Constructive Journalism in a complex world

Bas Mesters, dean of the department of journalism at Windesheim University of applied science: introduction to the conference

“It is so exciting to have you here, to take part in this very important discussion about journalism in these very complex times.”

“Some of you came from far away. The US, South-Africa. Others came from countries all over Europe. And a lot of us live next door. What we all share is our passion for Journalism. But we also share the fact that polarization in our hometowns is growing. Trump, Brexit, fake news, and the way social media seem to influence political and social developments, force us to reflect on where we stand as journalists. And how a free press could innovate on the content side.
As to our passion and dedication to journalism. For a lot of us journalism has almost become a goal in itself. We love it. It is the most beautiful profession on earth that offers the wonderful liberty to check and discover new stories every day. The freedom to be a correspondent and follow your nose for news, the freedom to be an investigative reporter who wants to dig deeper to find the truth. To uncover the covered. That is a wonderful feeling.
As journalists we would even like our profession to be self-evident. We would like that for everyone it would be clear.
We would like it to be clear to everyone that what we do is as crucial to democracy as water to firemen.
But surveys show that the public trust in journalism is declining. And this means we ought to start a process of self-reflection. Which, as you know, is not an easy thing for a journalist.
To the public journalism has never been a goal as such. For the news consumer Journalism in essence has always functioned as a lens and sometimes a mirror. A lens that helps people to focus for themselves on what is good, wrong, useful, senseless. And journalism also served as a mirror that helped people to reflect on themselves.
Now. Perhaps this lens has become biased. Too cynical? too focused on bad news? Not portraying the whole story? Not as connected with the public as before? Too professional and cold?
Journalism tries to help people to orientate, and to reflect on themselves. But it does so in a world that becomes ever more complex, and polarized. The last ten, fifteen years the complexity has multiplied exponentially. Globalization and digitalization have changed the world. It altered the way people connect to each other, and even changed the way they perceive and create their truth.

And moreover digitalization is changing journalism itself and its role in society as a whole, as philosopher Pieter van den Brink recently pointed out very well in his essay: The medium kills the message.
For example, nowadays everyone can become a vlogger, blogger, transmitter of news. Everyone can create a vast audience. Journalism has lost its monopoly on spreading information on a large scale. Our verified information and news stories have become a little drop in the ocean of opinions on social media. The last two years more information has been produced then in the whole history of mankind. And this makes our task as journalists every day more difficult. We have to legitimize ourselves again to the public.
So. Here, today, we as journalists, students, professors, researchers will also look through a lens, and into a mirror. The lens of constructive journalism. A search for critical, but not cynical journalism. A search for the possible effects of journalism on society. And how journalism can facilitate the discussion on solutions in the complex world. The discussion of today is about the future role and legitimation of journalism. How to reconnect to the public and remain a trustworthy mean, a useful lens, an honest mirror, that can continue to serve democracy.
This conference will search for ways in which journalists can facilitate the public in its search for answers to the complex issues that are at stake. We will discuss what are the possibilities of constructive journalism. What are the dangers of this approach? Can we avoid them?
And of course. Nothing is perfect. Carl Bernstein, the legendary journalist who revealed with Bob Woodward the Watergate scandal, once described that what journalists seek to achieve is: nothing more than “the best obtainable version of truth” . We should acknowledge our limitations and always try to do better.
Today we try to do this through the Lens of constructive journalism. An approach that uses the 5 classic w’s of journalism: Who, What, When, Where and Why. We will add a sixth w: What now. After all: in journalism it always begins and ends with that question: What now?
But before we start, I would like to present you some of our latest work at Windesheim:
First the website , that has been launched for this conference. On this site we will present research, tools, best practices and also the video-registration and PowerPoints of this conference. This site (also partly in English) is the result of a cooperation between students, alumni, professors, and journalists out in the field.
The same goes for the magazine Wat NU, or What Now (the sixth W I mentioned.) That magazine will be handed out at lunchtime to all of you. We hope it will help you to reflect on the possibilities and non-possibilities of constructive journalism.
Then to conclude I would like to present two important players in the field of constructive journalism that we for Windesheim University managed to attract.
In October Liesbeth Hermans started as professor of constructive journalism. In her research she will focus on the effects of constructive journalism on the public. Can it have a positive effect on the way people feel? This afternoon she will be in the panel on research.
And of course Cathrine Gyldensted. Cathrine is an international pioneer in this field. She accepted our invitation to become director of constructive journalism at Windesheim. And through her arrival and work, Windesheim became the first School of Journalism in the world to integrate Constructive Journalism into its curriculum, research and international partnerships.
When she started in December last year, Cathrine had also been asked to organize a congress on constructive journalism: and here we are!
Ladies and gentlemen,
I wish you a very inspiring conference. And please give a big hand to your host: Cathrine Gyldensted.