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Will your tired news audience click on a constructive news story?

Image: Gokarna Avachat

Image: Gokarna Avachat

War. Environmental peril. The never-ending pandemic. No wonder audiences are tired of bad news. And in worse news for the media, that widespread news fatigue is rapidly becoming active news avoidance.

Constructive journalism offers a solutions-based approach to reporting, which is appealing to audiences. But how do you convince the rest of the newsroom of its value?

In a world where we just want to hear about something going right, solutions journalism pioneers are rethinking the age-old adage “if it bleeds, it leads” — and they say it results in more nuanced, engaging reporting.

In this episode of Journo, Nick Bryant finds out whether solutions journalism is really the answer to re-engaging our disillusioned news audiences.

Guests

  • Sabra Lane, Australian ABC journalist
  • Tina Rosenberg, The New York Times reporter
  • Jiquanda Johnson, Flint Beat founder
  • Seán Wood, UK-based Positive News editor

Transcript

Nick Bryant (NB)
We’re living in an age of crisis, where nightly news bulletins seem monopolised by depressing news.

News anchor
The death toll continues to rise for Ukrainian civilians with some of the heaviest losses seen in children. 

NB
There’s been the war in Ukraine and the myriad problems that it’s fuelled. An energy crisis. The food crisis. A cost of living crisis.

Australian Treasurer Jim Chalmers
Higher global inflation, slower global growth, ongoing conflict and war.

NB
So, are we spending too much time catastrophising the news and alienating our audiences as a result? And is there room for a new kind of journalistic model, getting away from the old newsroom nostrum “if it bleeds, it leads” and embracing more of a constructive, solutions-based approach to our reporting? 

I’m Nick Bryant, and this is Journo, a podcast and the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas. 

Sabra Lane (SL), AM presenter
The bitter spat between politicians and health officials over Australia’s bungled Covid vaccine rollout is showing no signs of easing. 

NB
Sabra Lane is the presenter of the AM program, one of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s flagship news shows. But a few years ago, she realised that a daily diet overwhelmingly bad news was starting to overwhelm her. This veteran journalist was showing signs of becoming a news avoider, someone who makes an active effort to shield themselves from global and national events. 

SL
I mean, I’ve been a news junkie all my life, Nick, but I found there was a time in recent years where I just thought it’s been just absolutely bombarded with really bad, depressing news, things going wrong everywhere, that I found that I was often taking myself out of that environment and deliberately not watching or listening or keeping up with the news for a couple of hours just for my own sanity. 

Reporter
No one stopped them from checking whether the child was alive. He also reveals that Brigid is not the only child he knows about to have been left in Ukraine by foreign couples.

SL
And you can see more on that story on Foreign Correspondent on ABC TV, eight o’clock tonight. Let’s check what’s happening in finance.

The Australian dollar is lower at … sorry … 67.63 cents. That’s AM. I’m Sabra Lane. Good morning to you Hamish.

Hamish Macdonald
And a very good morning to you as well Sabra. 

SL
What does that say about me? I’m someone who used to love living and breathing the news. And if this is the way I feel, how is someone who’s not a news junkie who just likes to keep up to date with regular news, how does that make them feel? And that group of people, selective news avoiders, is growing and it has grown. It’s grown in recent years through the Covid pandemic and four out of 10 people regularly go out of their way not to keep up to date with the news. And most people say it’s because they feel that news is too depressing, that it sounds like everything’s all bad, that they feel helpless that they can’t do anything about it. 

SL
Hi, I’m Sabra Lane. You know what, not all the news is bad. And that’s what we’re trying to do here at the Bright Side, put a spotlight on the ideas and programs that individuals and groups are coming up with to try and fix problems.

NL
Sabra, you’ve launched this new initiative, Bright Side? What sort of stories do you find yourself curating. 

SL
I actually have a colleague of mine here in Hobart who’s working on a story to do with youth suicide. We’ve had an area in North-west Tasmania that’s had, unfortunately, a series of young people take their own lives and that’s actually prompted groups and individuals in the community to look at how can they come up with a way of trying to stop that from happening to try and intervene and provide opportunities for young people to talk to others about how they’re feeling to try and stop with this. And she’s actually working on that story right now. And these stories, like investigative journalism, actually take a fair while to work up. So, you know, again, they’re not fluffy, good news stories that you can just get off the shelf. They actually require a fair bit of work to do. They’re very thoughtful pieces of journalism.

