5 Aug 2018

Publishing the positives: CoJo

From Mediawatch, 9:07 am on 5 August 2018

It’s a common complaint that too much of the news is too grim and some people are - quite literally - turning off. Is there a better way to report news we can use? Stuff reporter Nicola Brennan-Tupara’s been to Europe to find out if 'CoJo' is the way forward.

Ulrik Hagerup, news chief from Denmark and leading promoter of 'constructive journalism'

Ulrik Hagerup, news chief from Denmark and leading promoter of 'constructive journalism' Photo: screenshot / YouTube

News publishers big and small around the world panicked when all-powerful Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg suddenly announced last January - in a Facebook post of course - that users' news feeds will change to make sure they’re “good for people's well-being."

Stuff shared by friends and family is more uplifting and engaging, Facebook said, so they would feed more of that in to the news feeds - and less from publishers of news.

Bad news is often important news. If that makes the news a bit of a bummer, well - too bad. 

But is there another way to report it that’s a bit less depressing - and a bit more uplifting or engaging?

"I've only ever been a bad news reporter," Stuff's Nicola Brennan-Tupara told Mediawatch. 

That's not an an admission that the chief news director for Stuff's Waikato communities is sub-standard, but that bad news is usually what she's reporting. 

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. Photo: supplied

"I've covered crime. I've covered the courts. As a journalist it does impact you," she said. 

For Stuff's confronting child abuse investigation Faces Of Innocents she even reported her own experience of domestic violence at home as a child. 

"There are also really good programmes to curb domestic violence, in New Zealand and things we can look at worldwide that are having a great impact. Why can't we report on that stuff as well?" she asked 

She went to Europe to look at Constructive Journalism - CoJo for short.

She was intrigued by a poetic video called Publish the Positive by Jodie Jackson who has a Master’s Degree in Applied Positive Psychology and is a partner at the international Constructive Journalism Project.

That upbeat composition is nice - and the pictures of of Ghandi, the moon landings and windmills that go with it are stirring and soothing. But but isn't it naive to believe reporting the news positively can really tell us what we need to know about what's happening in the world?.   

The philosophy of Constructive Journalism' has been put into practice in Denmark.

Ulrik Haagerup - a former director of news at the DR - The Danish Broadcasting Corporation - founded the Constructive Institute there after he realised he was making millions miserable in Denmark with his nightly TV bulletins.

Haagerup said that journalism had lost sight of its original role - presenting a balanced view of how things are. Public broadcasters in particular should be "a filter between reality and people's perception of reality," he said.

"We think news is about conflict, news is about drama, news is about crooks - and we think news is about victims,” he said.

“We wrap all of this up in a programme or in a newspaper, and we call it journalism. But is it actually the right picture of the world? The truth is, it is not. And we need to change that,” he said. 

Though fewer people were dying in wars these days than ever before, Haagerup said, and security for all in Europe had increased, the media was concentrating on the negative. Bigger perspective and the slower changes were not being reflected in the news, he said.

In 2016, DR's news adopted a constructive reporting approach under his guidance. 

Stuff's Nicola Brennan-Tupara has just returned from Denmark and told her Stuff colleagues all about it in a special nationwide video-conference last week.

"It's not about reporting positive or happy news for entertainment or to make people feel better - which is what a lot of people think it is," she told Mediawatch

Nicola Brennan-Tupara

Nicola Brennan-Tupara Photo: supplied

"It's about giving a better version of what's actually happening in our society. Journalists often forget the effect they have on people's thinking," she said.

"I know many people who don't watch the news ... because it brings them down," she told Mediawatch. 

"If you work in the industry and you feel like that, what must the public be thinking?" she asked. 

She cites Stuff’s Westside Stories series as a local example of CoJo in action.

It looked at the decline of a small New Zealand town but also how people there worked to reclaim Huntly and the "islands of success" that were created.  

She says DR  reports politics by looking for areas of agreement between rival factions, rather than their differences. DR recently took rival politicians to a school to debate education funding  - and didn't let them out until they had identified common ground. 

"The medicinal cannabis issue at the moment would be a good one for a constructive approach. In the two different Bills there are things they agree on," she said. 

"If the media stopped giving headlines to disagreements, we might move things on a bit quicker," she told Mediawatch.

But if media adopt a more positive approach, it will be vulnerable to spin. PR and comms people all over the country will be queuing up to feed the media their positive stories about the achievements and good work of the people and the programmes.  

"I'm sure they would try to hijack Constructive Journalism  - but it urges us to be just as critical of proposed solutions to the issues. You can deal with a PR approach as you would deal with any other approach from them," she said. 

"We can still fight the good fight," she said.

Nicola's own account of how Stuff is approaching Constructive Journalism can be read here