Tools of the Trade – Panel Report #CJC16

What instruments and methods to use when practicing constructive journalism? This was the theme of the panels ‘Tools of the Trade’ during the Constructive Journalism Conference of 2 December 2016 at Windesheim University.

In the panel:
Jesper Borup, anchor and editor of the Danish radio station DR Funen
Maren Urner, editor-in-chief of the German start-up platform Perspective daily
Emily Kasriel leads the Solutions-Focused Journalism initiative across BBC News
Ingrid Thörnqvist, head of foreign news at Swedish national television SVT
Terhi Upola, from the Finnish Broadcasting Company YLE
Martha Riemsma, editor-in-chief of the Dutch Twentsche Courant Tubantia
Karel Smouter, deputy editor of the Dutch The Correspondent
David Bornstein, co-founder of the Solutions Journalism Network

Jesper Borup, anchor and editor of the Danish radio station DR Funen,

made a two-tier distinction between constructive and problem-solving journalism. ,,Constructive journalism points to solutions,’’ he emphasized. Whereas problem-solving journalism ,,sticks with the problem until it’s solved’’. The latter is what DR Funen tries to do. Borup showed the example of a successful campaign against car litter polluting the environment, in which the radio station asked car manufacturers if they would consider building in dust bins in the interiors. One of them, Peugeot, responded and made a promise to bring this idea up. Unfortunately, the campaign was limited to one week and nothing more came about. Lessons learned: ,,Do not limit your time, and try multiple follow-ups.’’


Maren Urner, editor-in-chief of the German start-up platform Perspective daily,

noted the phenomenon of the hybrid journalist. In the case of Perspective, these are scientists working as journalists. Urner herself is a neuroscientist. Like the Perspective’s Dutch equivalent The Correspondent, each journalist has a beat according to his or her academic field.


The Perspective Daily aims to write articles that look to the future and not only talk about problems, but ask every day: How can it be better? See this video for its constructive-philosophy. In her presentation, Urner marked out the following modus operandi:


Emily Kasriel of the BBC World Service Group

leads the Solutions-Focused Journalism (blog) initiative across BBC News. She explained that journalists do not actively try to solve problems, but look for possible solutions. Hence the description ‘solutions-focused’. ,,This approach demands rigorous coverage of responses to problems, focussing on how, is or can this problem be solved, and how does a proposed solution work?’’ In addition, SFJ looks for evidence of a solution’s success. ,,Where this doesn’t exist, we tell our audiences that this is the case. We also explain the limitations of any solution.’’


Kasriel presented examples of SFJ on the different platforms of the BBC, like this radio broadcast:


This example is the tool of ‘clever comparison’, that is more and more being used in constructive journalism. It was highlighted by Karel Smouter of The Correspondent and David Bornstein of the Solutions Journalism Network as well (see below).
Finally, Kasriel summed up the benefits and challenges of SFJ:



Ingrid Thörnqvist, head of foreign news at Swedish national television SVT,

taught her editors and correspondents to kill their victims (video). This is her definition of constructive news:


For example, SVT News did this enquiry: ‘From Syria to Sweden – 200 votes of escape from war. How is it to leave everything behind and start afresh in a foreign country? Swedish Television News has asked 200 Syrians about the war, escape and life in Sweden. These are their stories.’ (interactive story)


Thörnqvist experienced an aha-moment thanks to ‘nutty professor’ Hans Rosling, the man who counters false world images with data and statistics:


On average, the foreign desk produces 2,5 constructive stories a week voor SVT News.

Terhi Upola, from the Finnish Broadcasting Company YLE,

presented a strong case with ‘Let’s fix a nursery home’, an item on elderly care. It started with changing the mindset and engaging the public.


Instead of asking ‘what’s wrong’ with elderly care homes in Finland, Terhi Upola and her team of reporters at YLE posted a call to find a normal elderly home, that would be open to have three coaches in their house, to change their routines and make TV from it. 150 applied, one was chosen. The question was: Is it possible to change an elderly home for the better, in four months, without more money or staff? The result was: Yes, it’s possible. This format engaged citizens in a scale rarely seen. A Facebook group created during YLE’s coverage still continues to have highly engaged members and a scope and aim that is still centered in ‘what’s working’ instead of what’s not working.



,,So investigative journalism forces to change,’’ Upola stated, ,,and constructive journalism makes people want the change.’’ She concluded: ,,Constructive starts where investigative ends.’’

Martha Riemsma, editor-in-chief of the Dutch Twentsche Courant Tubantia,

has been leading a systematic effort to prioritize coverage pointing to solutions in the region that her newspaper covers. This both to bolster journalisms validity and to portray the world more accurately, but also in an effort to strengthen the conversation and engagement to citizens in the region. She presented several cases of coverage and engaging readers. Her tools of the trade include technological instruments such as an app that can be used by civic journalists, online hotlines and social media monitoring.


