The media is changing for good

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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