Why Stuff is embracing constructive journalism


Stuff is in the process of looking at the constructive journalism movement and why it needs to be more than just a journalistic ideal, but part of our actual newsroom philosophy.

Rather than one-offs, we want constructive journalism to be seen as an integral part of our newsroom culture. We want to provide our readers with solutions rather than just proclaiming problems. We want to remain relevant, and we want to do our part to inspire and evoke positive action from our audience.

The reason for us to do this is simple: In addition to the clear benefits for readers and advertisers, constructive journalism strongly aligns with our company purpose to help New Zealanders connect and thrive in their communities.

Stuff is embracing constructive journalism because it engages readers and aligns with its purpose.
Stuff is embracing constructive journalism because it engages readers and aligns with its purpose.

Why so negative?

You don’t have to look far to see that people in this day and age are jaded by the traditional way in which journalists have covered news. When a gym in the United States bans the screening of cable news arguing it’s not conducive to a “healthy way of life,” you know something’s not quite right.

The comments section at the bottom of our stories on stuff.co.nz (our flagship digital news platform and the leading home-grown Web site in New Zealand) are also full of people telling us we only focus on the negative and leave them feeling helpless. We’ve been telling ourselves for years people keep clicking on these stories so this must be what they want — even if they’re telling us otherwise.

In April this year, I headed to the Constructive Institute in Denmark to learn more about ways in which we can integrate constructive journalism principles into our daily working lives as part of a funded scholarship from Stuff. You only have to read the comment below — made at the bottom of an article I posted in April announcing my plan to explore constructive journalism — to realise we need to consider doing things differently.

“Hallelujah! How badly are we in need of this? … We have been bombarded with negative news for so long, I can’t face watching the news on the TV now. There is never anything to feel good about. I feel sad and angry that I can’t do anything to help those poor people. And why are they still suffering? Why isn’t anyone doing something and not just having another ‘working group meeting.’ Can we PLEASE have some inspiring stories?”

Better for readers, better for the bottom line

The Engaging News Project, along with the Solutions Journalism Network, released a study in 2014 showing readers of solutions-focused news stories reported a higher level of optimism and greater self-efficacy. They also felt more informed. That right there shows the importance of such stories and why they can help us better connect with our audience.

The same study also showed audiences stayed on solutions-focused news articles longer than others, adding commercial weight to the argument for constructive and solution-focused journalism. It really is a win-win — for readers and advertisers.

We are by no means the first media organisation to look at the benefits of constructive journalism. In fact, newsrooms across Europe and the United States, as some of you already know, have been doing this for years. And it’s from these organisations’ real-life experiences we can learn about the importance of making it more than just some “pie in the sky” ideal. We learn this can, and is, being done with great benefits to both the audience and the company’s bottom line.

Setting the newsroom philosophy

The Danish Broadcasting Corporation encourages its journalists to add a constructive element to almost all of their stories. These elements provide a more productive perspective about the future and society’s ability to get there.

In the beginning, the company had to consciously talk about each and every story and how they’d make it more constructive. Now it’s so ingrained you barely hear the word constructive anymore because it’s just a natural part of the way their journalists work.

There’s no doubt skepticism on the approach remains. But what’s important to remember is constructive journalism isn’t an alternative to traditional journalism. It’s about adding an extra, pragmatic layer to stories, which can also be used to hold people to account.

You can’t ignore the fact news organisations that have made it part of their philosophy, such as the Danish Broadcasting Corporation, have been reporting positive responses in terms of readership, community building, and business. At the end of the day, news organisations will only remain in business if we remain relevant to our audiences. Constructive journalism can play a role in this.

Constructive journalism in practice

Stories exposing problems or deficiencies in society remain important, and it’d be unrealistic — and unhealthy — to expect journalism to be relentlessly positive. But it’s important to present a balanced view and help point to solutions, not just problems.

Stuff’s Westside Stories series is an example of that in action. It examined the decline of a small New Zealand town into unemployment and social dysfunction but — importantly — also looked at how people were working to reclaim the proud Huntly that once was and the islands of success that formed.

For so long this town has been associated with one negative headline after the other. Our hope with this project was that people wouldn’t walk away feeling like there was no hope for the community and its people. Instead, they would see the good things happening and know there were ways in which that town could be turned around.

New Zealand’s newly elected government is currently looking at ways to reduce our prison population and move away from the “lock them all up” paradigm. As such, Stuff took a closer look at the country’s prisons problem in this interactive piece.

We wanted our audience to see how a single law change led to an explosion in remand prisoners. By arming them with this background information, in an easily digestible way, the audience was able to make up their own minds on whether what had been done in the past was good or bad.

This is in contrast to the traditional way we would have covered such a topic. That coverage would most probably have involved us pitting two opposing politicians against each other to debate the issue. The problem with this approach and these types of debates is we rarely hear anything about actual policy or proposed solutions. Our audience would have left the conversation none the wiser.

Arming readers with greater context

Simple explainers helping illustrate the full picture have become part of daily news currency and are a simple and easy way to start getting into the constructive mindset. Sometimes they are in simple interactives (like the example noted above). Other times they are more in-depth like this example in which Greenpeace found an ally in a company it usually maligns.

Contextualising news and creating timelines and explainers is not a new tool for journalists, but they do help to get away from simply reporting the same problem over and over again. They ask, “How did we get here?” They might not offer a solution, but they give people context about how a problem developed and the complexities around it. This can be very empowering for readers as it arms them with the information they need to then consider and debate the issue further and ultimately come up with their own possible solutions.

While explainers and clear context are part of the constructive picture, the key element of constructive journalism is looking to the future. We need to move beyond reporting on what’s happened and ask: “What’s next? Where do we go from here? What now?”

Ingraining the approach in our newsrooms

Constructive journalism is still in its infancy at Stuff, but we are developing a strategy to make sure it becomes part of the philosophy for our newsrooms all across the country.

I am passionate about the constructive journalism movement, and I am privileged to have had the opportunity to learn directly from the Constructive Institute in Denmark and bring this practical knowledge back to our newsrooms. We’ve developed an easy-to-use constructive journalism toolkit to help our journalists make the transition to this new way of thinking, are running workshops and information sessions, and are ensuring the approach is a top priority for our editors and news directors.

We are laying the foundation for a new attitude toward reporting. In time, the constructive approach to journalism will be ingrained as a newsroom philosophy and will be second nature to all of our reporters. Because, at the end of the day, as our country’s leading media company and largest newsroom, we exist to help New Zealanders connect and thrive in their communities.

Constructive journalism is most definitely a mechanism that will help us do that.

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