NB
Sabra, you’re one of the most highly respected journalists in Australia. You’ve got a reputation as a great political correspondent as a really hard-nosed reporter. So I wonder what the reaction was from your colleagues when you decided to adopt this new approach. Did they say Sabra, have you gone soft?

SL
No, no, no, no. Some people still can’t get their head around what it is and it’s not soft journalism. It’s not soft and fluffy or good news. It’s taking a more fulsome approach to events. It’s a third spoke in the wheel of journalism. You’ve got breaking news, which looks at big sudden events that happen. You’ve got investigative journalism, which is really important. What’s gone wrong? How’s that happened? Who’s to blame? And shining a spotlight on perhaps people who tried to avoid responsibility? That’s really important. But this is really the next step. Okay, so we’ve uncovered the problem. How else might we solve this problem? What next?

Tina Rosenberg (TR)
I’d like to tell you a brief story, if I can. One of the newsrooms we work with is the Montgomery Advertiser. Montgomery is the capital of Alabama. And the first time I went there, I asked people in the newsroom, what do you guys think of mainstream media coverage of Alabama, and they all said, “we hate it. It’s terrible.” Why? “Because you only cover stories that make us look like ignorant yahoos.” And that’s true, the stereotype of the South. “Oh, ignorant Yahoos! Let’s go and find some stories that make them look even more like ignorant yahoos than people already think they are.” And then the journalists got that when they were on the receiving end. But they were also doing the same thing to their city, a majority black city, where a lot was going on in the black community that was interesting and useful and constructive and positive and newsworthy. And they didn’t report on it. All they reported on was crime. And they couldn’t see that part of it. But they managed to and they started covering black Montgomery in a different way. And it has totally changed the relationship of the newspaper in the city, there’s a lot more trust. They gained a lot of new subscriptions from black readers who had boycotted the paper before. And it became much more of civic organisation in the city. 

NB
Tina Rosenberg is a Pulitzer Prize winning author and the co-founder of the Solutions Journalism Network, which is sometimes known by its acronym SJM. For years, she helped run the Fixes column in the New York Times that reported on innovative solutions to social problems.

TR
It was a column that ran weekly, about solutions. And every week, we would cover a different response to a social problem. And we looked for things that were new and interesting and replicable in other places. And it ranged all over the world. And any subject. The only thing they had in common was they were all columns about what’s working.

NB
And I wonder what the response was within the New York Times itself to this initiative. Was there a bit of sort of cultural resistance? This sounds like good news journalism. This sounds like sort of soft journalism. Did you come up against that kind of scepticism? 

TR
Yeah, sometimes we get that when we first mentioned solutions journalism. And when we first go into a newsroom and we start to teach it, we’ll see a lot of people who are sitting there with their arms folded, glaring at us, like you’re here to tear down our holy profession by having us indulge in fluff and cheerleading and advocacy. But if you actually read what it is, it’s not that at all. And we didn’t get pushback from the Times, because they could read the columns and they could see that they were reported. You know, we always covered the limitations of the response we were looking at, we always put it in context. So once you actually understand what it is, which takes about, I don’t know, two minutes, those arms unfold and people become very receptive.

We’ve had very little pushback against the idea. And in part, that’s because the twin crises that journalism is going through all over the world, really —economic crisis and existential crisis — has made us much more open to new ways of doing things and much more interested in what our community wants. And communities love solutions journalism.

NB
The Fixes column at the New York Times became an entity in its own right. But was there a problem there that that this kind of approach to journalism got sort of ghettoised? It got stuck in that Fixes column it, it wasn’t fully integrated into how the newsroom operated on a day-to-day basis?

TR
That is a problem at a lot of news organisations. There are at least 15 newspapers we know of that have their own version of a Fixes column. And some of them really limit their solutions journalism to that. The New York Times is one of them. They do a huge amount of solutions journalism and they do it very well. They’re probably unaware they’re doing it and they don’t put a label on it, but they do do it. But the Times is so well resourced and so big that they do everything. Most newsrooms with their, you know, three staff members, don’t have that chance. But we think it’s a tool that anyone in the newsroom can use. And yeah, you can collect those stories after they run and put them in a in a column that’s called them a solutions vertical. But they you can cover health or education or environment or criminal justice — any subject that that deals with widely shared problems, you can add solution stories to the mix. And when we work with newsrooms, we recommend that the whole newsroom come to the training.