According to Riemsma, constructive journalism is also about explaining. For example on the importance for the region of its top division football club. FC Twente found itself in dire straits after fraud and mismanagement – on which the paper had been reporting extensively. Now there was need to show the bigger picture:


Karel Smouter, deputy editor of the Dutch The Correspondent,

listed five tools of constructive journalism his platform uses. The Correspondent sets new and successful standards when it comes to engaging and co-creating with their members. They also excel when it comes to asking other kinds of constructive questions to sources, power holders and citizens alike, often with powerful and surprising results for the finished journalistic product. Several of their constructive articles have triggered more societal change than their classical articles. Here’s what Smouter highlighted:
1) Kill the victim
One of the most difficult genres to cover in a constructive way can also be the most rewarding, if done well. Because I think the essential thing to understand about Constructive Journalism is that it adresses the two main reasons why people leave journalism: it makes them either confused (because the world is too complex) or cynical (because there are so many reasons to lose hope).

We have a ‘Forgotten Conflicts’-correspondent, who travels the world to all sorts of places. Example: he wanted to write on the issue of children turning into soldiers in West-Africa. We asked him to witness a moment where hundreds of children’s soldiers were being freed from the hands of those who held them captured.
Another example: he wrote on the plight of a Burmese muslim minority, the Rohingiya. When his first draft came in, it was a classic ‘there’s something really bad really far from here’-story. The only thing we changed in the story was portraying them as survivors. The first line now reads: ‘They survived ghetto’s, pogroms and torture.’

2) Change the frame
The tone of many interviews is often very alarmist. This is easy to understand: usually the reason you interview someone is because he or she wrote a report or sent out a press release. If not, you find the interviewee because he or she has an issue to raise, or something he or she wants to bring to the table.
The challenge here is to change the protagonist of your story from a classic ‘someone raising an issue’-perspective to the perspective of someone able to solve the problems. For instance, we could have easily framed a story we ran on deforestation in Ethiopia as a great analysis of why the forests over there are in a big danger. But instead we decided to wrote it down as someone who has a plan, a recipe, to save these forests.
And look at Maite Vermeulen, our Development correspondent. Bureaucrats are a primary target in much development reporting. Because that is where the money that is supposed to go to the poor is actually going. She decided to completely flip the frame and highlight the work of ‘kadasters’ and other bureaucratic institutions in the developing world. A real eye opener: What’s deadly dull and can save the world? (Tedx Talk)

3) Clever Comparisons
Oftentimes it helps to put the Dutch situation in perspective to compare our predicament with that of other places in the world. Sometimes to highlight the amazing amount of things that actually go well.
We once wrote, after a big disaster happened somewhere: even our disasters are well managed. Because it was a disaster with no human injuries, a perfectly executed emergency plan and the insurances already pledged to pay out the houses that were destroyed the morning after.
But oftentimes other countries are surprisingly ahead of us, as well. Think of Uruguay who is leading the way in the field . And Colombia, the first country to adopt.
We also encourage people to use ‘the past’ as a ‘country’ to compare the now with. E.g. when the Greek crisis was taking place we looked at a country that had their debts being eradicated and forgiven for seven times in history: Germany.

4) Pick new job descriptions
A very easy way to change the tone of someone’s journalism can be to pick different for editors. We aim at job titles that say something more about the editor’s intention than just the topic he or she covers, but the intention, the mission with which he or she covers this.
We have a correspondent Prejudices, who looks at stereotypes in today’s world and media, and addresses them. We have a Change correspondent, who looks at what enables and/or hinders change. We have a Progress correspondent, who’s aim it is to reinvent the welfare state. We have a Democracy correspondent covering alternatives to the democratic system.
And a ‘deciphering’-correspondent, whose mission it is to put numbers back on their place.
The focus then is on a mission you can associate with as a reader, instead of a beat or topic or genre.

5) The Solution listicle
A classic genre in modern day journalism is the ‘7 plagues’-approach. This of course stems from the biblical story of Egypt being punished for mistreating the Jews.
On my way here I stumbled upon this type of story again. Listing the ills of a particular field, in this case the Dutch care system. The reason why this type of listicles usually don’t do that much in terms of engagement is that it feels as homework, as something you need to understand. And once you’re done reading you only feel more disillusioned – it’s even worse than you felt or thought.
Today we also published a listicle, listing seven observations coming from the largest group interview ever held with refugees in the Netherlands. (Explaining Nieuw in Nederland) These weren’t actual ‘solutions’, but they did help grasp the experience of refugees once they have been accepted in Dutch society. After reading this story you understand much better what it is like to be a refugee in Dutch society.
Or, the day before yesterday: a listicle listing 7 lessons the left should learn from the Trump debacle. (article, Dutch)
This isn’t a way to walk around what’s difficult or problematic, it’s another way of highlighting the same issues by using another frame, the frame of ‘let’s understand what’s going on here, so we can do something about it’, instead of ‘let’s list some evils and plagues and tell them like it is’.

Finally, David Bornstein, co-founder of the Solutions Journalism Network,

gave his presentation. Like Karel de Smouter, it focused on the tool of (clever) comparison. He gave the example of lead poisoning in Cleveland, Ohio, and how reporters looked for solutions in comparable cities:


This approach resulted first in a ‘watchdog’-article, investigating the problem. The follow-up was this constructive ‘guidedog’-piece:


Finally, Bornstein summed up the workings of solution journalism:


Find more here.