Being Constructive for a Change
Two of the most entrenched ideas in journalism are “If it bleeds, it leads” and “Bad news sells”. But do these catchphrases hold true in a time of increasing news fatigue and declining audiences?
Victoria Ong shares why it’s time to rethink news values, refine what ‘good news’ means, and consider Constructive Journalism.
Newsflash: Doom, gloom… and that’s a wrap
“Have you seen the news? The world is going crazy.”
“Frankly, I no longer keep up with the news. It’s just too negative and depressing.”
These are recent comments from people I know. Chances are, you’ve also heard similar sentiments from those around you.
Yet newsrooms continue to put out more of the same negative content – at increasing speed, across multiple platforms, 24 hours a day.
Based on what’s put out there, our world is the domain of violent crime, heinous acts of terror, loudmouth politicians, corrupt governments, natural disasters… and more of the same.
But is that a fair and accurate reflection of reality, or is it a skewed portrayal that overemphasises conflict and catastrophe? Have we bombarded audiences with so much bad news that it has left them with news fatigue?
Overwhelmed and desensitised – people have literally switched off.
If we hope to reverse this trend of news avoidance and apathy, it’s vital that we in the news industry relook the news agenda.
Not just to regain eyeballs, but to rebuild a well-informed public.
“Pfft, fluff”: The newsroom’s negativity bias
It’s obvious enough that the news agenda is dominated by what’s going wrong – with scant attention to what’s going right.
I’ve wondered about this ‘negativity bias’ of the media for years, and spent some time back in 2014 at The University of Sydney researching news values and the role of ‘good news’.
Here are some findings:
1. The proliferation of alternative ‘good news’ websites highlights a growing resistance towards the dominance of negative news in mainstream media (See: Positive News; Good News Network; Sunny Skyz; DailyGood; Finally Good News; The Happy Newspaper).
2. A journalistic hierarchy persists in mainstream newsrooms: ‘Hard News’ stories (usually equated with bad news) are favoured and regarded as more significant than ‘Soft News’ stories (typically equated with good news).
3. The concept of ‘good news’ requires a rethink. It would be useful to extend ‘good news’ reporting into conventional Hard News genres (e.g. Politics, Economy, Crime). This does not mean downplaying harsh realities. Instead, it calls for a constructive treatment of ‘bad news’ by placing incidents in context: examining historical data, analysing social trends, exploring efforts to find solutions.
Numerous studies have found news audiences perceive that crime is rampant in their community despite declining crime rates, due to excessive incident reporting without providing context.
4. ‘Good news’ is a news value that merits more attention as it advances the public interest – a key tenet of journalism – by fostering a fair, accurate and well-rounded worldview.
What does this look like in practice? As a broadcast journalist, a story I covered on global plastic pollution included measures taken by companies and individuals to tackle the problem. Another story on the systemic discrimination of Persons With Disabilities (PWDs) featured a first-hand account from a young person with autism; and included insights from social workers on misconceptions towards PWDs, as well as ideas on how to include them in mainstream schools and workplaces.
“Journalism has a language with which to describe threats and failures, but it is tongue tied when it comes to letting society know when there’s a win. Part of this is simple sensationalism. But perhaps more important is that journalists have become afraid to cover remedies, lest we seem gullible (which, for a journalist, is the greatest sin). We are comfortable, however, covering failure, and adding to the narrative of decline.” – David Bornstein and Tina Rosenberg, ‘When Reportage Turns to Cynicism’, The New York Times
A Way Forward: Constructive Journalism
It wasn’t until recently that I discovered my sentiments are shared by a growing number of journalists and editors – which has led to an emerging field called ‘Constructive Journalism’.
Rather than the traditional ‘5W1H’, Constructive Journalism seeks to broaden reporting by adding a sixth ‘W’: What now?
The Constructive Institute defines it as “an approach that aims to provide audiences with a fair, accurate and contextualised picture of the world, without overemphasising the negative and what is going wrong.”
The institute’s founder Ulrik Haagerup was editor-in-chief of the Danish Broadcasting Corporation (DR) when he began to question journalism’s negativity, and felt compelled to address the public’s declining trust in the media. Eventually, he proposed adopting a Constructive News approach in DR’s news programmes.
The experiment achieved significant outcomes: DR became the most trusted news brand in Denmark, and also experienced growth in viewership and audience engagement.
“Constructive news is neither an alternative to critical watchdog journalism nor is it an argument for harmless positive news. We need good reporting, which can inspire possible solutions to the problems facing society, giving way to a new and more meaningful role for journalism: Not only documenting problems and finding who is to blame for them, but also facilitating dialogues in our communities on how they might be solved." – Ulrik Haagerup
As a proponent of more good news stories in the media, I used to see it as a matter of balance between the ratio of bad and good news. Mainstream media with standalone ‘good news’ sections – e.g. The Guardian’s The Upside, The New York Times’ Fixes – or a reading diet balanced between traditional and alternative news sites.
Now, I think duality may be a better approach. With duality, instead of dividing news into ‘good’ or ‘bad’ categories, we take a mindset that recognises most stories come with both elements.
Duality recognises problems and progress, hatred and harmony, tragedy and triumph.
It looks at what’s going wrong and right around us.
News is a mirror of our world. It’s time that we reflect a fuller, undistorted reflection of it.