Constructive Journalism: Using Positivity to Increase Reader Engagement

Constructive Journalism: How to Break Through News Fatigue. Paper sign on pole reads "Good News is Coming."

Negativity is exhausting.

Readers are bombarded with stories of how everything seems to be falling apart. “News fatigue” is setting in due to the 24/7 news cycle. According to a recent Pew Research Center survey, almost 70% of Americans say they’re tired.

Enter constructive journalism.

While this isn’t a new concept, it’s one worth revisiting in the current media climate. Supporters believe that telling the same story while focusing on the positive and presenting possible solutions can help educate the reader and increase engagement.

The Constructive Journalism Project defines this method as “rigorous, compelling reporting that includes positive and solution-focused elements in order to empower audiences and present a fuller picture of truth, while upholding journalism’s core functions and ethics.”

It’s not the same as fluff

The Constructive Journalism Project also notes three things that constructive journalism isn’t:

  • Fluff/”good news”
  • Advocacy journalism
  • Government-influenced “development journalism”

The idea isn’t to change what’s being reported on, but rather to change how it’s reported.

In a recent article from The Guardian, Elisa Gabbert explored “compassion fatigue,” which is caused by the overwhelming amount of negative news readers face every day. Originally a health care term, Gabbert explains that it’s now used in media studies and is “the idea that overexposure to horrific images, from news reports in particular, could cause viewers to shut down emotionally, rejecting information instead of responding to it.”

In her research, Danish journalist and constructive journalism pioneer Cathrine Gyldensted used positive psychology and found that a news story with a constructive peak and ending leads to feelings of enthusiasm, optimism, and engagement in the reader.

What is Positive Psychology? Positive psychology is a scientific approach to studying human thoughts, feelings, and behavior with a focus on strengths instead of weakness, building the good in life instead of repairing the bad, and taking the lives of average people up to “great” instead of focusing solely on moving those who are struggling up to “normal.” Source: Christopher Peterson Ph.D., University of Michigan

Get the whole picture

Providing a full picture to the reader is central to constructive journalism – it’s about more than just presenting the facts.

Gyldensted recommends using interventive interviewing techniques, based on family therapist Karl Tomm’s interviewing framework. This interviewing method consists of four types of questions:

  1. Linear (“The Detective”): The interviewer confirms the facts and answers the 5 Ws (who, what, when, where, and why).
  2. Reflexive (“The Anthropologist”): The interviewer offers a new perspective, forcing the interviewee to look at the situation from a new angle.
  3. Circular (“The Future Scientist”): The interviewer looks for patterns and connections, to provide more context.
  4. Strategic (“The Captain”): The interviewer tries to steer the course. Questions are designed so that the interviewee will commit to a solution or plan.

In Gyldensted and Karen McIntyre’s research, they explain that journalists too often focus on linear and strategic questions, which can make them judgmental or combative. They claim that by including reflexive and circular questions, journalists open themselves up to new perspectives and can write more comprehensive stories.

“It’s a new and (better) way to keep the powerful accountable and in check,” said Gyldensted, in an interview with Images & Voices of Hope, while offering an example of how this can be useful in political reporting. “By working on your interviewing technique and borrowing from mediation and facilitation, you are able to make a political debate format where power holders are being asked where they can agree and collaborate — and when/how they will do it.”

See the theory in action

There are a number of news organizations that are embracing constructive journalism.

  • Positive News is a current affairs magazine that focuses on constructive journalism. Publisher Seán Dagan Wood describes it in a HuffPost interview as “a publication that shines a light on innovation, kindness, co-operation and the ways people are working to create solutions to the problems facing society.”
  • Upside, a series from the Guardian, posts content that looks for solutions to some of the world’s biggest problems.
  • The Solutions Journalism Network Story Tracker was created to highlight stories that pose solutions to problems, convey insights, and provide evidence to back it all up, among other criteria. Content is searchable by issue, location, and journalist.
  • The New York Times’ Fixes column is one of its most-read sections and “looks at solutions to social problems and why they work.” Topics include education, crime, the opioid crisis, and homelessness.
  • Huffpost’s What’s Working articles move beyond the “if it bleeds, it leads” mindset to highlight stories of innovation and compassion.

A brighter future

The constructive journalism model seems to be growing, and there’s an expanding field of constructive journalism research to back it up.

Several studies report higher reader engagement for constructive content. For example, research has found that readers are more inclined to share constructive journalism content and also tend to spend more time on the page.

Solutions journalism education and on-the-job training are becoming more common, so it appears positive change is on the horizon.

Katharine Viner, editor-in-chief of The Guardian, recently spoke about the future of the publication and painted a hopeful picture of the future of journalism.

“If people long to create a better world, then we must use our platform to nurture imagination – hopeful ideas, fresh alternatives, belief that the way things are isn’t the way things need to be,” Viner said. “We cannot merely criticise the status quo; we must also explore the new ideas that might displace it.” She continued, “We must build hope … We will develop ideas that help improve the world, not just critique it.”

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Author Rocky Parker works in Audience Relations at PR Newswire. When she’s not working, Rocky can be found testing new recipes, binge watching a new Netflix series, or taking her pitbull puppy Hudson out around town.

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