NB
I wonder, Tina, whether at the heart of this is a problem of definition. We think of journalism as bad news. We can’t escape that mindset.

TR
That is exactly the problem, I think. However, the issue, Nick, is that after we can show them what solutions journalism really is that attitude changes. We have no problem getting people to embrace the idea of solutions journalism. The difficulty has been to get them to actually do it, because they’re so busy and they’re so involved in “I have to do my three stories today because we have to feed the beast”. You know, beast eats every day and we have to keep giving it food. And the solution story I want to do. That’s a little different and I’ll just save it for tomorrow. I’ll work on it tomorrow and tomorrow never comes.

The real problem is lack of resources in newsrooms. Montgomery Advertiser used to have 40 staff members and now it has seven. You know, a third of the newsrooms in the US, I think a quarter, have had closed in the past few years. But we’ve lost more journalism jobs than coal mining jobs. And that’s, that’s the obstacle now. It’s not attitudinal, it’s behavioural.

Jiquanda Johnson (JJ)
So when I launched Flint Beat, I decided just to identify these different gaps. I’m a Flint girl, born and raised, you know, and so even as a consumer, I knew what I was missing. And then when I started talking to the community about what they wanted to see, they really wanted to see a news agency focused on the city. Flint is the largest city within Genesee County, and something that reflected more of what they saw in the community. And at the time, we really saw crime, water and sports in the news. And the community just wanted more than that. 

New anchor
The water crisis in Flint, Michigan, was a story that had been unfolding for years and has only recently begun attracting regional attention.

News anchor
It also prompted new scrutiny about the access of clean drinking water for millions of people around the country.

NB
Jiquanda Johnson is a journalist in the city of Flint, Michigan. You remember that it made global headlines when a failure in the town’s water purity controls caused a major health crisis. Five years ago, she left her job as a reporter on one of the city’s main newspapers to start an award-winning online newspaper Flint Beat.

JJ
I didn’t even know what solutions journalism was when I launched Flint Beat. I guess when we really think about it, if you’re a good journalist, it is something you are either already practicing, or something you want to do. Sometimes your hands are tied in a newsroom depending on what’s going on. And you can’t necessarily produce the work that you really, really want to do. But I had no idea what it was. When I left the news agency that I was at, I had a list of stories and things that I wanted to focus on. And I started conference hopping. And that’s how I was introduced to solutions journalism. And I was like, “Oh my God, that’s something that I really, really want to do”. That’s something that I got the list of stories here. I know that’s what it is. And so I actually found the Solutions Journalism Network. And they just happen to kind of package it right. So we can all be on the same page as to what this work is and define it. And so after I met the team from SJN, it kind of went from there. And so I’ve been paying attention to working with and doing ‘sojo’ work, solutions work, since 2018. That’s when I first kicked off.

News anchor
Another violent night in Atlanta shots ringing out early this morning in a city that’s been battling a surge in gun violence for weeks.

JJ
Gun violence is a big thing and Flint we’re plagued plagued by it. It’s a public health issue. And so that’s how I kicked off my work. For example, we’ve done like a three-part series on analysing the city’s plan to tackle crime, right. We’ve looked at other communities and how they have worked to solve gun violence in their cities and towns. But yeah, solution story is not necessarily perfect. It’s not glorifying anything. It’s not heroism. It’s how a municipality, a community, a person how they want to fix a problem. Taking a deeper dive into it to see if others have tried to fix this thing. Have they used this solution? Did that solution work? If we go back to the crime story, the city wants to try gun buybacks. When we did some digging, that doesn’t necessarily work for criminals. So they’re not running to sell their guns back. Right. So it is people trying, but it doesn’t always work. Right? You know, and so it’s just trying to fix these problems.

NB
Fixing one problem sometimes means that other problems arise. In Flint, Jiquanda applies the same journalistic rigor, investigation and skepticism as she would to traditional forms of reporting.

