‘Media needs to find its responsibility again’ says UN director general

Michael Møller urges news outlets to inform and empower citizens more effectively by adopting constructive journalism

The United Nations has called for a sea change in the world’s media, urging the adoption of more constructive, solutions-focused reporting to galvanise people towards positive social change.

Michael Møller, director general at the United Nations Office at Geneva, joined editors from some of the UK’s biggest media outlets – from tabloid newspapers to major television broadcasters – at an event in central London on Wednesday morning to discuss constructive journalism. The event was also attended by representatives of the third sector.

Møller warned that a negativity bias in much of the mainstream media stands in the way of progress and urged outlets to “change their modus operandi”. He called for reporting to be based on “facts and empathy” to a much greater degree than at present, and said “bringing in more positive, solution-focused stories is a must.”

Speaking to Positive News, Møller said: “The responsibility of the media, to me, is to inform, educate and to hold power to account. I think that on the educational part, a lot of media around the world has abdicated its responsibility. It needs to find its responsibility again.”

At a time when digital connectedness enables mass awareness of humanitarian challenges, people could rise to meet them, said Møller – if they receive accurate, useful and balanced information from the media.

“We have the expertise, we have the experience, the human capital, the financial means, it’s just a matter of getting our act together globally,” he said.

“We are moving into a world of incredible change. We have technology today that gives almost every person on this planet the ability to know everything that happens, but also the ability to comment. Many of these voices are fairly uninformed and based on very narrow personal agendas and local understandings of reality. It is very, very important that this cacophony of voices is as informed as possible.”

Changing narratives around refugees

Møller referred to much of the media’s portrayal of the European refugee crisis as a case in point. Not only did narratives lack sufficient facts and coverage of solutions, they fuelled stereotypes, leading to “extraordinarily negative” reporting, he said.

“The narrative on who [the migrants] are, but also that there’s this tsunami of people descending on Europe, is simply wrong. The fact that we need many of these people is completely forgotten.”

Migration will be a central element of our lives for decades to come, he added. “We can’t solve the problem by closing doors. Climate change will cause millions to move. The reality on this planet is such that, unless we do something dramatic, most of us are going to be affected in ways that we are now seeing others being affected. The level of collective responsibility for how our planet is run is such that we can no longer think we can do it alone: either as a community or a country or as individuals.”

Informing people about solutions that are being worked on should sit alongside holding politicians to account on how they are addressing global issues, said Møller.

“One of the big problems in the world right now is that our short term political structures are at odds with the long term needs. Most politicians are looking at three or five-year horizons to be re-elected and it’s becoming more and more of a problem. That’s where the media can come in, to provide the continuity. To remind them of their commitments.”

Sir Martyn Lewis, Positive News patron and chair of National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO), first made a stand against media negativity when he was a BBC news presenter in the 1990s. Lewis chaired the event in London on Wednesday, which was convened by Constructive Voices – a project run by NCVO to encourage socially-useful, constructive journalism. It also aims to link media with stories from the voluntary sector and social enterprises.

Lewis said that the unprecedented gathering reflected a surging interest in constructive journalism.

“Key people came together to discuss the subject: editors, representatives of the voluntary sector and social entrepreneurs, for a very frank discussion,” he said.

“It was fascinating to see the range of approaches, with almost everyone agreeing on the need for constructive journalism. The question now is how to overcome the obstacles at national newspapers, such as a lack of resources, and the need to build relationships between journalists and the people or organisations working on solutions.”

Positive News editor-in-chief and co-founder of the Constructive Journalism Project, Seán Dagan Wood, said: “We are seeing the beginnings of a cultural shift across the media as the industry realises the value, for both itself and the public, of good journalism about progress and possibility.

“Media must continue to hold power to account and expose problems, but while doing so we can empower people by also investigating potential solutions. This is not about feel good stories or advocacy. It is about informing people in a way that contributes to a fuller picture of truth and creates a space for society to respond more effectively to its challenges.

“The press can maintain a critical journalistic approach alongside a constructive mindset, applying its valuable expertise to producing compelling stories about how problems are being tackled. I know that the public want this, and I believe we’ll continue to see forward-thinking media move towards this approach.”

Left to right: Sir Martyn Lewis, Michael Mølller and Seán Dagan Wood at the Constructive Voices event in London, 27 April. Photo © Zoe Wright/PhotoVoice