De journalistiek wordt gedomineerd door een frame van conflict en negativiteit, weet de Deense Cathrine Gyldensted uit eigen ervaring. Dit heeft gevolgen voor de manier waarop wij de wereld om ons heen bezien en leidt tot meer polarisatie. Een pleidooi voor ‘constructieve journalistiek’.
Door Cathrine Gyldensted
In Sweden, my colleagues are concerned about arson fires targeting refugee camps there. They are upset about sexual attacks on Swedish women perpetrated by what we believe are immigrant men, illiterate on values and women's rights in western society. They also grapple with the realization that the right-wing political party is growing, at what is called an alarming rate, election after election. What are their fellow citizens thinking, when they vote for mad fringe politicians like this?
In the United States, my colleagues are struggling with the realization that they possibly created Donald Trump and facilitated his rise to become the Republican candidate for presidency. That the sensational seeking coverage of the Trump campaign might have triggered some of the violent clashes between Trump voters and protesters in early 2016. What is going on with these ‘anti-establishment’ groups? Who are they? Why are they so angry?
In The Netherlands, where I currently work, it´s the same situation. My news colleagues are asking themselves more and more questions about the inner workings of news journalism and its negative influence on society. So much so that one journalism school make a bold move this year. Something that stigmatizes it in the eyes of most and idolizes it in the eyes of few. Which only makes their decision even more rare and admirable. More on their leap of faith, later.
I come from the tribe of classical news and investigative journalism and enjoyed a beautiful career for quite many years. However, something happened in 2008 that made me change tracks. I realized that the hidden biases I harboured dangerously informed the way I chose to frame my stories and conduct my interviews. I saw the little guy as the ‘victim’ and the power holder as the ‘crook’. It does not take much imagination to see the repercussions of such biases. The ‘victims’ get victimized: we never learn about their resources or resilience. The crooks get vilified: we never learn about their possibly productive intentions or collaborative efforts. The result is less societal coherence and more polarization.
Of course, there is a reason for this – it lies in the way journalism sees its role and is taught. Much of journalism is dominated by a framework of conflict and negativity, and news serves a number of traditional purposes that help explain why it is necessary for stories to often be negative and conflict-based. Lasswell, in his seminal 1948 article, identified the surveillance of the environment, including the disclosure of threats and opportunities, as a core function of communication. Shoemaker (1996) argued that the news media exist because humans are biologically built to look for environmental threats. This hard-wired predisposition might help explain studies showing that journalists gravitate toward drama (Niven, 2005), deviance (Shoemaker, Danielian and Brendlinger, 1991), and scandal (Patterson, 2000). In fact, Bantz (1997) argued that news organizations see conflict as routine, expected, and perhaps essential. News also serves to provide useful information and to keep the government in check. This “watchdog” role has been deemed a core democratic function of journalism (Entman, 2005; Eriksson and Ostman, 2013), further explaining why some news is inherently negative.
Given these functions, journalists would not be doing their jobs effectively if they did not report negative and conflict-filled news stories. Conflict and negativity in the news are not random and personal; their presence is systematic and predictable and has been built into journalists’ routines. In fact, conflict and negativity have been identified as key news values – along with others such as proximity, impact and timeliness — that are used to train journalists to identify newsworthy information (Galtung and Ruge, 1965; Galtung and Ruge, 1973; Harcup and O’Neill, 2001; Shoemaker and Reese, 2013).
Although reporters contribute to the negatively skewed news, journalists are not solely to blame. Trussler and Soroka (2014) found that politically interested news consumers chose to read negative stories despite saying they preferred more positive stories. Additionally, individuals in general are likely to dwell on bad news, as negative events or emotions have a stronger and more lasting impact on individuals than positive ones (Baumeister, Bratslavsky, Finkenauer and Vohs 2001).
Negative news has a negative impact
However, and here's perhaps the biggest problem: the gravitation of journalists and news consumers toward negative news comes with a cost, as scholars have found negative news stories to have a largely negative impact on consumers. Negative news can reduce helping behavior, decrease tolerance, lower perceptions of a community’s benevolence, lower evaluations of strangers, and cause depression and helplessness (Gyldensted, 2011; Galician and Vestre, 1987; Veitch and Griffitt, 1976). Negative news can also lead to distrust in political leaders (Kleinnijenhuis, van Hoof and Oegema, 2006). And specifically compared to positive news, negative news can make viewers feel less emotionally stable and more apprehensive about potential harm to themselves (Aust, 1985). Similarly, long-term exposure to television, which frequently broadcasts violent news, has been found to cultivate images of a mean and dangerous world in which people are only looking out for themselves and cannot be trusted (Gerbner, 1998).
Additionally, scholars argue that the ubiquitous doom and gloom in the media is related to growing disengagement from mainstream news. Media sociologist Michael Schudson (2011) has pointed to individuals’ declining interest in newspapers, newsmagazines, and the ‘serious’ news on TV. Patterson (2000) conducted a national survey designed to measure Americans’ news habits, interests, and preferences and found 84 per cent of respondents perceived the news to be depressing (compared to 16 per cent who found it to be uplifting). A different survey showed that individuals cut back on their viewing of local broadcast news because the stories were too negative, too often about crime, and seldom presented positive information (Potter and Gantz, 2000). Another way negative news has contributed to disengagement is through compassion fatigue, or creating a public “weary of unrelenting media coverage of human tragedy” (Gyldensted, 2011; Kinnick, Krugman, and Cameron, 1996, p. 687). Kinnick et al. (1996) suggest that the media contribute to compassion fatigue through their sensationalism, constant ‘bad news’, lack of context, and lack of solutions to social problems. Whereas positive emotions like hope, meaning and awe seem to drive stronger engagement than negative emotions (Berger & Milkman, 2014).
More carrot with the stick
Today, we face the problem of being too caught up reporting on negatives, stemming from a belief that only by focusing on what is wrong with the world (being ‘critical’) can we keep power accountable. We believe that to maintain a healthy and well-functioning society, we need the stick. It keeps corruption at bay and wrongdoers afraid of being exposed - which is probably true. But what if we added more carrot while we kept the stick?
Adding more carrot could take the form of facilitating more debate of future-oriented thinking, creating mediating principles to political debate coverage. Adding more carrot could mean reporting on resources and solutions and less on wrongdoing and faults. All in all, constructive elements in journalism — adding more journalistic carrot — are necessary for turning the wheels of society forwards, counterbalancing the stick that may push us backwards. They would also offer a more accurate portrayal of the world, which is seen as a core function of journalism.
All change needs courageous pioneers, and two of the most courageous pioneering institutions in the domain of constructive journalism happen to be Dutch. One is the innovative and steadily growing online medium De Correspondent and the other is the Journalism School at Windesheim University of Applied Sciences. The Journalism School believes that journalism should stop victimizing victims and demonizing crooks. Should stop its chronic focus on conflict. Should shy away from acting as polarizers.
Instead we will focus on solutions, facilitating a future-oriented visionary debate, expand interview techniques, shed light on the middle ground, work with journalists’ unrecognized hidden biases, view audiences as co-creators and share our learning curve. This work is standing on the shoulders of brilliant constructive journalism already being done at De Correspondent and a range of classical media companies in Sweden, Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, the US and South Africa. All work systematically with adding constructive elements to their reporting.
In our day and age, we need to see far. We need to look ahead. Journalism does not mirror society, we move it. But in which direction?
Cathrine Gyldensted (@CGoldensted) is director constructive journalism aan Hogeschool Windesheim. In 2015 verscheen haar boek From Mirrors to Movers: Five Elements of Positive Psychology in Constructive Journalism.
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