JJ
So with the COVID 19 pandemic, right, people were coming up with solutions that things that had not been done before. And so then it got kind of funny, like, is this a solution story that the school district is going door to door, knocking on these doors to make sure that kids are getting on the internet in order to access their schoolwork? It’s a solution story. But we couldn’t necessarily take that deeper dive into it like we usually do. And what did the school district do to solve the problem of kids not accessing the internet in order to go to school. So it’s a funny thing, you know, when we have a new problem.

News anchors

due tonight, Flint Township Police are investigating a shooting that took place New York…

…ABC 12 News has learned about a homicide in the city of Flint over the weekend, it’s at least the third in the first three days of 2022.

JJ
I think that solutions journalism and places like Flint, Michigan, you know, can really make a difference and an impact and change the city’s narrative, right? Most of the time we deal- we’re overwhelmed with news about the problem, and not empowered to fix it. Or we don’t even know what your community is trying to do to fix it right? You read a ton of stories about who was shot on the north end of Flint, ‘There was a shooting’, ‘There was a shooting’, ‘There was a shooting’.

And I just think that these types of stories, solution stories, help people focus on how to fix it, instead of wallow in the problem. Because we can just sit in a problem, right? Now you can take action. There’s something you can do to fix this. It might work, it might not work, you might have to tweak it. For Flint, we don’t know what that looks like. But this is the opportunity to make your community better. And I think that that plays a big role in places that look like Flint, and places who, they have problems like the city of Flint.  The city of Flint is a blank canvas for solutions work.

Seán Wood (SW)
I’m Seán Wood, CEO of Positive News, which is an online and print magazine, which is dedicated to reporting on what’s going right in the world putting on progress and potential solutions to the problems that we face. So it’s all about rigorous journalism, but with that solutions focus.

NB
Seán , if people go to your website, and I’d certainly urge people to do that, what sort of menu of stories are they going to be seeing there? 

SW
There’s a whole range of stories on positive news, covering many of the topics you’ll see elsewhere in the news, but from that solution focus so it could be health innovations, environmental solutions, progressive changes in business, reports about people’s rights being strengthened, and covering progress on issues such as mental health and that could be charities, community groups, businesses, potential legislation. Now across the board, where is progress happening? That’s what we’re looking for, where are problems being dealt with in a way that could be effective elsewhere as well.

NB
And when people see a site called Positive News, I mean, do they think it’s sort of a little bit like the Jehovah’s Witness Watchtower or the Salvation Army’s war cry? I mean, do they think you’re a bunch of sort of evangelical Christians? Sort of clappy happy journalism? 

SW
Yeah to be honest, sometimes they do. And that’s a problem. But, you know, as soon as anyone reads our journalism, they know what we’re about. And it’s actually, you know, that that kind of concern is more concern of the industry, we find that audiences, they know exactly what we’re about. And that’s why the brand name Positive News works really well for them.

Everyone’s had that conversation where someone says, ‘oh the news is so bad, we need more positive news’, so that’s exactly what we’re giving them. But it’s, it’s important to say that, you know, within the industry, we talk about what we do as constructive journalism and solutions journalism, because the industry is terrified of the term positive news, which is, you know, sometimes quite amusing. And journalists and editors can jump to a lot of conclusions very quickly, that it’s fluff, and that it’s cats getting rescued from trees and that kind of thing, which isn’t news at all, and not what we’re about. So we have to make that differentiation when talking to the industry.

NB
I don’t think I’ve ever known such a gloomy kind of news agenda. Do you sometimes feel that you’re you’re swimming against the rip tide here?

SW
Oh, yeah, absolutely. I mean, it’s actually changing a lot. You know, 10 years ago, when I was kind of first started working in this field and pushing this kind of domain of solutions journalism and constructive journalism forward, it really felt like we were up against a brick wall. And that’s mainly on the industry side, I think we’ve always felt an appetite from consumers, for, for good news in the broad sense. But I think a lot has changed over the past 10 years for both news consumers and the news industry. 

So there was some really interesting research out about news avoidance. So the Reuters Digital News Report that they produce annually, as you may know, found that 38% of people globally now avoid the news, actively avoid the news. And in the UK, where I’m based, it was the worst 46% of people avoid the news, a rate that’s nearly doubled since 2016. And 55% of news avoiders said that, you know, one of the main reasons was the news brings them down. And these numbers have been going up year on year.

