founder of the Solutions Journalism Network. He says constructive journalism “can improve daily journalism by rounding out the news and providing a more accurate and complete picture of the world. It can inject new information into the news – making stories fresher, investigations sharper, and public conversations more constructive and less polarising.”
Bornstein says Solutions Journalism, which has many parallels with Constructive Journalism, is a way to cover responses to problems in order to present the other half of a story, while maintaining a high standard of rigor and a critical eye.
“We are working hard to build legitimacy and respect for this practice and amassing examples to show that it can be practiced at high quality – to show that it is not ‘fluffy’ journalism, not ‘good news’ or ‘feel good’ journalism and not ‘advocacy‘,” he said.
Websites such as Upworthy, Humans of New York and South Africa: The Good News are examples of solutions-based journalism. They focus on compelling stories which reflect positive community developments. The aim is to produce engaging, shareable content that moves people to action.
Constructive journalism has a long history
Herman Wasserman is a professor of Media Studies at the University of Cape Town and a journalist. He believes the notion of constructive journalism needs more clarification and he points out that it has its roots in the long-established theories of Development Journalism and other established practices.
“For instance, the public or civic journalism movement as started in the US many years ago was aimed at facilitating dialogue and working towards solutions that involved the public, rather than setting up conflicts,” Wasserman pointed out to the World Editors Forum.
“The African notion of ‘ubuntu’, as well as feminist approaches to media can also offer important correctives to the adversarial, aggressive ‘watchdog’ approach. Which is not to say that the ‘watchdog’ approach is not important, but that it is one of several ways of thinking about the media’s role. I’d like to see how Haagerup’s notion of constructive journalism links with, or differs from, these established debates in journalism studies before endorsing it.”
Avoiding the ‘sunshine journalism’ effect
According to Wasserman, there has been a problematic demand for ‘positive’, uncritical news about postcolonial governments.
“It is very important that the notion of constructive or positive journalism be separated clearly from those notions of [uncritical journalism], especially in contexts like new democracies or African countries where governments often make demands for the media to support rather than criticise them.”
But this risk of ‘sunshine journalism‘ watering down news and undercutting the accountability role of journalism isn’t limited to African contexts. “We can also see in the globalisation of Chinese media, for example into Africa, how a more ‘positive’ style of reporting can also sometimes serve to obscure critical viewpoints that are necessary for democratic, open debate to thrive,” Wasserman said.
Professor Anton Harber directs the Journalism and Media Studies Programme at Wits University in South Africa. “Of course, there is an important place for reporting of record and providing the routine useful information people need in their daily lives. But great journalism is reporting which questions and probes, which surprises and challenges you and makes you think and act. It is disruptive and discomfiting, particularly for the powerful,” he told the World Editors Forum.
“In short, it stirs the pot, it makes trouble, it stirs up passions and it makes you see things in a different way. Nothing is more valuable and more constructive than making people think, and think again, and troublemaking journalism does that. The rest is necessary, routine and soporific. It is only constructive if you want a sleepy, complacent society, not if you want active, engaged citizens.
Will audiences really buy Constructive Journalism?
Fixes’ Bornstein has worked with the Engaging News Project at the University of Texas-Austin which has examined if readers of solutions-based journalism respond differently to the content.
“The first study suggested that readers found solutions stories more engaging than comparable non-solutions stories, and would be more likely to share them and get involved in the issues reported on,” he said.
Bornstein has also worked closely with The Seattle Times on a major series called Education Lab, in which reporters have been exploring solutions to problems in public education. “The Seattle Times has seen an extremely positive response to the series from its readership and has extended the project for another year, and is looking to apply the solutions approach to other beats. We’ll be working with other research organisations to develop quality studies that examine this question,” he said.
Wasserman, however, suggests that while audiences often criticise journalists for being overly ‘negative’, we can’t immediately assume that a more positive or constructive approach will automatically attract bigger audiences.
“There is something about the schadenfreude of seeing the high and might fall, the ‘rubbernecking’ at accident scenes and the human proclivity to gossip that suggests audiences are attracted to negative or critical news. Which again is not to say we shouldn’t find alternative ways of approaching journalism, but if attracting audiences is the main reason for considering this approach, it might be self-serving in the first instance, and not very successful either.”
And he doesn’t necessarily think that constructive journalism approaches will inspire more trust from audiences, “look at how sceptical audiences are about news that smacks of propaganda or bias, for example, CCTV, Russia Today, Fox News, – if audiences suspect that certain news events are being airbrushed, they are likely to desert it. Which again is not a reason not to try and pursue alternatives, but these should be informed by a genuine desire to illuminate alternative viewpoints and the daily lived experience of ordinary people, not only the elites in government and business.”
This post was first published by the World Editors Forum on www.editorsweblog.org and is republished here with their kind permission.
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