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Credit: Mousetrap Media/Christina Jansen

How can news organisations inspire positive change when the public is so saturated with negative news, that a third of us are avoiding it altogether?

News avoidance makes it difficult for journalism to be heard, and it is only made harder today when you add new platforms into the mix, each with another set of algorithms and filter bubbles to contend with.

These struggles, amongst others, are what the Constructive Journalism Network (CJN) seeks to answer, according to its co-founder Cathrine Gyldensted, who delivered a workshop at the 25th Newsrewired conference.

Constructive journalism is increasingly being used as a way to engage and grow audiences. News organisations such as The New York Times, De Correspondent, Die Zeit and The Guardian are now all giving it a go. In her workshop, Gyldensted introduced journalists to a few constructive approaches to bring into their newsroom.

'If it bleeds, it leads'

To compete with virality, journalists must first understand what makes a story go viral. Viral stories are provocative and make use of intense emotions; negatives ones such as anger or fear, as well as positive ones like awe and hope. The problem is that it is the negative emotions which dominate the news cycle and cause audiences to switch off.

Appealing to populist outrage is nothing new; TV news' most well-known saying is 'If it bleeds, it leads'. But what has happened in recent years is that the internet has exacerbated its effect.

We see this in action online, as readers are quick to click and share content which plays into these emotions. The media, however, is often blind to the consequences of this negativity bias. It can paralyse our audiences or justify their worst impulses.

Identify your own negativity bias

However, Gyldensted provided an alternative: in groups of four or five, we thought about stories which we or our colleagues had written, and were guilty of playing into these negative emotions.

My mind ran immediately to my home country of Australia, where a friend of mine was busy putting together an article about the New South Wales Government’s (NSW) under-funding of the Rural Fire Service and its devastating consequences.

The piece described a systemic reduction in capital expenditure budgets over many years and laid bare the aftermath of the devastating 2019 bushfires. Its appeal lay in a portrait of government failure, hoping to tap into anger, fear, and grief to find an audience. It was, in short, deeply negative.

Flip the narrative

Then, we were invited to turn the piece of its head. Gyldensted encouraged us to apply the principles of constructive journalism to reframe the article from something emphasising victimhood and tragedy, to focusing on solutions and reconstruction.

As an example, she cited the case of Finnish broadcaster Yle. Having run a story on negligence in elderly care, a series of pieces followed where they consulted with elderly care professionals and viewers nationwide on how to improve the system going forward. Then, they ran an additional piece asking: 'Is it possible to completely transform a nursing home in four months?'

This became the foundation for a reality television series where they tried to do just that, following three coaches who attempted to reform the practices and goals of a nursing home, eventually succeeding, and using the experience as an example for wider reform across elderly care in Finland.

The central question Yle seemed to be asking themselves, at every point, was: 'How could we make this story best serve the social good?'

This changed their coverage entirely. Instead of exposing wrongdoing, it became about repairing its ill-effects. Instead of fuelling outrage, it encouraged a way forward collaboratively.

Cover the other half of the story

In the case of the Australian bushfires, we determined that the angle originally presented (funding cuts by the NSW government) was only half the story. The second half should focus on fixing the problem, like Yle did.

Are there ways to show where funds and equipment were most needed, like with a map or visualisation? Could the piece outline ways to aid the Rural Fire Service both as a donor and as a volunteer?

Importantly, I learned that outrage is not counter-intuitive to constructive journalism, so long as it has a vision. Constructive journalism is optimistic, but it does not have to be happy. It needs an action point at the end of the article which signals better times ahead, even the current outlook is bleak. Acknowledging the problem is often the starting point.

Could we determine which budget constraints and specific bills caused the problem, and how your local representative voted on these crucial decisions? Had we done this from the beginning, could we have paved the way to prevent similar outbreaks?

Take ownership of the problem

It is journalists, ultimately, who give sensational journalism the needed oxygen to go viral - but as we said at the beginning, both negative and positive emotions have the potential to make stories go viral. Indeed, solutions-based reporting can be some of the most sought-after content, and much healthier for our readers.

At the same conference where Gyldensted introduced me to constructive journalism, mobile journalist Yusuf Omar said: “If the pen was mightier than the sword, then the mobile phone is our atomic agent of change.”

The comparison should give us pause, and make us think about the importance for journalists and publishers be heard at a time of news avoidance and the abundance of social media platforms. But also because of our responsibility to hold power to account. it seems like constructive journalism, with a focus on building bridges and finding solutions, is something audiences are listening to.

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