Constructive journalism taught in UK universities for the first time

Journalism students are learning to create inspiring stories and take a constructive approach to reporting on problems, through workshops being delivered at universities across the UK

Journalism students at UK universities are being taught techniques in constructive, solutions-focused journalism for the first time.

Delivered by the Constructive Journalism Project (CJP), the series of one-off workshops aims to introduce students to the concept of constructive journalism and the research that informs it, as well as give practical tips on how students can use the approach to create more balanced reporting.

“Fundamentally, constructive journalism is about uniting a constructive, compassionate mindset with rigorous journalism,” said Seán Dagan Wood, co-founder of the project and editor-in-chief of Positive News. “By applying journalistic skill to looking for potential solutions to problems that society faces, highlighting positive responses and innovation, it’s a way to frame things differently. This gives the journalist new angles on important issues, engages the audience and helps present a fuller picture of truth.”

As well as practical tips, such as using more constructive language in articles and how to write pitches that highlight solutions as well as problems, the workshops also explore emerging research, most recently from the University of Southampton, which suggests that constructive stories can engage audiences more effectively and could be beneficial to reader wellbeing and social participation.

“It gives the journalist new angles on important issues, engages the audience and helps present a fuller picture of truth.”

“Ultimately it’s a way of reporting that hopes to be more empowering,” said Wood. “A very negative focus can lead the reader to feel hopeless, cynical and disempowered. But with the constructive approach the idea is that by seeing a fuller picture that includes the potential avenues for positive change, people can feel more able to make informed decisions and see more possibilities for how they might respond, in thinking or in action, to the things that matter to them.”

Formed in September 2014 the CJP, which also runs regular paid-for training sessions for freelance and staff journalists, began its university programme in January. So far more than 200 students have been reached at Sheffield University, Glasgow Caledonian University, the University of Strathclyde, the University of East Anglia, Glyndwr University Wrexham and London Metropolitan University, with more in the pipeline for September.

The two-to-three hour workshops, which are financed by funding from the Economic and Social Research Council, secured in partnership with the University of Southampton, are provided free of charge to the universities that run them and the students that take part.

Course leader Danielle Batist, who is a co-founder of the project and a freelance journalist, said the response has been highly encouraging.

“The students and many of the tutors that we’ve worked with have been very open-minded and enthusiastic about the concept,” she said.

However, not all institutions are open to the idea. “Some don’t want to take this new approach,” said Batist. “They’ve been teaching the same thing for years and don’t want to change. They teach the five Ws of what journalists should include in stories (who, what, where, why and when), but we think there should be a sixth W: ‘what now?’, looking at what’s being done to fix the problems we report on.”

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With the success of the workshops so far and the fact that major media outlets including the Huffington Post, New York Times and Al Jazeera are all beginning to adopt constructive elements in their editorial approaches, the course leaders hope that it will eventually become an integral part of journalism.

“In journalistic culture there are assumptions about what news is and what journalism should focus on, which need to be questioned if we are to continue to innovate the craft and best serve our audiences,” said Wood. “It’s certainly not about doing away with any of the really important approaches to reporting that we already have; but the constructive approach can add another element to the journalist’s tool-kit and help strengthen their reporting.”

The next Constructive Journalism Project workshop will be a full day introduction to constructive journalism for freelancers, staff journalists and communications professionals, on Friday 12 June 2015 in London.

If you are a lecturer or head of department and are interested in having a constructive journalism workshop at your university or journalism school, you can contact the Constructive Journalism Project here.