Corbyn surge shows the need for positive politics – and positive media too

The Labour leader has moved ahead in the polls, showing a clear appetite for his positive approach to politics, writes Giselle Green. And it’s not just politicians that need to take note, it’s journalists too

The Labour leader has moved ahead in the polls, showing a clear appetite for his positive approach to politics, writes Giselle Green. And it’s not just politicians that need to take note, it’s journalists too

Jeremy Corbyn may not have won the election battle but he did win the battle for electability. Today a YouGov survey for The Times puts him ahead of Theresa May for the first time as voters’ choice for who would make the best prime minister. Some 35 per cent of respondents thought the Labour leader would make the country’s best leader, while 34 per cent backed May, and 30 per cent were unsure.

May’s collapse began with her negative, soundbite-driven, policy-lite campaign and her ‘manifesto of misery’. In stark contrast, Corbyn’s meteoric rise was rooted in his positive, energetic and policy-driven campaign, and his manifesto of hope.

Where Corbyn refused to indulge in personal attacks, these were the lifeblood of May’s approach. Where her campaign was mirrored by the right wing media’s Project Fear (and Project Terrorist), his was bolstered by social media’s Project Hope.

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As Paul Waugh of the Huffington Post notes: “Whereas the Conservatives spent a small fortune on their targeted attack ads, Labour used Twitter and Facebook to mobilise their supporters. It was all about motivating their own vote rather than attacking the other side.”

Jonathan Freedland wrote in the Guardian that Corbyn tore up the political rulebook which says “negative campaigns work better than positive one”. Even Nick Timothy, May’s former co-chief of staff complained that “the Conservative election campaign failed to get Theresa’s positive plan for the future across”.

In the EU referendum, it was the Remain campaign’s Project Fear that was discounted while the Leave campaign’s empowering and hopeful “Take back control” slogan cut through. Just as Donald Trump’s ‘Make America great again’ did in the US presidential election.

But it wasn’t just the Conservative Party’s negativity about Jeremy Corbyn that dominated the election. According to research from Loughborough University, newspaper coverage was in the main highly negative.

“In cumulative terms, no party achieved more positive than negative coverage”, the report reads, and “the most partisan newspapers gave greater editorial focus to attacking the party/parties they opposed, rather than advocating the party they supported. The Labour party received the most negative coverage.”

Cynicism: the dominant force in politics and media

“For far too long, cynicism has been the dominant force in British electoral politics, willing failure at every turn” wrote the Guardian’s Gary Younge after the election.

But the media’s cynicism and negative skew on news isn’t confined to election reporting. It’s rampant the whole time and is being blamed for creating an unbalanced and misleading view of the world, creating a gap between what people believe and reality.

As Positive News editor-in-chief Sean Dagan Wood points out: “Despite the brilliance of so much journalism, the media’s excessive focus on bad news has created a story about our world that distorts reality, divides us and – counterproductively – limits our ability to respond effectively to the challenges we face.”

Corbyn’s meteoric rise was rooted in his positive, energetic and policy-driven campaign, and his manifesto of hope

This can have dangerous consequences. None clearer than in the election of President Trump. As New York Times journalists David Bornstein and Tina Rosenberg write: “Why did so many people accept Trump’s dark vision? One answer is that it fits with what they feel from the news… For decades, journalism’s steady focus on problems and seemingly incurable pathologies was preparing the soil that allowed Trump’s seeds of discontent and despair to take root.”

In the same way, the Leave campaign’s success was rooted in decades of EU-bashing from the right wing press, as well as negativity even from respected outlets such as the BBC, according to analysts Media Tenor. This led to massive public misinformation about the EU, as revealed by Ipsos-MORI research.

Some, like the late Helmut Schmidt, former chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany and publisher of Die Zeit, go so far as to claim that negatively-framed news is destroying the media and democracy. What isn’t in doubt is that it can leave audiences disengaged and disillusioned and lead to anxiety, apathy and feelings of helplessness.

In an attempt to rebalance news and redress the media’s negativity bias, Bornstein and Rosenberg are advocating solutions journalism. Having founded the Solutions Journalism Network, their organisation is training newsrooms in the US in how not just report on problems but also to investigate solutions. Here in the UK too, the Constructive Journalism Project has delivered training to journalists and journalism students across the country.

And around the world there’s a growing number of news organisations championing this approach, or variations of it, in practice – calling it constructive, or solutions-focused journalism.

Established in 1993 (and relaunched in 2016), Positive News was the first publication dedicated to this field of reporting. But it is no longer alone. Among media that are now pursuing solution-focused stories as part of their editorial remit are: the BBC, the Guardian, the Huffington Post, the Economist, Upworthy, Spiegel Online, and de Correspondent.

For journalism to help society self-correct, it’s not enough to be a watchdog. We need new and better recipes

Two other leading proponents, Ulrik Haagerup and Cathrine Gyldensted, are giving it an academic underpinning – the former through the newly launched Constructive Institute. And Jodie Jackson, a positive psychology researcher, has recently completed a study which found that constructive journalism can empower people and engage them more in society.

Borsntein believes that solutions remain an under-represented part of the news. He writes: “For journalism to help society self-correct, it’s not enough to be a watchdog to increase awareness or produce outrage about problems. We need new and better recipes. For society and also for journalism to thrive, it needs to be regularly highlighting with rigour new ideas and models that are showing results against our most pressing problems.”

This approach isn’t appropriate for all stories but should be seen as another tool in the journalist’s toolbox. Bornstein and Rosenberg are at pains to stress that solutions journalism is “rigorous and compelling reporting”. They explain: “It focuses not just on what may be working, but how and why it appears to be working, or alternatively, why it may be stumbling.”

A survey by the BBC World Service showed that young people are particularly keen on news that provides solutions to problems. This would seem to chime with the fact that so many young people were drawn to Jeremy Corbyn’s solutions-focused campaign and why so many people were turned off by Theresa May’s negativity.

No doubt the fall-out from the June 2017 election will have a significant impact on the next general election. Will politicians and the media change their tack? To find out, we may not have long to wait.

Featured image: Sophie J. Brown

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