President Jacob Zuma and controversial SABC chief operating officer Hlaudi Motsoeneng have called for South Africa’s media to tell a “good story”, to not just focus on the corruption and crime that is a feature of life in the country. They want media to practice what is scathingly called ‘sunshine journalism’ and is very different from constructive journalism, or solutions journalism, advocated by Cathrine Gyldensted, a Danish investigative journalist who is about to publish a book on the subject.
Gyldensted recently visited South Africa to conduct workshops on constructive journalism in Times Media Group newsrooms in Johannesburg, Cape Town and Port Elizabeth. She was brought out by TMG’s Paddi Clay, who heads the group’s journalism training programmes.
Positive journalism, she says, lacks value and importance to society. These are the kind of ‘agh sweet’ stories where a fireman rescues a cat stuck in a tree. Constructive journalism, on the other hand, has a high value to society. It serves a watchdog purpose, it disseminates information, it alerts the public to threats. But it also doesn’t just focus on the negative, but puts forward solutions.
Gyldensted’s role at TMG was to show reporters how to do this, how to interview subjects to bring out information they might not ordinarily have thought of, to not look at victims simply as victims, but to see them as survivors, people who have lessons to teach.
For Gyldensted, her eureka moment came when she was interviewing a homeless woman in Washington while stationed there as a correspondent for Danish Broadcasting. “I saw her as a victim, and my questions were quite negative, but as the interview continued, I started asking her different questions, such as if she’d learnt anything positive through this terrible experience. The whole interview changed as she said she had learnt she was stronger than she thought, that she was resilient, that the shelter where she was living offered such support. And I realised that perhaps as journalists we fostered ‘victimhood’ and that as people who shape society, perhaps we should shine more light in dark corners. I went back to the office with a story that had some inspirational nuggets within the what was supposed to be a hopeless one,” she explains.
Gyldensted said reporters at TMG had thoroughly engaged with her workshop and in fact, said editors and news editors should go through the process too so as to embed a culture of constructive journalism in newsrooms. “I asked them why they became journalists, what their values were in terms of their job. They all replied that they wanted to change lives, to expose wrongdoing, to help shape South Africa’s young democracy. So I asked them how those values are being honoured in the way in which they report? Were they shining a light in dark corners or just looking at a story from one angle? Were they being true to their values or wearing blinders?”
Gyldensted uses a simple frame to brainstorm the issues: PERMA. P is for positive emotions, asking how problems or conflicts are solved, who’s happy and thriving? E is for engagements and collaborations. Who’s passionate, who’s doing something out of the ordinary? R is for (positive and constructive) relationships. Who’s helped, who’s been brought together, who’s forged closer ties, is the community collaborating? M is for meaning. Who’s learned something or grown? Who’s experience post-traumatic growth? What lifechanging lessons have been learned? Who’s breaking patterns? And finally, A is for accomplishments (solutions). What did it take to reach this point? What’s been gained? What’s been overcome? Who’s solved similar conflicts and how did they do it? What does it take?
These mechanisms can be used for what she calls “constructive interviewing”. Interestingly, she advocates this approach to television interviewing of politicians, too. She believes that in certain instances, instead of taking a purely adversarial response, especially in the kind of format where there are opponents at the same table, the interviewer adopt the role of a mediator instead of fanning the flames. This still keeps power accountable, she says, but perhaps adds to a more positive debate.
Of course, the old newsroom adage, ‘if it bleeds, it leads’ is a counterpoint to constructive journalism. And current newsroom wisdom would argue that crime and grime sells and news mediums can’t afford to mess with the formula. Gyldensted disagrees. She believes constructive journalism would help grow revenue as journalists become better at their jobs, and report more comprehensively. She says the methodology gives a more accurate portrayal of the world while still holding power accountable. She says such news adds value to people’s lives and thus grows audiences, and ultimately, revenue too.
Heather Robertson, editor of The Herald in Port Elizabeth, was one of the editors who took part in the workshop. She says newspapers are in crisis and that some serious introspection is needed. “Constructive journalism is something we’d like to explore. It’s not an exact science, and we have to produce stories that sell. I think there must be a balance between our role of being fierce watchdogs and just giving bad news. People are tired of bad news. I think what this workshop has given us are ways to look at stories differently, using different interviewing techniques, of being change agents, of using our internal values to shape positive stories,” she says, adding that it was vital for newspapers to critically assess what they’re doing and how they’re doing it.
Check out Gyldensted’s Facebook page for more. Follow on Twitter @cgoldensted
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