'What Now' for News?

23/02/2016 17:20 | Updated 23 February 2016

On the day it was announced the Independent and the Independent on Sunday were ending their print editions, the Director of News from the Danish Broadcasting Corporation, was in London telling his British counterparts about the next big thing in news - constructive journalism.

As the name suggests, it involves taking a more constructive approach to news coverage, not only analysing problems but also exploring potential solutions. It's about trying to examine what's going right in the world - and why - rather than focusing purely on what's going wrong.

Ulrik Haagerup is a leading advocate of this emerging field and has been introducing constructive journalism to his own newsroom. In his recent book, Constructive News, the next mega trend in journalism? he argues:

'The old newsroom saying "If it bleeds, it leads" is proven wrong. Tabloidization of news, even in so called serious print media, online and television news, has gone too far.'

When I met him last week, fresh from his talk to BBC staff, I asked him if he thought we were now entering a pivotal phase for constructive journalism:

'Yes, I think it's definitely gaining momentum. The media are feeling the heat. People don't want more news, they want better news. Constructive journalism provides an alternative. News organisations who don't jump on board will be left behind.'

Constructive journalism is an approach that is gaining prominence and attracting audiences not just in Denmark, where newspapers have led the way and where Haagerup's rival channel has now followed suit, but also in Sweden, Holland, Switzerland, the US, South Africa, and indeed right around the world. It's already being modelled in this country by the magazine Positive News (newly relaunched online and in print after being crowdfunded to the tune of a quarter of a million pounds in just 30 days ), and by online outlets such as Upworthy and the Huffington Post, in their What's Working and Impact sections. The Post's founder Arianna Huffington is a prominent backer. The current BBC World Service series, My Perfect Country, is another good example of solutions-focused journalism in action as is this memorable BBC report about Indians being paid to use public toilets.

Stronger journalism
It was the Dutch journalist Bas Mesters who famously said: 'In journalism we have to add a 6th element to the 5 known W's: Who, What, Where, Why and When. It is: What Now?'
Investigating the 'what now?' part of the story is a central element of constructive journalism which Mesters pioneered.

David Bornstein, the founder of the US Solutions Journalism Network and the New York Times' Fixes column, and author of How to Change the World, believes: 'solutions remain an under-represented part of the news'. The press shouldn't just be focusing on "people doing terrible things that are hidden from view" but also on 'people doing remarkable things that are hidden from view.'

The Danish investigative journalist and newly appointed Director of Constructive Journalism at the University of Windesheim, Cathrine Gyldensted agrees and insists that adopting a more positive approach means better journalism. She has a memorable analogy:

'Not to do so is like throwing stones in a glass house, leaving all the windows shattered and the structure wrecked. We news reporters normally then leave without looking back. Not always because of ill will, but because we choose new stories to dig into in the ever-grinding news cycle that most newsrooms pursue. I think it's fair to say that we have a lot of shattered glass houses due to the negativity bias in conventional media.'

As a self-confessed stone-thrower, it's a powerful message coming from her.

'I used to be one of those stone-throwing reporters - and I loved it. I was sharp, critical and thorough, which meant I had to throw stones in order to best challenge and report on power, money and influence. It made me a name on one of Denmark's most prestigious investigative reporting units, on national TV. But one day I sat down and reflected on the impact of my reporting. I felt that my personality and outlook on life had suffered from the negative focus that being a great news reporter seemed to have fostered.

'Then I started to wonder, what's the impact on society's mindset, if my reporting affected my own wellbeing so much? And, did I honour the guiding principles that had made me want to become a journalist - serving society, reporting the 'truth' and holding power to account - if my reporting had this overly negative skew?'

