What exactly is constructive journalism? According to the Constructive Institute, the organisation at the heart of a global effort to restore trust in journalism, it is “a response to increasing tabloidization, sensationalism and negativity bias of the news media today.” It aims to provide audiences with a fair, accurate and contextualised picture of the world without over emphasising the negative and what is going wrong.

A much-needed change considering that, at present, audiences trust journalists about as much as they trust real estate agents.

Ulrik Haagerup, executive director of Danish Broadcaster DR, is leading a paradigm shift in content focus in his organisation – proving that a constructive approach to news reporting is not only desirable for the industry’s towering crisis of trust, but is also an engaging and viable path to restore meaning to journalistic endeavour. With his unique experience, he has now set out on a journey to “turn constructive journalism into a global movement.”

According to Haagerup, “good journalism is a feedback mechanism that helps society self-correct”. Haagerup, who serves on the European Journalism Centre’s board and is a Cavling Prize winner, underwent his own epiphany along the way. Looking back on his younger years as an investigative journalist in Denmark, he observes that “you do what the culture wants from you” to explain the perverse motivations driving the profession, where “bad news is good news” and the cult of “if it bleeds, it leads” is a mindset. This has made him reflect on his own motivations, lead by a desire to “win awards, be a star reporter” or achieve the highest visibility.

Over time, the critical question surfaced: “What kind of news stories do we prioritise in our programming?” In Haagerup’s view, the statement that “journalism is a product to be sold” fuels a school of thought that is pervasive in newsrooms globally and detrimental to the core values of the profession.

“Our job as journalists is not just to ask customers what they want, but to give them something that will expand their mind and broaden their horizons. We have to find meaningful stories for people about important matters in society and not only focus on what will sell.”

The difference between politeness and complacency

In a time of fakes and social media induced cognitive tunnel-vision, Haagerup defends the importance of ensuring that audiences don’t simply “click on what they already know and like, to know more and more about less and less.” Journalism should reclaim its job “to provide the best obtainable version of the truth at any give time.”

In constructive journalism terms, this would entail combating the “trivialisation and degradation of journalism by a media that often is more interested in entertaining and creating controversies than informing the citizenship.” The Institute website elaborates on that description, adding that “constructive journalism is calm in tone, being less focused on scandals, conflicts and outrage” and more on “important societal issues, setting them in the bigger picture and in their relevant context.”

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Source: Constructive Journalism Institute 

How the path of self-reflection became a framework for global news reporting

For Haagerup, a pivotal moment in the realisation of the high value of constructive news came in the late 80s, as the Danish coalition government was entering gridlock. By engaging the youth associations of leading political parties, he and his team used facilitation to change the apparently stagnated political discourse into a productive debate that delivered new ideas and surfaced new solutions to existing problems.

This experience forms a powerful basis for his enthusiastic defence of the role of “the journalist as a facilitator”, as well as support for the idea that constructive journalism is a mindset.

Journalism is a filter between reality and the public perception of reality. As such, constructive news is a critique of how we focus our attention on the things that do not work.

Haagerup draws on an eye-opening anecdote: a leading Estonian business journalist at a public broadcaster who described his fear of being “positive and upbeat” about business news in his country. Although there were many good business stories to report on, he felt that if he focused his reporting on the things that worked, he would be accused of “just holding the microphone”. As a result he overcompensated by focusing only on corruption and malpractice stories. Here again, Haagerup surfaces a commonplace example where the culture and environment dictate the focus that has lead to disengagement and a crisis of trust.

Seeking new formats is commonplace in the entertainment industry, yet not so much in political news reporting. Why?

At DR, Haagerup has built success stories embracing constructive and innovative approaches to political reporting. DR has a political debate format that takes politicians from different parties and puts them together – in a casual setting – to conduct a candid discussion on key policy issues “as people” to share views, values and motivations. The format has engaged audiences and changed the nature of the political discussion into a more solutions-oriented one.

In this particular experience, Haagerup asserts that making politicians more accessible and showing their humanity and drives has raised the bar of the debate, reduced “apathy, fear and deselection” and enhanced engagement. He remembers the time, over two decades ago, when stories of regular citizens were considered “highly controversial and lacking any interest”.

Fast forward to 2017 and citizens are not only regular news subjects, but are technologically empowered news contributors. Another positive outcome of the constructive approach is that it is a winner in digital media, as inspiring stories create higher engagement.

“It’s not about removing the teeth from the watchdog”, Haagerup assures, but about being “accurate as well as meaningful, and changing a culture that supports that bad news is good.”

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Source: Constructive Journalism Institute 

What can the Constructive Institute do?

“The Constructive Institute can help change habits, renew and refocus the role of media and enhance the provision of quality journalism everywhere.”

The quote – which provides an indication of purpose – comes from Michael Moller, Director-General of the United Nations Office in Geneva. The recently-founded Constructive Institute helps journalists and news organisations to apply constructive reporting in their daily work using various tools.

So far, it has launched a best practices portal, a fellowship program based in Aarhus University and relevant training curricula. It is currently raising international funds to extend its offer to international fellows, conduct academic research and concept making and hire a “lean and flexible” team to make its footprint global.

If things go as planned, in five years affiliates will be present in Europe, Latin America, Africa, Middle East and Asia. “Interest is big, but it’s a hard sell – you’re funding a global democratic phenomenon”, Haagerup reflects.

If Danish tenacity prevails, much in the spirit of the Ellemann-Jensen doctrine – which would promote a small country’s ability to gain influence in the world order – we will soon be witness to a new trend in news reporting globally that inspires us, engages us into constructive action and helps build back the lost trust.

 


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Clara Llamas is a London based strategist. She works with media, investors and public organisations on digital transformation projects @vaibmu