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Why the World Needs Constructive Journalism in 2017

12 Jan 2017 | Jodie Jackson

Choose To See The Good Stuff (small)

A new year brings new hope; a chance for us to make resolutions, with the aim of improving ourselves or helping others around us.

This on-going striving for collective improvement has seen our society progress since the beginning of time. In his recent book Progress, Johan Norberg reminds us that "we have made more progress in the last 100 years than in the first 100,000".

This should give us hope for the future too. But we are being told a rather different story about the world, thanks to the overwhelming negativity of the news we consume, which focuses above all on reporting the failings and problems in society.

In the 1960s, President Johnson complained about the negativity bias in Time magazine to its publisher and editor, Henry Luce:

"This week 200.000 ethnic minorities registered in the South, thanks to the Voting Rights Act. Three hundred thousand elderly people are going to be covered by Medicare. We have a hundred thousand young kids working in troubled neighborhoods. None of that is in here!"

Luce replied: "Mr. President, good news isn't news. Bad news is news".

Bad News

This attitude is as common today as it was then, as the stories considered most newsworthy tend to focus on war, corruption, scandal, murder, famine, and natural disasters. Not only are these negative stories chosen for publication over positive ones, they are also given preferential display.

Although this may serve the commercial incentive of selling newspapers - with sensationalized headlines to grab our attention - too much of a bad thing can in fact be bad for us. As Dr. Ralph Haskins, a journalism professor at the University of Tennessee, explained:

"Prolonged exposure to bad news over long periods can have detrimental effects on moods, attitudes, perceptions and emotional health".

These detrimental effects are further exacerbated by the changes in media technology, which have increased the frequency and availability of news as well as increasing its "negative, sensational and graphic nature".

A fundamental reason for this focus on negative news is credited to the watchdog role that the media plays in society. This clearly serves an important function of holding power to account and shining a light on many ills in the world that need addressing, forcing them onto the public agenda.

Humans are "hard-wired" to pay more attention, voluntarily or involuntarily, to bad news than good news. We have an evolutionary human survival instinct to monitor our environment for potential threats or dangers, which require immediate attention.

But this is not the end of the story.

Good News 2

Readers are actually more engaged by a socially responsible and constructive approach to bad news, reporting that they find it to be "more interesting than straight bad news".

We are not just problem finders, we are also solution seekers! So there are increasing requests for the introduction of "more legitimate, less fluffy, good news". This means responding to bad news in more constructive and pro-social ways and covering solutions as well as problems.

This urgent call to action is now being answered by a range of pioneering news organisations that report on solutions, not just problems. Positive News, a solutions focused magazine, continues to report critically on tangible progress being made for us to learn how issues are being dealt with.

This movement has grown, with other organisations including the Constructive Journalism Project in the UK and Solutions Journalism Network in the US, which has trained 75 news organisations and over 5,000 individuals to report solutions focused news through their robust and increasingly influential framework.

Positive News Magazine

Rather than appealing to the morality or responsibility of the entire news industry to embrace Constructive Journalism on our behalf, we can all make an individual resolution to change the way in which we consume the news in 2017.

Yes, a core function of the press to hold failures to account to ensure we learn from them and avoid repeating them in future.

But what if we turn this on its head and focus on holding successes to account too? This would allow us to learn from these successes and encourage future repetition.

Some may impulsively disagree with this idea on the basis of being "advocacy journalism". But if we compare the latter with its well-respected former, there is no difference in journalistic rigour between the two. Both approaches enable understanding of an event for the purpose of influencing subsequent behaviour and bringing about a better future.

Reflecting back on a year of turbulent and somewhat hostile change, it is surely time to focus on creating more unity, balance, understanding and hope.

It is time for more Constructive Journalism.

 

"We can all make an individual resolution to change the way in which we consume the news in 2017"

Jodie Jackson

Jodie Jackson is a Research Associate at the Constructive Journalism Project. She has a Master's Degree in Applied Positive Psychology from UEL and has conducted research on the psychological impact of news and the role of positive news.

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