Mastering cojo

How to practice constructive journalism

Having trained more than a few hundred colleagues in newsrooms the past six years, there is one common denominator: They all want to honor their core ethical journalistic values more.

When I do my trainings for colleagues in the newsrooms, my first slide is the image of a compass. ,,What are the inner ethical values that guide you as journalists?’’ I ask them.

,,What made you become a journalist?” I inquire. They scribble away on their legal pads, with much energy. We are visiting the inner nuclear core of what energizes and fuels a journalist.

But shortly thereafter they realize that they actually violate their instilled values in most of their everyday work in journalism:

  • Lacking real curiosity
  • Keeping power accountable via the downtrodden path of so called tough questions (which more often than not, just activates the usual message track of any politician)
  • Changing the world. But rarely for the better.

And the list continues.

Challenging

This is where constructive elements in journalism step onto the stage. If you use the principles outlined here and in detail in my constructive journalism textbook From Mirrors to Movers (2015), you get instruments to better challenge power – just in new ways. You build and strengthen your interview muscle by asking constructive – and trust me, challenging questions for sources. You reclaim the connection with the people we say we serve: The Public. You can choose to add a long missed dimension in political debate: Facilitating a future orientated and visionary debate.

Below I outline some concrete ways to master constructive journalism. My advice for mastering is, to pick one or two methods that correspond well with your existing journalistic work. If you are an editor, hone your skills on better and constructive brainstorms at your editorial meetings. If you are a live reporter, try to ‘kill your victims and villains’. If you are an anchor, work with your interviews and debates.

If you are a live reporter, try to kill your victims and villains

How can it be done? I currently work with these five elements adding to the classic journalistic work process:

1. Expand the Mind

Off with the blinders. If we only know about the disease model of the world, we tend to seek out interviewees portraying only that model. We find that which we seek. This then creates an inaccurate and biased portrayal of the world. Admittedly, we tend to love ‘victims’ in news journalism. Those ‘victims’ are the reason why many of us choose to be reporters: we are guided and inspired by keeping power to account. In positive psychology, however, I learned that just as helplessness can be taught, so can optimism, grit and resilience. In short, not all people are victims even though they find themselves in difficult life situations. Even more worrisome, it might be our actual questions that augment the victimizing aspects of the situation. Are you in fact creating the victims, where they did not previously exist?

2. Storm the Brain

How can we challenge our conventional ideas and brainstorming process in the newsroom to be better able to come up with ideas, framing, and story angles on solid and important constructive stories?  In this magazine we offer a user-friendly and applicable tool: PERMA in the newsroom. This stands for five elements of well-being in positive psychology, to which journalistic questions can be added:

P – Positive Emotions: Who is hopeful? Who is grateful? Who has solved a problem?

E – Engagement: Who will be engaged or benefit going forward?

R – Relationships: Who helped? Who has been or can be brought together? Where can you find helpful examples of cooperation?

M – Meaning: Who is wiser now? What did they learn? What is the inspiration for others, the higher meaning?

A – Accomplishment: What did it take? What was overcome? What was or will be achieved?

3. Change the Question

Here we work on broadening our interviewing skills, focusing on expanding the nature of questions we ask. It’s coherent with already existing interview practices in journalism. We will just add some missing elements. Questions are the most powerful tools and are key to any information-gathering process. They also act as floodlights casting light on dimmed and undiscovered areas. If you want to add constructive elements to your interviewing, add questions exploring learning curves, questions that explore overcoming setbacks.  Constructive interviewing also encourages mediation in political debates where the goal is to facilitate a debate on collaboration, solutions, and visions.

4. Tell it Right

How we end our stories matters to audiences. A handful of studies are pointing to the finding that adding a constructive closing paragraph or narration greatly influences the audiences’ emotional state and engagement. There is also an alternative to covering disagreements as conflicts, which we in the news media often do. Instead, look at them as dilemmas. Dilemmas constitute difficult but solvable choices with more than one solution. This ‘dilemma layer’ is a perfect place to involve and engage with your audiences because you are inviting them to comment, debate, or share knowledge on the different dilemmas. Lastly, it’s a more accurate portrayal of reality. Most issues in real life contain dilemma scenarios. Constructive journalism seeks to be true to that.

5. Move the World

Add questions oriented towards the future. There’s an extraordinary pattern of past-orientation in journalistic interviewing: journalists have been taught how to be a detective and sort out who did what, when, and why. But why not add more interviewing muscle and ask questions of a more mediating and future-oriented nature? There’s a strong potential for generating headline-grabbing news stories here, because your sources are more inspired to give you newsworthy answers when they are taken out of the classic question track.

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