The sensationalist nature of today’s journalism is troubling. Leading from the Scandinavian example, it’s time for a change.
So this, dear reader, is my dilemma as a journalist: I want to tell you about the world, warts and all, but research tells me that you can only take one wart, once in a while – not all of them, all of the time. I get that. Constantly reading about IS attacks, corrupt politicians, desperate refugees, suicide bombers and children with their legs blown off makes me unhappy too. In fact, it makes me want to turn off the television, put away the newspapers and ignore even the Internet. It makes me feel afraid, angry, hopeless and powerless, and those are emotions I’d rather avoid. On the other hand, both as a journalist and a news consumer, I don’t want to hide away under my doona and pretend the world doesn’t exist, or only read and write happy-happy “cat rescued from tree” stories, like some publications present us with.
So do I stop writing altogether and move into a vegan offline commune in Byron Bay or do I try and find a different way of practicing my craft? And if I don’t like living with hipsters, how do I come up with journalism 2.1?
The answer comes, as usual, from Scandinavia – Denmark, to be precise – although Cathrine Gyldensted, after an illustrious career as a television and radio journalist in Copenhagen, now works in Zwolle, The Netherlands. There she is the Director of something called Constructive Journalism at Windesheim, one of the Dutch journalism schools. Recently she wrote a book that made me think. It is called From mirrors to movers, and it starts with a simple premise: in their heart of hearts, journalists know they don’t mirror the world. We are not objective question-robots, but people who bring our personalities and experiences to the job we do, just like the butcher, the barista and the businesswoman. That doesn’t mean we are biased, but we do do more than just reflect reality. As a matter of fact, we like to think of ourselves as the “fourth estate”, the authority that protects democracy by keeping an eye on the powers-that-be.
So we are movers, in Gyldensted’s words. If we are, the question becomes: movers to where?
Every story has three parties: the source (politician, businessman, but also victim, villain, whistleblower, bureaucrat, tradie), the audience and the journalist; none of whom, Gyldensted says, are getting what they want or need at the moment.
Because most journalists have been taught that “if it bleeds, it leads”, we tend to report on negative aspects of the world: the horror, the corruption, the wars, the dying. That is not just because it sells newspapers and gets “likes”, but also because we want to change the world for the better and believe that telling our audiences where stuff goes wrong will provoke action. Sometimes that works, mostly it doesn’t. Audiences get tired of only reading gloomy articles and switch off instead of being prompted to take in a refugee or elect a politician who does have honourable intentions. Sometimes they even get so fed up with the world we portray, that they donkey vote, don’t attend polls or vote ironically, just to say “no”. In a way, that is our own fault. From our reporting, our readers have understood that the world is a horrible place without any light, so objecting to that is no more than a reasonable response.
We like our stories simple and prefer a world in which a victim is a person who is passive, in need of help and nice, while a villain is 100 percent bad and deserves only contempt.
If the status quo is bad for journalists and audiences, it is not great for sources either. Journalists are used to treating politicians, for example, with aggression. We don’t trust them and preferably interview them when they’ve done something wrong or when their policies are not working. This forces them to defend themselves, by hiring spin doctors, saying “no” with frequency and attempting to bury their mistakes. That, in turn, grows our distrust – something we pass on to our readers, who then start sharing our dislike for their representatives. This is bad for democracy, because it causes an enormous gap between citizens and office-bearers, which opens up opportunities for figures we would, ideally, seek to not elect. Journalists are also far too good at clichés: we like our stories simple and prefer a world in which a victim is a person who is passive, in need of help and nice, while a villain is 100 percent bad and deserves only contempt. We call them “people-smugglers” and “terrorists”, and don’t look at the shades of grey between those terms and “refugee rescuers” and “freedom fighters”.
That, Gyldensted says, is the problem. So what do we do about it? This is where her “constructive journalism” comes in. Not to be confused with positive journalism (“cat rescued from tree”, “ugly vegetables are good for you”), constructive journalism is still journalism. It does the research, talks to multiple sources, writes about facts. But instead of being cynical, it is critical. Instead of focusing on the negative, it looks to the future as well. And it is interested in solutions, not just problems. We know from psychology research and common sense that people live their lives through emotions. If I am nice to you, you most likely will return the favour and be nice to me. That is the golden rule: you give what you get. So in order to make the world a better place, we need to get away from our negative bias. Once we start describing the possibilities instead of only what goes wrong, we change, first, the tone of the conversation, then the conversation and then the reality.
Let me give you an example: there is a website here in Holland called De Correspondent. According to their mission statement, they not only believe in audiences that are active partners, but also in journalists who ask unusual questions. A few months ago, they wrote a story about the expatriation services in Holland. They are seen as the quintessential “bad guys”, the people who are responsible for the physical eviction of refugees after they have been refused asylum. They are very used to being attacked and derided, so when the reporter came in, they were on the defensive from the get-go. Then he changed his questions. “If you could give advice on how to do this better, what would that be?”, he asked. And, “What would you need from all parties to turn negative outcomes into positive ones?”. The functionaries were caught off guard completely and started answering from the heart and with far less caution. This led to a better article and it made their thinking bigger and broadened their minds. It was a win-win. Actually, after the piece had been published, the journalist was invited back to share with the service what he had learned while being there, so they would be able to improve their practice. His questions, and the fact that he had been constructive instead of destructive, ultimately changed their way of working.
I like to ask them for “the sacred” – what made them want to become politicians, what was their aim, their hope, their dream. That usually takes them out of the day-to-day and back to the essence, from where they can make better decisions.
In journalism, we’ve got the famous five Ws that guide what we do. We ask “who, what, why, where and when” to try and get to the bottom of every story. I think we are missing one: “what now?” What do we want our articles to do, what sort of result would we like, where do we want them to go? When we interview the power holders, we should try and not only let them explain what went wrong, but also what went right and how they see the future. If we add some carrot to our stick, they might be motivated to change for the better. Even politicians, bureaucrats and big businessmen and businesswomen are people, and they respond better to understanding than attack. Once we give them the opportunity to behave like human beings, the voters might start to view them likewise as well, and that is the only way to turn the tide on populism and anti-democratic movements. At the moment we are demonising politicians and feeding our readers the idea that all people in power are out to get you. That is harmful. Of course there is corruption, but most elected officials try to be decent and do the right thing. I like to ask them for, what a Danish colleague of mine called, “the sacred” – what made them want to become politicians, what was their aim, their hope, their dream. That usually takes them out of the day-to-day and back to the essence, from where they can make better decisions.
A little more light and inspiration in our stories will also, I believe, bring back audiences who have now turned away. It will show them that good things do happen in the world and that they can be a part of that, if they want to. The aim, of course, is to empower them. To give them the facts and the arguments to go out in the world and change it, and their own lives, for the better. More people reading our stories and doing something with them will be good for journalists too. It will stop us banging our heads against the wall, for a start. Instead of holding to our view of the world as a valley of tears it will give us a chance to lighten up and start doing our jobs with more faith and conviction. We have to break the cycle somewhere and being constructive is the way to go for all parties involved. So much for Cathrine Gyldensted. But here the experiment starts. I will try to be as constructive as possible, while still holding on to my journalistic principles. And you, my reader, what can you do? What do you need, want me to write about, have to say? Are we in this together? Can we change the world, as the saying goes, one step, one person, one article at the time?