How constructive journalism can improve the way media makers tell stories
Cathrine Gyldensted teaches students to embrace the principles of constructive journalism. (Image courtesy of Gyldensted.)
In a recent interview, we talked with journalist Cathrine Gyldensted, who is leading efforts to develop “constructive journalism” practices in Denmark. Her edited responses are below…
In a recent interview, we talked with journalist Cathrine Gyldensted, who is leading efforts to push for “constructive journalism” in Denmark. Her edited responses are below…
Mallary Tenore: For those who don’t know, what is constructive journalism?
Cathrine Gyldensted: In an ideal world where news and journalism are actually fair and balanced without a negativity bias, we wouldn’t need a new label. We would just be talking about “journalism.” But constructive journalism (CoJo) has gained ground as an umbrella term here in Scandinavia and has different pillars under it:
1. A pillar that draws from solid positive psychology research and creates new methods and frameworks for quality journalism. Examples:
- “Kill your victim.” Stop seeing your case interviewees as default victims of something. Maybe they are not. Or maybe it is the reporters’ questions that create a victim-like situation.
- Mediating political debate formats. The rules of the game are altered here: Politicians are challenged to find common ground and are held accountable on a commitment to work together. The aim is to benefit communities and society.
- Focusing on journalism that evokes awe and meaning, while still representing solid reporting. These emotions are highly engaging, and they’re markers of content that goes viral.
2. Solutions-focused reporting. In the U.S., you call it Solutions Journalism and are very good at it. Report on solutions. Find, investigate, and report on the positive outliers.
3. Problem-solving journalism. With this type of journalism, media makers take an even more activist approach — and act on the problems themselves, together with the community.
Constructive journalism still needs a rigorous scholarly definition, and therefore I have asked a young U.S. doctorate student to look into it, include it as part of her doctorate, and come up with a definition. She is defending her work in October at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. So, we will be more clear on the exact definition going forward.
It seems like there’s some natural overlap between constructive journalism, solutions journalism, and even restorative narratives.
I think we need to map the landscape and these constructs in order to give an overview. To me, constructive journalism is an umbrella term; below it you will find prominent pillars/domains/frameworks like solutions journalism, restorative narratives, etc.
Supporting it all are findings from rigorous psychology, sociology, and neuroscience, which can be applied to the craft of journalism.
What prompted you to get involved in constructive journalism?
It was a personal journey. I want to say that it was while I was serving as a U.S. correspondent for Danish Broadcasting — and was out in the field reporting on how the recession hit homeless people in the US.
One of my interviewees, a homeless woman in a shelter, denied to be seen as a victim, even though I tried my best to interview her through that lens. The quotes that I got from her were highly inspiring and thought-provoking. I chose to put them in my story and filed it. And the responses from readers and listeners were significant. At that time I had been working as a news and investigative reporter for 12 years and had done my share of “important” stories.
None of them had evoked this many responses from readers and listeners. They reacted to the inspirational message. And that caused me to pause and think: There’s something here. I need to understand the underlying dynamics of how news impacts and affects people.
What are we missing in journalism? How can we harness it for the betterment of journalism, create more engagement, and become better at being “fair and balanced”?
That is also why I chose to study positive psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. I needed to spend time with the people who knew something about the well-being model of the world. I knew nothing about that — only what you could call the disease model of the world. This is where we operate and focus as news reporters, maybe because we do not know better. But that is changing now.
How can journalists and other media practitioners incorporate constructive journalism into their work — and why should they?
I think constructive journalism speaks to those who can see that a lot of news is not currently honoring journalistic ethics — such as being fair, balanced, and accountable. Not because of a political skew, but because of an overwhelming negativity bias, where “being critical” has mutated into being overly negative and cynical. Being critical is reporting on facts, statements, documents, and actions in a balanced way — not having a negative stance from the outset. Colleagues who realize this are prone to venturing into constructive journalism because it makes their work more comprehensive and balanced.
Another good reason to do constructive journalism is that we see how it attracts new readers, listeners, and viewers. I wrote about that data in a Guardian article last month.
Lastly — it’s a new and (better) way to keep the powerful accountable and in check. By working on your interviewing technique and borrowing from mediation and facilitation, you are able to make a political debate format where power holders are being asked where they can agree and collaborate — and when/how they will do it. I have worked with Sweden’s Radio on this format.
I have shown and discussed this debate format with one Danish Minister and a member of the European Parliament. Their responses were worth noting: Getting questions like these would be demanding for them; it would require a whole new way of thinking, and they would be challenged to find common ground and commit to that.
It has great potential — because this way of questioning and interviewing power holders is much more demanding. Instead of disagreeing and throwing mud (like they always do), they have to really work for their constituents — and society as a whole.
How is constructive journalism being incorporated into curriculum at universities?
I currently teach American undergraduates who study a semester here in Denmark in a course called Changing the News. My students come from respected colleges and universities in the U.S. and go on to pursue journalism & communications careers. The course is highly rated by students.
I also teach courses for professional Danish colleagues in our continuing education program. A handful of other colleagues are offering courses on problem solving journalism & constructive journalism for regional media.
Two out of three Danish journalism schools are actively working on establishing a Center for Constructive Journalism. We are currently in the fundraising stage. When the Center launches, the plan is to incorporate CoJo as an elective course. The opening of the Center is very much dependent on the funds & fundraising; we are currently waiting to hear back from 20 foundations, so an opening date depends on how fast/slow the fundraising goes.
There seems to be a rise in the number of organizations that are doing this type of work. There’s Constructive Journalism, the Solutions Journalism Network, Transformational Media, and Images & Voices of Hope, to name a few. Why do you think that is?
In my career as a classically trained investigative journalist, I have always encountered people who have asked me “how come news is always so negative, conflict-oriented, etc.?” And my response was usually to shake my head at these naive people. Couldn’t they see that we were only doing our job? That having this “critical aka negative” approach to everything is the only way we can keep check and balances right, keep power accountable, etc.?
Today I realize that science, positive psychology, and other fields have mountains of methods, frameworks, and research that can be applied to journalism, thus making it an even more solid, rigorous, balanced, and engaging field.
Maybe it’s because we get more knowledgeable about the well-being model of the world — instead of thinking that a disease model of the world is all there is for journalists to describe.
Others think that the rise of people, organizations, and media outlets that want to see a change is because of the cacophony of news on all platforms, 24/7. Human beings cannot process all of that suffering and negativity, so we push it away to keep sane. In research this is called desensitivity. I wrote about this phenomena in my UPenn thesis.
When we protect ourselves from the overwhelming negativity, some new questions arise: Well, is that all there is — or could there be another way? Can stories that are true and trustworthy also be positive, constructive, resourceful, and solutions-focused?
Is there anything else you’d like people to know about constructive journalism?
Speak up, take a stance, and join this professional movement within journalism. I am driven by exactly the same values that most classical reporters still are, but with a mission of further strengthening journalism and its role in modern society. We need all the quality help we can get to make it happen.