Gyldensted went on to do a masters which demonstrated that classic news stories have a substantial negative emotional impact.
The Journalism School at the University of Windesheim, where Gyldensted now heads up her own department, has taken the historical step of implementing constructive journalism into their curriculum and will lead research into it, creating the world's first hub on constructive journalism anchored in academia. Here's proof that Bas Mesters' 'What Now?' idea, is now growing into a robust domain in journalism. And here in the UK, the Constructive Journalism Project has delivered workshops to hundreds of journalism students, as well as freelance journalists, since it launched in November 2014.

Better business
Constructive news with positive content doesn't just make journalistic sense, it also makes business sense. Take a look at these comments from people in the know:
Arianna Huffington says:

'Increasingly our traffic online is driven by what people share. Content that is about good news, stories that reinforce our faith in human nature are shared 3 times more on the Huffington Post than the combined average of all our other sections' share rate'.

Chris Moody, Twitter's Vice President of Data Strategy sees

'Countless proof points on Twitter that positive messages have more engagement and obtain more reach on our global platform than negative content.'

Agathe Guerrier, Head of Strategy at Global advertising agency BBH London says:

'Brands have always wanted to be associated with positive values; no advertiser wants to be associated with murder."

What about actual proof?
Evidence shows that the public are turned off by negative news as it leaves them feeling anxious, passive and helpless, in despair rather than informed.

According to research projects by Cathrine Gyldensted and Dr Denise Baden at Southampton University into negative bias in the news, not only do audiences prefer positive news stories but exposure to a typical news story results in a drop in mood in most people. Interestingly, the amount mood decreased among women was 38%, higher than the 20% decrease in men's mood. Their research studies also show that positive stories give rise to

'Significantly higher motivation to take positive actions (donate to charity, be environmentally friendly, make opinions known etc.) than negative news stories'

and conversely

'The more anxious/pessimistic/sad the stories made them feel, the less motivated they were to take action.'

Gyldensted's work has also shown that an article that has 'a constructive peak midway and a hopeful ending' leaves readers feeling informed.

While negative stories are slightly more likely to grab our attention, this is because we are biologically programmed to pay attention to alarming information as it triggers our hard-wired survival response. So it's not just misleading to argue that we actively prefer negative stories and don't want alternatives, but continuing to pump out bad news means 'our brains are hard-wired into a negative state'. There's plenty more research which confirms we prefer stories that highlight solutions alongside problems, we share these stories more and we stick with news outlets offering this approach. A study at the University Texas on how audiences respond to solutions-based journalism revealed that

'Readers of solutions journalism finished their article feeling more informed and interested than non-solutions readers. Solutions readers had an increased desire to share what they read, to read more about the issue, and to seek out more articles by news organizations covering stories in a solutions-focused manner. They also felt more optimistic.'

Young people are particularly keen on the solutions-focused approach, with two thirds of under 35s in a BBC World Service survey saying they want news to provide solutions to problems, not just news that tells them about certain issues. Dmitry Shishkin, BBC World Service digital development editor says their findings are applicable to the global news industry and

'The sooner we start reacting to these findings, the better for the whole industry.'

There's interesting feedback too from the Guardian which asked readers and focus groups what they wanted to hear next as part of the paper's climate change campaign. The resounding answer was solutions stories:

'Supporters told us they wanted to hear more about the positive climate stories'.

And yet another study, this time from the University of Pennsylvania's Jonah Berger, author of Contagious: Why Things Catch On, found that the positive emotion of awe trumps negative emotions like fear, anger and sadness in terms of virality. Never mind the old axiom, no news is good news, or good news is no news; it's now clear that good news travels faster than bad news. With online traffic increasingly being driven by social media shares, studies pointing to the sharability of positive news stories are a further powerful incentive for news editors to take constructive journalism seriously. This is especially pertinent now that we've entered an age where the vast array of domestic and international news outlets available online has revolutionised the way the news is delivered and consumed: the public can choose à la carte news rather than sticking with the set menu of a single news source. News editors need to deploy all necessary means to retain and recruit audiences.

