The positive future of journalism
Last month our workshop trainer Veronique Mistiaen travelled to Tunisia to introduce correspondents from Egypt, Libya and Tunisia to constructive journalism. Here, she reflects on a full-on weekend in which participants discussed opportunities for a constructive approach to conflict reporting, political debate and social transformation.
“Wouldn’t constructive stories belittle the problems we are facing?” asked the tall Libyan journalist. “If we write stories with a constructive angle, how can we make sure that they won’t be used as propaganda by the regime?” the thoughtful Egyptian journalist wanted to know.
These were some of the stimulating questions journalists from Libya, Egypt and Tunisia asked during the very first Constructive Journalism Project workshop in the region.
The political and media landscapes in post-revolutionary North Africa are not only very different from those in the UK and EU, where we have been running our workshops – but they are also different in each of these three countries. This led to very interesting, challenging and passionate discussions.
Nineteen journalists participated in a three-day workshop in Tunis on November 25-28 organised by Media in Cooperation in Transition (MICT), a German non-profit organisation that runs media development projects in crisis regions. In addition to working for various media outlets, many journalists also contribute to Correspondents.org, a bilingual digital magazine (Arabic/English) designed by MiCT to cover three countries.
We began the workshop by analysing the various newspapers and media they work for, discussing the balance or imbalance in the news and its impact on the readers and audiences, on major issues such as migration and climate change and on democracy.
Constructive journalism was a new and rather unfamiliar concept to all participants, but they could see the need for a journalism that moves from the crisis rhetoric, trying instead to capture the complexity of social and political life, reconnecting with communities and reinvigorating our profession.
We then explored practical tools the journalists could use in their own reporting in order to produce stories that are more balanced, explore new angles and possibilities and ask different questions to those in power, the experts and those too often referred to as ‘victims’ without much consideration for their well-being, dignity or resilience.
During our last session the journalists pitched constructive-angled story ideas for Correspondents.com. These included stories on a Libyan port city, where the community and police worked together to drive traffickers out; transitional justice in Tunisia; projects to get young people off drugs in deprived areas in Libya and a profile of a young female hero from Cairo’s Tahrir Square.
“In our country, more than 90 percent of the news is on war and conflicts – who wins and who loses. Everything else is ignored,” a Libyan journalist said. “Now we can change that.”
Frustrated with the way mainstream media ignores much of the progress being made in the world, researcher Jodie Jackson embarked on a master’s in positive psychology. Her thesis, titled Publishing the Positive, uncovers the power of positive news. She tells Danielle Batist what she has learned.
Why did you choose to research positive news?
I was interested in researching the psychological impact of the news because of personal experience. I found that my opinions and beliefs were becoming cynical, distrusting and perhaps even paranoid at times, largely due to the relentless focus on problems and the continuous depiction of humanity at its worst.
I was interested in positive psychology and ideas around self-efficacy: a person’s belief in his or her ability to succeed in a particular situation. I realised that negative news was negatively affecting my self-efficacy and I wondered if I could change that.
I began seeking out ‘solutions journalism’ to provide a balance. What began as emotional relief became something quite inspiring. I felt able and motivated to engage with the stories I was reading. Because of my own strong emotional reaction to the news, I wanted to research this further to understand how common this was and pave the way for a collective experience rather than just a personal one.
What surprised you most about your findings?
The aspect that surprised me most was the relationship between people’s motivations for reading solutions-focused news and the consequences of doing so. What I found was that positive news can lead to optimism and those who are optimistic, in turn tend to seek out more positive content.
Some readers say they consume positive news because it fits with their personal values and reinforces the way in which they see the world. Those who consider themselves hopeful, optimistic and believe in their ability and motivation to effect change, will seek out material that is line with their outlook on life. Other readers say that positive news changes the way they see the world and generates feelings of optimism, hope, self-efficacy and a restored faith in humanity.
The suggestion that the categories identified can be both a motivation and a consequence was really significant to me. It supports the idea that increasing consumption of positive news content can create a positive feedback loop.
This is the comparative opposite of the well-documented anxiety feedback loop, that suggests that reading predominantly negative news can lead to anxiety and that those in a state of anxiety may seek out negative news. (This is based on research by Mogg, Mathews and Eysenck carried out in 1992).
This theory is supported by research suggesting that individuals with high optimism or self-efficacy pay more attention to positive stimuli and those with low levels of self-efficacy or low levels of optimism pay more attention to threat-related stimuli. It is exciting to see that the consumption of positive or solutions-focused news can turn this feedback loop into a positive one.
What role could positive news play in the current landscape of divisive politics?
Looking at the world through the lens of the media, we’d not be mad to think it a terrible place and the people in it no better – regardless of our politics. We need the news to help us understand our differences, not sensationalise them for the sake of clickbait.
On a personal level, I’ve consciously chosen to widen my lens when seeking stories about the world. I have been inspired by reports about progress and possibility that create a balanced perspective of the world. I have seen how great people make great people, how wisdom inspires, how compassion heals and how love and respect dissipate hate and ignorance. It is encouraging to see that the research findings support what many audience members instinctively know.
What would you like to see happen next?
I hope my research will help to spark a shift in ordinary people – the ‘consumers’ of news. Media publishers and editors are hugely influenced by consumer demand. This is where I think the real power of my research lies: it speaks to news audiences, not necessarily to industry professionals.
I believe one reason for the continued acceleration of the negativity bias in the news is a lack of accountability. Media outlets can be powerful instruments in helping to correct wrongdoing, investigating problems and exposing them to the public. But while they are formidable forces in holding others to account, they are not always very good at turning the lens on themselves. We have to ask ourselves: who holds the media accountable? I believe we, the consumers, do.
By grasping the psychological impact that news streams have on us, we can move from being merely consumers to becoming conscious consumers. If we create a shift in demand, it could in turn create a shift in supply.
Jodie Jackson is a research associate for the Constructive Journalism Project. She has a master’s degree in positive psychology from the University of East London, where she was awarded a distinction for her thesis, titled Publishing the Positive. Jackson has delivered talks on the psychological impact of the news to journalism students in the UK and at industry conferences internationally.
Disclaimer: The sample for Jackson’s study was made up of readers and journalists of Positive News. The research was conducted independently by her.