In SA for training, Danish journalist Cathrine Gyldensted tells Journalism.co.za why constructive journalism seeks to be positive and solutions-based – and to treat interviewees as people with resilience rather than as victims. In the latest instalment of her “Backstory” series, Gill Moodie writes exclusively for Journalism.co.za:
When Danish broadcast journalist Cathrine Gyldensted was a US (United States), correspondent in 2008 she interviewed a woman who had become homeless amid the recession.
After finding out how dire the woman’s life had become, she asked her a few unusual questions such as: “What have you learned through becoming homeless?” and “Is there anything inspirational or positive to be said about your life?”
“She became invigorated by my questions,” says Gyldensted, who is in South Africa to do training at Times Media Group. “It was such a big difference from when I was asked her more negative questions.”
“She told me she was more resilient than she thought – and that other people were there for her, such as at the shelter. She said she now had a better relationship with her son, who had moved to be closer to her. So there were inspirational nuggets for me to add into my piece because I asked her other questions.”
Inspired by family therapy, constructive journalism seeks to be positive and solutions-based – to treat interviewees as people with resilience and strength rather than only as victims and to balance examples of challenges with successes.
“I’m not saying everything should be constructive and positive,” says Gyldensted. “If you take ISIS, for example, that is, of course, such a negative, brutal story. In Denmark we have a problem with young Muslim men leaving the country to join ISIS and fight for them. So a constructive element would be to ask: ‘What can we do back home to prevent them from leaving? What are we doing wrong that makes them feel detached from our society?’ ”
[SEE ALSO: How journalists could be more constructive – and boost audiences by Cathrine Gyldensted, The Guardian, Oct 2014]
Gyldensted says constructive journalism is growing in the US because news organisations there see a financial benefit because they have realised that solutions-oriented journalism is more engaging for audiences. (Research from Wharton Business School at the University of Pennsylvania has found that stories evoking sadness are the least likely to be shared on social media while positive stories inducing awe are shared far more than stories that evoke fear or anger.)
Constructive journalism adds to the media’s role as watchdog
In Scandinavia it is growing mostly for idealistic reasons – that there is a growing recognition that it makes journalism more comprehensive and, therefore, more accurate.
One very interesting idea coming from the constructive-journalism movement is that it is desirable to mediate between politicians in TV debates rather than highlight their differences, and to push them towards coming up with constructive ideas for the future rather than focusing only on past events.
This is where constructive journalism adds to the media’s role as watchdog, says Gyldensted, because it challenges the power holders in a different way.
“I think we would do well in journalism to acknowledge that we are not objective – that doesn’t mean we can’t be balanced and fair or that we can’t investigate a story from a different angle.
“Some of my colleagues say this is not my role (to mediate) but some say: ‘Well, it is my role to challenge power and ask what can be done. Can they find a common ground and will they commit to collaboration?’
Research around the world suggests that audiences are tired of traditional political debates, Gyldensted says.
“They are detaching from them because they are tired of the bickering. Audiences are more interested in what can be done and will you do it and where will this country be headed.”
Constructive journalism training
When it comes to South Africa – where we have so many negatives such as an extreme wealth gap, violent crime, corruption and police brutality – Gyldensted says she would never presume to tell journalists here how to do their jobs.
“Your reality here is so different from where I come from – you know much more about political system than I do so I put (my ideas) out there and the media organisations take what it applicable for them.”
When it comes to training journalists to be more constructive, Gyldensted breaks the process down into three phases: the brainstorming of ideas, interview techniques and writing.
On the brainstorming side, the positive will come from thinking about who has constructive relationships in a story, she says, who has learned something or grown or broken some pattern, what has it taken to overcome something – and who else has done so and what can we learn from them.
“In interview techniques, I teach that we are very past orientated in journalism – and there is reason for this because we are detectives so we need to know who did what and how come. But when you look at the balance in news interviews, it’s mind blowing that 70% of the questions are oriented towards the past.
“The next questions is: What is the consequence for society when we direct a (TV political) debate like this? I would argue that we are conserving things – we’re not facilitating a visionary outlook or things that can be changed for the better in the future.”
Examples of future-oriented questions that also commit politicians to coming up with solutions include:
- How would you approach this problem?
- What should be done in order to achieve this?
- What will you do?
- When will you do it?
In the writing, the end of a story is a very important element as it can be a takeaway for the audience to either feel hopeless or engaged to do something.
“When I was news reporter and I didn’t know anything more about positive other than smiley faces,” Gyldensted says. “But positive is so much more. It’s about resilience, it’s about grit. It’s about meaningfulness, hope, trust and post-traumatic growth, where people grow from trauma.”
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