The media is changing for good

Cathrine Gyldensted

Having launched a new course to teach ‘constructive news’ reporting, investigative journalist Cathrine Gyldensted explains why she set out to radically innovate her profession and how a more positive approach will lead to better journalism

In May this year, 12 classically trained reporters sat down for three full days studying positive news and how to master it in the conventional news media.

The class, in Copenhagen, Denmark, is still small and offered only on a quarterly basis. But the significance of these 12 reporters teaming up to learn what is being defined as ‘constructive news reporting’, is not to be underestimated. It has the potential to change the face of conventional news media for good. And for good.

As a constructive approach becomes adopted, conventional media would begin to report systematically on positives, uncover solutions for society’s problems, and actively use mediation principles in debates. It would investigate abuse of power but also investigate new constructive roads ahead after an abuse is uncovered.

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. I used to be one of those stone-throwing reporters – and I loved it. I felt that I lived up to being the best possible journalist I could possibly be. 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 because of me ‘mastering’ what we have agreed is the right way of reporting?

“I have finally found the pathways to effectively develop hard news reporting so that it has a constructive aim, angle and outlook, and the potential to engage readers, listeners and viewers much more than news seems able to today.”

Today, many years after these initial reflections, I have finally found the pathways to effectively develop hard news reporting so that it has a constructive aim, angle and outlook, and the potential to engage readers, listeners and viewers much more than news seems able to today.

I have investigated and studied positive psychology – which is the scientific study of what enables individuals and communities to thrive – and have synthesised its applications, constructs and findings into the reporter’s toolbox. I’m now teaching these to my colleagues in the news media.

What we practice in constructive news journalism ranges from the tiniest detail to the overarching theme of a huge news story. Here are some examples:

The words chosen in the story: are they negative, neutral or constructive? Interview questions: do we only explore conflicts without exploring solutions and common ground, or are we asking constructive (yet still critical) questions? Are we always presenting people as victims of a wrongdoing, or are we also asking them questions that explore their grit, resilience, and how they’ve grown from trauma?

How is a piece put together: with a negative peak and negative ending, or with a constructive peak and constructive ending, while still being critical, trustworthy, solid reporting? A research study I conducted at the University of Pennsylvania strongly suggests that a so-called positive peak/end news story fosters inspiration, hope and engagement in the reader. All important factors for the news business to consider going forward, if we are serious about keeping our relevance in people’s lives, and in society as a whole.

A final example is when we question how an article is representing ‘truth’: does it keep a balance or does it have a negativity bias? How does the reporting hold up with uncovering solutions?

It is time to stop shattering the windows. More and more journalists are interested in these methods; they want to be more comprehensive reporters, while still being critical and trustworthy. These methods offer the pathways for growing trustworthiness. Positive news has reached the news.

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  • Nate Levin

    Thank you for this. I feel strongly that current journalistic practice is presenting the world “through a glass darkly” rather than the way it really is. I have taken the liberty of pasting in below an outline of a lecture that I have not yet had the opportunity to give. Best wishes, Nate Levin

    For whom the bell peals—How the world is actually much better than you may think

    Let’s start with a question—Can a single newspaper article change the way you see the world?

    One did for me.

    Buried on page A14 in the New York Times last Nov.

    What was special?

    It covered a huge underreported story—what 7 billion people have done over the last 40 years

    So what have they done?

    –Greatly improved their health
    Since 1970 the average life expectancy at birth—around the world—has increased from 59 yrs to 70 yrs
    Part of that means a lot fewer infant deaths

    What else?

    Much better educated—

    The percentage of high school age kids actually in school has increased from 55% to 70% since 1970…that’s hundreds of millions more kids who can read

    –big improvements in literacy even in places where you mainly hear about bad news..

    –& we’ve made money

    Over the last 40 years worldwide per capita annual income doubled from 5K to 10K (adjusted for purchasing power)

    These are major points in the 2010 U.N. Human Development Report

    So what does this mean?

    One thing it means is that while we’ve been reading for 40 yrs about wars, disasters and crimes against humanity, a lot of great things have been happening in a lot of places that don’t get mentioned on the evening news or the front page of the NYT

    –sustainability is a serious issue
    –inequality is a serious issue (More than 1.5 billion people are really really poor)
    –quality of education is a serious issue

    But the gains are still huge—they’re real—they’re worldwide (with some very sad exceptions)–& a lot of people don’t know about them

    Why don’t we know?
    “If it bleeds it leads”—even in the NY Times—the larger reality has gotten lost

    So for that larger reality—see 2010 UN HDR…or “Getting Better” by Charles Kenny

    But is this news you can use? (again, what does it mean?)

    Maybe you can use this news maybe not…but let’s go off into philosophy for a bit

    Are you an optimist or a pessimist? Or maybe neither?

    If you’re a pessimist—there’s a lot of solid evidence that you’re up against

    If you’re an optimist—there’s a big reality out there to back you up

    While we’re on philosophy—what does this underreported story have to do with us, here?

    Let’s go to John Donne—the 17th century English “metaphysical poet”—Famous for saying “No man is an island”
    But let’s edit Mr. Donne the same way Elizabeth Cady Stanton edited Thomas Jefferson

    Let’s say “No person is an island”…”No man, woman or child is an island”

    Donne was saying, we are all connected

    And he said “Send not to know for whom the bell tolls/it tolls for thee”

    But why was Donne so hung up about death?

    Why was his focus on funeral bells?

    In 17th cent. England the life expectancy was 35 yrs (Donne made it to 59—he was lucky)

    People were dying all the time—kids were dying, wives and husbands, friends, disease was everywhere

    But now the worldwide life expectancy is 70—not 35 as in Donne’s time and place

    Maybe if Donne were here now he’d write “Send not to know for whom the bell peals”

    If your son or daughter is getting married—your joy is my joy—your triumph is my triumph—your harvest is my harvest

    Maybe we can say, as Donne says…”For I am involved in mankind”

    And maybe books like the 2010 UN Human Development Report and “Getting Better” can let us say—

    Anne Frank was right—people are good

    Wm. Faulkner was right—mankind will prevail

    Leo Durocher was wrong—nice guys and gals can work together and do great things—they won’t finish last

    So the next time you read the newspaper—don’t think the wars and calamities you read about are the whole story
    –there’s a lot of other stories out there—good news stories—in lots of countries around the world

    Even though you may not hear them—those bells are pealing for you

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