COVID-19 provides opportunity to reinvent the news industry with constructive journalism

By Ulrik Haagerup

Constructive Institute

Aarhus , Denmark

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The COVID-19 pandemic can pave the way for the rebirth of journalism.

Ironically, although the global lockdown will mean the death of many news media organisations due to lack of advertising revenue, at the same time, millions of people are coming back to legacy media.

Isolated people in Sydney, Helsinki, New York, Bangalore, and Milan depend on traditional news media to provide them with the right version of reality outside.

As Marco Zatterin, deputy editor-in-chief  of Italian La Stampa, told Constructive Institute fellows on a digital connection from his home office: “We are isolated, we lose money, and staff members are infected, but we fight. Because people out there want us to tell them our stories based on journalistic principles and values.”

Amid giant changes caused by the coronavirus, journalism is put to the test.

The opportunity within the challenge

The news media has the chance to show the world — present and former customers and ourselves — why curated news and responsible journalism cannot be replaced by social media, where views and feelings are blended with facts and rumors, then spread around the world like a digital virus.

Journalism must show why trusted information is crucial for people, society, and democracy. Everybody needs the news media to give them the best obtainable version of the truth. Provide facts. Uncover problems. And inspire potential solutions to the challenges facing all of us.

That’s what we call constructive journalism.

Constructive journalism offers a vocabulary so we can talk about what quality journalism is ... and what has been missing.

Constructive journalism is about perspective, facts, and nuances, so we do not build our news stories on either the very white or, more often, the completely dark, but remember to report on the colours in between.

It offers new ways to engage and interact with the society we are a part of.

We can use our microphones and pens as more than daggers and swords. They can be conductor sticks, allowing us to facilitate the public conversation and become conversation leaders to create the framework for dialogue, involvement, inspiration, and potential solutions on documented challenges.

Because words matter. Just look at these two front pages from the same day:

Two front pages from the same day illustrate the different approach of constructive journalism, providing hope and encouragement rather than doom and gloom.
Two front pages from the same day illustrate the different approach of constructive journalism, providing hope and encouragement rather than doom and gloom.

Journalism is a filter between reality and the public perception of reality. Do we only in our hunt for clicks, views, and the short-term KPIs report on the most dramatic, the dead, and the fear? Or do we also give room for options and hope?

Historically, disasters are not about society falling apart. They are about individuals coming together. And as more and more newsrooms — like British national The Guardian and Danish local newspaper Herning Folkeblad — find both before and during the crisis, people read stories about hope, new ideas, and impressive people who do something the rest of us might learn from. They spend more time on them. And they share them more on social media.

Rethinking journalism — constructively

The newsrooms we work with all over the world understand that the essence of constructive journalism is to see the world clearly and offer a focus which builds on top of — not replaces — breaking news and critical investigative reporting with the important questions we weren’t taught in journalism schools, such as “now what?” and “how?” Both questions point to the future, compared to breaking news, which only deals with now, and investigative reporting, which is mainly interested in why and who to blame.

This chart compares the components of different types of journalism.
This chart compares the components of different types of journalism.

Newsrooms all over the world right now find a demand for nuances — for stories not only on the dead, but also on the people who got well. They remember to tell not only about the disaster in Italy, but also on the turning points in South Korea. They remember that journalism is a feedback mechanism to help society self-correct — that the future of journalism is to serve trusted information, fast and right (but right first) about the problems, then inspire people and society to solve them together.

Danish TV 2 Fyn has the goal to become the most constructive newsroom in the country, with the mission statement, “Together we improve Fyn.” Ten reporters who work from home under a “constructive editor” engage with citizens and use the digital tool Hearken to tell Corona-related stories on myths, fear, challenges, but also about advice, options, and ways out.

”My profession has never made so much sense,” journalist  Lasse Hørbye Nielsen said.

On our home page, www.constructiveinsitute.org, we have published a guide with inspiration from newsrooms around the world on how to cover Conrona constructively. (Please share your inspiration with us at  info@constructiveinstitute.org.)

Never has trust in journalism and the financial models funding it been under such pressure. And never has the world needed us more to do our job to provide the best obtainable version of the truth.

Let us show the world that independent journalism is so much more than a product to be sold. It’s the core of society’s conversation and progress. When journalism does not work, democracy breaks down.

We now have the chance to show that we understand that people do not need more news; they need better news.

Let us document that people do not need more information. They are drowning in it. But they do need navigation, which tells them not only where they are and where they came from, but also serves inspiration and direction on how to move forward.

The time has come.

About Ulrik Haagerup

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