And the extensive work being undertaken by Dr Karen McIntyre, the world's first person to complete a PhD on constructive journalism, demonstrates that the research underpinning this domain is getting more robust all the time.

Not good news
It's really important not to confuse constructive journalism with good, happy or purely positive stories.

In the book, From Mirrors to Movers, Dr Karen McIntyre and Cathrine Gyldensted make a clear distinction between constructive and positive journalism, emphasising that stories just having 'strong positive emotional value' don't qualify as constructive journalism, stories such as 'Cat rescued from tree', or 'hero narratives lacking broader importance to society'. Constructive journalism, they stress, means stories with 'a high importance to society', which adhere to 'one of more of journalism's core functions, ie. Serving as a watchdog, alerting the public of potential threats, disseminating important information in order to create an informed electorate'.

Ex-BBC newsreader Sir Martyn Lewis was heavily criticised back in the 1990s over this confusion surrounding good news. He says his original speeches clearly made the distinction between serious and frivolous positive news. And he hit back at critics who misconstrued his argument, whether accidentally or deliberately, as promoting fluffy, feel-good stories or 'and finally' news:

'I have been misunderstood in the past, with people believing I just want more good news at the expense of covering real news. This is not the case, I want a more balanced news agenda, which treats good newsworthy stories in the same way as negative stories. I'd like to see the media engage in solutions-driven journalism.'

He believes that a diet of mainly negative and not widely relevant news stories doesn't accurately reflect what's going on in the world and is a keen champion of constructive journalism.

Jeremy Wickremer, organiser of the Transformational Media Summit, put it well when he said:

'You don't just go and moan to your friends the whole time and neither do you just go on about the good things. There needs to be a balance.'

And as David Bornstein emphasized to me:

'This is not about asking journalists 'to abandon their journalistic sensibility but to use their skills to show as rigorously as possible how people are responding to problems, what results they're getting, how they're getting them, and what can be learned from those efforts'.

It's also important to view constructive journalism as an outlook rather than a particular type of story, says Seán Dagan Wood, editor-in-chief of Positive News:

'It's about uniting a constructive mindset with the techniques and principles of good journalism. It's more about how we report - whatever it is we're reporting on - rather than simply what we report.'

Wood also emphasises that constructive journalism isn't necessarily suitable for every story: 'It is part of a wider journalistic ecosystem where the most appropriate mode of reporting will depend on the particular issue at hand.'

Amplifying Constructive Voices
With such a strong case for constructive journalism, NCVO, the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, of which Sir Martyn Lewis is chair, is launching a project called Constructive Voices that will encourage journalists and editors to include constructive journalism in their reporting toolkit. Constructive Voices will also support the investigation of the 'what now?' element of a story by flagging up and being a hub for positive responses to pressing problems; solutions that can contribute to the public agenda. These are too often going on under the radar.

This way of approaching news evidently dovetails with the work of charities, as solutions-focused journalism will naturally draw on the innovative and wide-ranging solutions offered by charities and volunteering groups, whether global or grassroots. And the Constructive Voices project, also running on twitter, won't be limited to the voluntary sector; social enterprises and any initiatives offering positive social impact are also of interest.

Importantly, when covering these types of stories, constructive journalism offers the media a way to expose their positive impact while remaining trustworthy. As Danielle Batist, co-founder of the Constructive Journalism Project says:

'We must investigate solutions critically, moving beyond the hero tale or happy story, to uncover socially relevant insights into what's going well in the world.'

This reaffirms what Ulrik Haagerup told me:

'Newspapers give us yesterday's news. Live news channels tell us what's happening today. Constructive journalism is about tomorrow. It can help facilitate debate about a better tomorrow.'

Constructive Voices, by embracing constructive journalism and helping connect journalists with case studies that have grown out of the very problems they are reporting, will ensure potential solutions are given the opportunity for exposure, thereby empowering people and setting the ground for positive change. Now how can that be anything other than good news?