“Constructive journalism is not an alternative to journalism, it’s an extra layer.”
Karel Smouter, deputy editor-in-chief of De Correspondent, highlighted some of the outlet’s editorial processes that lead to a more constructive approach to news coverage, at the International Journalism Festival in Italy today (8 April).
Alongside Smouter, Craig Silverman, editor of BuzzFeed Canada, and Cathrine Gyldensted of The University of Windesheim, discussed the merits of constructive journalism and ways for publishers to integrate it into their work, on a panel moderated by Charlie Beckett, director of Polis.
Smouter explained there is “a silent majority that is actually tired of news”, and constructive stories, which focus on solutions and responses to a problem, make people less cynical about the way news is presented to them. They also tend to spend more time on the article page, as revealed by a recent report from the Engaging News Project.
But there are other benefits as well. In order to put together a constructive journalism piece, the usual newsgathering techniques are employed, as well as a few extra steps you should keep in mind, as they could lead to a better story.
Here are three things you should consider when thinking about the role of constructive journalism in your reporting and your newsroom.
It looks to the future
Gyldensted highlighted the “power of the future-oriented question”. Journalists are “mostly looking at things that have happened, we rarely ask questions about where will we go from here, what now,” she said.
These types of questions can also open doors and make potentially difficult sources more likely to talk to you, added Smouter.
As they don’t often come up in traditional interviews, your interviewee or an organisation's spokesperson will likely not have prepared an answer in advance, resulting in an honest, straightforward reply.
“[Constructive journalism] can actually serve as a way to open closed environments, to make people talk,” he said.
It uses history to put things into perspective
Contextualising news and creating timelines and explainers has always been part of the reporting process, but new, easy-to-use tools mean these formats have become a fixture of the online news landscape in recent years.
Using history to contextualise a certain event or recently released report can also result in a more constructive piece.
An older feature from De Correspondent focused on “why 2013 was the best year ever”, including “graphs that actually show a long term perspective for the news”.
Smouter explained that while some events or new research findings might look bleak if reported on their own, putting them into historical context has a high chance of showing things are in fact improving – and help to avoid the feeling of helplessness and pessimism people may feel when watching or reading the news.
It helps avoid confirmation bias
“There is a tremendous amount of polarisation in society,” said Silverman, explaining how people tend to consume information that reinforces what they already believe.
In his previous work fact-checking and debunking, he noticed people weren’t always grateful for his efforts.
“You think you’re offering a solution, but a lot of times the reaction is ‘why do you have to spoil it?’”
He sees constructive stories as pieces that can bring people together and force them to interact.
“I think that’s one of the ways this approach to journalism can help to address this problem that we have in society right now.”