Three lessons from the Constructive Journalism Project

Since its inception last year, the Constructive Journalism Project has worked with hundreds of staff reporters, freelance writers and students to bring more solutions-focused elements into conventional reporting. Co-founder Danielle Batist shares some lessons learned

1. Most journalists want to contribute to change

To understand the disconnection between journalists’ values and the media they produce, start by asking them two questions: ‘Why did you become a journalist?’ and ‘How do you feel when you watch the news or read the paper?’

In the past year, we put these to several hundred journalists of all ages and nationalities. At every workshop, participants submit their answers on coloured Post-It notes and include specific values they hold dearest in their profession. Through an anonymous count, we identify the commonalities within each group.

‘To hold power to account’ is always up there – and thankfully so. When prompted to explain why journalists find that important, they often say that they want to inform people of wrongdoings. When asked why that in turn is important, they mention the underlying desire to have an impact in society and ultimately, to contribute to positive change.

“The notion that ‘if it bleeds, it leads’ is no longer the only thing that determines what news is.”

Yet when participants hand over their notes describing their feelings after consuming news themselves, a different set of words come in. Like many average news consumers, journalists mention words like ‘depressed’, ‘sad’, ‘overwhelmed’, ‘hopeless’ and – perhaps most worrying of all – ‘desensitised’.

Working in a news ecosystem that does not reflect their personal and professional values leaves some frustrated and unsatisfied in their jobs. Constructive journalism can help redress the balance, creating a more complete picture of the world while offering a more meaningful role for journalists.

2. Good news can be news too

“Never awake me when you have good news to announce, because with good news nothing presses; but when you have bad news, arouse me immediately, for then there is not an instant to be lost.”— Napoleon Bonaparte, French Emperor, 1769-1821.

Journalism has come a long way since Napoleon’s day. The notion that ‘if it bleeds, it leads’ is no longer the only thing that determines what news is. A growing number of media organisations worldwide are starting to recognise that ‘if it succeeds, it leads’ too.

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Rather than showing only the positive or the negative, constructive journalism strengthens journalism’s commitment to the truth, by helping provide a fuller picture of reality. At the same time, it strengthens journalism’s ethic of minimising harm by reporting in a way that is more conscious of how information might impact individuals and society.

Ultimately, it is not about good versus bad news. Constructive journalism is an approach; it is more about how we report – whatever it is we are reporting on – rather than what we report.

3. Consensus can be tougher than conflict

Watching political debate formats on TV, it is hard to imagine how such journalism could be constructive. The attack and counter-attack blame game attracts viewers, but does not leave us with the feeling that anything can be done about the problem discussed, or that consensus can be reached to actually tackle the issue.

Some journalists fear that constructive questions fail to challenge those in power and lets them off the hook. The reverse is true: through fostering conversation and collaboration, political opposites can prompted to be proactive in providing solutions. In fact, as anyone who has ever been in a heated argument will know, it can be much harder to be empathic towards your opponent, see his or her strengths and look for common ground.

This is as true for powerful elites as it is for anyone. Constructive journalism illuminates how not only those in power but all of us can have the potential to do both harm and good.