Online only

Constructive journalism - is that a thing already?

WHAT IS "constructive journalism" all about, then? It depends on who you ask, but it seems to be about offering solutions as well as highlighting problems in news reporting.

According to Cathrine Glydensted, director of constructive journalism at Windesheim University in Zwolle in the Netherlands, the key features of constructive journalism are:

  • Presenting solutions to problems we're reporting on - if they are viable.
  • Reportage aimed at the future - as well as the usual who, what where, when, why questions, also "What now?" and "Where are we headed?"
  • Depolarisation - news reporting tends to act as a polariser, to reinforce stereotypes. This is "not because we want to", but it's a consequence of how we report. Instead of reporting on "May and Corbyn" (Cathrine was speaking at Bylinefest, just before the general election,) a constructive journalism approach would be to interview people with all kinds of opinions, and only then ask the politicians.
  • Catastrophic headlines apparently trigger an "alert response" in readers. Stories that inspire a sense of awe are the ones that go viral the most, though (closely followed by those that inspire anger.) See studies on this here and here.
  • Doing work on interviewing techniques, asking "new questions", constructive questions - for example, What you do next? Who does what? According to Cathrine, an aggressive approach from the journalist in turn creates defensiveness in interviewees.

We did a little exercise at Cathrine's session at Byline - what constructive suggestions could we possibly put to a dictator, Mugabe or Putin, for example, were we given the chance to interview them? Participants suggested, ask them about their legacy. We'd ask Putin, re-elected on a turn out of 33 per cent, how he'd get the youth engaged in politics, all politicians at least pretend they want people to vote.

The late Hans Rosling, a statistician from Sweden and a TED Talks superstar, did a lot of work with data (mostly from the UN and the World Bank) that answers the question "How's the world doing?" particularly in terms of Third World development. The data portrays developments more accurately than most peoples' preconceptions.

According to Rosling, "Misconception 1: Everything gets worse." Through statistics he examined how "people who watch the evening news" tend to hear about the worst cases. We miss the general improvements worldwide in fewer people killed in natural disasters, daily income and girls going to school for almost as long as boys.

For example, a tiny part of Nigeria is affected by the Boko Haram insurgency, but meanwhile a very significant number of children across the huge country are being vaccinated for the first time, going to school, staying in school longer. Because these developments don't come with any dramatic events, it's harder to see this steady improvement. Rosling described how "news bias" focuses on sensational, unusual events. Ingrid Thornqvist of national broadcaster Svenksa Television, got into constructive journalism after she realised she had a "40 year old view" of Africa.

These approaches are becoming big in Scandinavia the Netherlands, Belgium, but - surprise, surprise - not so much in the UK, although there is the longstanding Positive News magazine here. There's already a Constructive Journalism Network and the successful Dutch membership-funded news platform De Correspondent has recently launched an English language version, whose stories are "foundational" rather than sensational and heavy on context. Constructive journalism as a thing is still quite new, though - the unit of which Cathrine is director at Windesheim is only six months old.

There was much talk throughout Bylinefest of the "tyranny of the clicks" - the pressure for stories that go viral and stimulate reader engagement. Paradoxically, this may aid the rise of constructive journalism.

An Al Jazeera reporter who dropped into the constructive journalism session reported that a story on women earning a living building bamboo bikes in Ghana went viral, while another story that went unexpectedly completely viral was "Syrian refugee 'pays back' German kindness with food for the homeless" - also remarkably free of trolling in the comments sections. Constructive journalism may ultimately turn out to be surprisingly good for the bottom line.