Constructive Journalism: a new journalistic culture or wishful mindset?

By Laura Galante, photos by Mathias Svold, Sabrina Skjødt, Herbert Zhang

“Bad news sells” is, or rather used to be, the mantra in journalism. When we think of journalism and reporting, negative images come to our minds. Terror attacks, refugee crises and political conflict around the world are filling our news reports in both new and traditional media. We do not immediately associate journalism to positive stories. According to many, that is not even journalism. It is advertising.

However, a new view of what journalism should be has caught the attention of both scholars and professionals. Constructive journalism proposes a different approach of news framing.

Since its establishment, Constructive Institute founders Maarja Kardajane and Ulrik Haageruk have been promoting new ways of doing journalism with events like the Constructive Journalism Conference of 2017 (photo: Mathias Svold)

“[Constructive journalism] can actually contribute to limiting the perception gap in society,” says investigative reporter from the Danish Broadcasting Corporation (DR), Mathias Friis, now a fellow at the Constructive Institute. “If we only report on sensations and conflicts it’s no wonder that people think there is much more crime out there than what the facts actually show.”

The young practice of constructive journalism has the aim of responding to an excess of sensationalism in today’s news culture, which is currently filled with over-exaggeration and negative bias about the world we live in. It therefore aims to bridge the gap between a negative perception of the world and actual reality. Ulrik Haagerup, who founded the Constructive Institute in Aarhus earlier this year, is one of the pioneers and advocates of constructive journalism. The organization, which is partnered with Aarhus University, aims to deliver the values of constructive journalism through many initiatives, including the Fellowship Program.

Negative stories lead to news avoidance    

Having the Fellowship program started only this year at the Constructive Institute, Friis is taking a year off from his job at DR in order to learn about this practice and potentially apply it to his job. The Fellowship Program aims in fact to train journalists to become more knowledgeable in their topic areas, as well as to explore different solutions in the fields they are covering. Currently however, there are a lot of people who do not watch the news because of the constant sadness they derive from it.

“People actually get depressed from watching the news, so they’ll just turn it off, and that’s a very big problem.” adds Kristeligt Dagblad journalist Nanna Schelde, also a fellow at the Constructive Institute. She says that people get affected by compassion fatigue every time they turn on the news, which means they will become disheartened by all the negative stories that currently pervade our screens and newspapers.

Fellows of the constructive institute Mathias Friis and Nanna Schelde strive to incorporate constructive journalism in their jobs (photo: Sabrina Skjødt)

Schelde and Friis are both taking a year off from their jobs as journalists to learn more about constructive journalism, which rather than just reporting the news under a negative light, also attempts to cover it in such a way that it is possible to find solutions to existing issues. This does not mean that the news has to be happy or positive to be considered constructive. “for me it’s very important to stress that constructive journalism is not the same as positivity. I think you have to be even more critical when you do it,” says Schelde. It therefore should not be mistaken with softening the version of current events, nor trying to ignore negative news.

“An add-on to all the great journalism that is already out there”

According to Friis, there is a huge problem with how media is responsible for boosting negative perceptions of reality in the masses. In Aarhus, for example, the neighbourhood of Gellerup is often used to reinforce the stereotype of a ghetto-like area due to its perceived recurring criminal activity. “I remember how whenever local news media had a story about something going in the wrong direction…they would use a stock photo of Gellerup, which creates this understanding that there are a lot of problems there because you’d always see that [example] whenever [bringing up] ghettos in Denmark…the news media help confirm whatever prejudices you might have even though they’re not based on facts.”

Constructive journalism can thus help shape the way news is perceived. For Friis as an investigative journalist, it could change the way he undertakes his research, so that rather than just focusing on the negative aspects of stories, solutions can be found.

Not all journalists think that this model is the answer to news bias, however. Jyllands-Posten editorial group leader, Jesper Høberg is also an investigative journalist, and his perspective is different. He says that investigative journalism is not about finding solutions, but rather uncovering the truth: “I am trying to find out what is hidden in society. Constructive journalism is not about exposing. It’s about finding solutions and I think that this practice is not in line with investigative journalism.”

TV2 News Anchor Editor Mikael Kamber is already incorporating constructive journalism in the program “19 inspiration”  (photo: Herbert Zhang)

Friis, however, says that constructive journalism is not supposed to replace investigative journalism, but could instead enhance it. “For me it’s an add-on to all the great journalism that is already out there.” As an investigative journalist he spent quite a lot of time talking about problems and their consequences, but not enough about how uncovered facts could present other ways of tackling these issues. “It’s important that you do not create oppositions between practices.”

Different interpretations: are we there yet?

However, even among constructive journalism supporters, there are disputes at the Institute. “We don’t necessarily need to agree on what to do,” says Schelde. “We have very engaging discussions, how we interpret it is very different. I don’t think we’ll ever end up agreeing, however we’ll always be looking for new examples and formats. We’re all equal here in that we don’t know the answer yet.”

Constructive journalism is still brand new, but could it integrate itself as an innovative journalistic culture, or is it still difficult to embrace? At the moment, it is being used by some media organisations in Denmark such as TV2 in their segment ‘19 Inspiration’ to showcase success stories rather than just traditional news. However, when the label of ‘constructive journalism’ will be removed from this practice so that it becomes part of everyday news it remains to be seen.

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