You are the change you’re waiting for,” Ulrik Haagerup told the 2017 INMA World Congress as he began the final session on Monday. 

As former executive director of news at Danish Broadcasting Corporation and founder of the Constructive Institute, Haagerup was quick to admit that the media industry are bad listeners. 

“We do not listen because they [readers] are not news people,” he said. “What do they know about what we are doing?”

Ulrik Haggerup, founder of Constructive News, discusses the impact of negative news at INMA World Congress.
Ulrik Haggerup, founder of Constructive News, discusses the impact of negative news at INMA World Congress.

This has resulted in a public trust meltdown, Haagerup said. In Denmark, trust in media is one spot above trust in politicians: “We’re in the trust business and people don’t trust us.”

Haagerup witnessed three world-changing moments in his life, he said:

  1. Fall of the Berlin Wall.
  2. Terrorist attacks on the U.S. on 9/11.
  3. Election of current U.S. president Donald Trump.

Trump, he said, received more media exposure than any other presidential candidate: “Each time he was saying something, he was creating drama, he was creating conflict.”

That drama and conflict gave media companies a surge of page views, but bending to drum up page views and attention can come at a cost: a lack of trust. Journalism is a product, he said, but it’s not just any product. 

“It is a product. We need an audience. We need to make money to pay for journalism,” Haagerup said. “But journalism is much more than any other product. It is the fundament of democracy. It is something people should be able to trust.” 

Using negative news to push page views is not a phenomenon limited to the United States, Haagerup emphasised: “This is a global illness. This is what we do. This is what we think is good journalism.” 

All of this negative news has an affect on audiences, Haargerup said. Negative news creates apathy. One risk of this is that people will de-select news as a source of information. An even greater risk is that people will disengage from public discussion.

Negative news also creates a false perception of the world amoung viewers and readers.

“We have to know that journalism is a filter, he said. “It’s a filter between reality and the perception of reality.”

Haargerup showed statistics from across the globe that compare public perception of statistics to facts, pointing to a misconception in the United States: When surveyed, U.S. citizens said they believed one-third of people in the country were unemployed just before the 2016 election. In reality, the country was at a record low of a 6% unemployment rate.

“If the public perception of reality is wrong, can we say as news people we are not somewhat responsible — at least somewhat?” Haagerup asked. 

Haagerup explained what he called the “myth of crime” — people think their world is more dangerous than it is.

More people in Africa die from diabetes than they do lack of food, he said. More people have access to clean water than ever before. More girls go to school than ever before. 

“We have messed it up,” Haagerup said. “We think that the goal of good journalism is to be critical. It’s never been the goal of good journalism to be critical.”

It is crucial to be critical as a journalist to keep people accountable during research and interviews, but the outcome does not need to be negative. This is one of a few mistakes media had made, he said. Another is the assumption that people want more news (“They are drowning in information!”), faster.

“We can’t beat Twitter,” he said. “It won’t solve anything if you are 30 seconds or 60 seconds faster than Twitter.”

Haagerup said there are three types of news, but media usually only works in two of them: breaking and investigative. The third, he said, is about opportunity. Constructive news should be a supplement to media’s normal criteria for news, he said. One that can benefit society: “I think it’s important to remember that journalism is a feedback mechanism to help society self-correct.” 

Haagerup told the audience about an issue in Denmark. Doctors, trained in large cities, were not moving to more rural parts of the country. Instead of running stories about people dying due to lack of healthcare, the team focused on why doctors were moving to those areas, such as lower taxes and lowered interest rates on school loans. The coverage had an astounding result, he said.

DR News became the most trusted news brand in the country: “And we weren’t before.”

Only when the media company stopped competing to be faster and more critical, he added, did it become more trusted. And other news brands have noticed. Companies like the BBC have begun to incorporate constructive news in their strategies.

After sharing a video about the importance of constructive news, (“Publish the Positive,” above) Haagerup shared that he recently left his job to work on bringing change to newsrooms through constructive journalism.

“I’m so stupid, I think we can do it,” he said. “Because you know what? We are the change that we are waiting for.”