To me, there’s a crystal-clear problem. What I see as a bad news bias in the media is turning people away. And that’s a problem for news consumers and it’s a problem for the industry. But it also creates an opportunity. I think we’ve reached a kind of peak negativity in the news and it’s starting to shift. And what’s really interesting is it’s not just consumers who are wanting that change now, but I think the industry is really opening up to the need for that change as well.

NB
Peak negativity, that’s a really ringing phrase, isn’t it? We’ve spoken Seán, about the moral imperative to do solutions-based journalist, the ethical imperative, what you seem to be suggesting is there’s a commercial imperative here. If we want to get those news avoiders back to our news sites, we’re going to have to change things.

SW
Yeah, I believe so. And I think, you know, we’re a relatively small organisation but growing consistently. We’re an independent major organisation and we’re funded mainly by reader revenue. But from our point of view, we’re seeing ever increasing demand. And what’s really interesting is that not only do people want a more balanced news agenda, but they’re really willing to support that.

News anchors
Ongoing droughts, floods and superstorms are the new climate normal…

…we’re looking at up to 30 to 40% of people going into fuel poverty…

…COVID-19 is nowhere near over. 

NB
Now Sean you’re in Britain, and it is hard to think of anywhere in the world that has got a more sensational press, a more cynical press, a more negative press, a more catastrophising press. And that’s the business model. How do you try and shift that culture?

SW
There’s a business model that’s based on grabbing attention through triggering fear and alarm and based on stories of conflict. And that’s effective because biologically, we have a negativity bias. We’re hardwired to look for potential threats to ourselves. And that’s an old system designed for survival, but it’s been triggered on a daily basis by the news which isn’t healthy for us, by the way, but there’s actually another way to grab people’s attention and to engage people. And that’s through triggering a sense of possibility of, or of inspiration, of connection. So that’s what we do.

NB
I mean Sean what you’ve been telling me is really interesting. There is a generational shift in our industry. Old sort of cynical hacks like me are being supplanted by younger journalists, with a very different idea about what our industry should be doing and the positive contribution it can make to society.

SW
Yeah, I think that’s really well said. I wouldn’t want to push out cynical hacks such as yourself Nick, we need a degree of cynicism, skepticism, it’s part of what makes journalism what it is. And you know, we’d never want to lose that role of being the watchdog and holding power to account. And of course, we don’t need to, but what we need to do, is to no longer ignore progress. And that’s what younger generations are asking for.

There’s a responsibility there, a necessity. And that’s what really drives the work that I do. Because, for me, we have to come back to asking what is the purpose of journalism now. And it’s no longer just to get important information to people about events that they may not be aware about, we’re overwhelmed with information about what’s going on. So it’s what’s going to be useful for society. And so we need to inform people about problems but if as a society, we’re going to deal with those problems, we need to know about the potential solutions about where progress is happening, learn from that, give it attention. And I think that’s what younger generations are crying out for, because the pressures of issues such as climate change is so great upon them, and fundamentally that, that need for journalism to adapt to the state of the world and uphold its responsibility to really serve society is a key driver of this change.

NB
I’ve been worried for some time now that journalism has become an overly destructive force, especially when it comes to the decline and degradation of democracy. Bad news bias has become a real problem. So to the idea that a more solutions based approach isn’t real journalism, I’m not suggesting that we ease up when it comes to our role as a watchdog, or that we put the brakes on investigative reporting far from it. But I do think that as an industry, we constantly need to ask ourselves the simplest of questions, are we part of the problem.

And Tina just one final thing, if there are journalists listening to this, who are still a little bit skeptical about the value of this approach, what would you say to them?

Tina Rosenberg (TR)

I would say that, with our dwindling resources, we need to make sure that what we do with our people and our time is the highest possible value that we can give to our communities. And that means focusing on stories that matter and stories they can only get here.

NB
Journo was produced by Deadset Studios, for the Judith Neilson Institute, which supports quality journalism and storytelling around the world. You can find out more about the institute’s programs and events at jninstitute.org.

Our executive producer is Rachel Fountain, our producers are Grace Pashley and Britta Jorgensen, sound design is by Melissa May. Our Managing Editor is Kelly Riordan and our commissioning editor is Andrea Ho at the Judith Neilson Institute. And I’m Nick Bryant. This is actually the final episode of season two. But if you want more journo there’s a back catalogue to explore. Some of our favourites include our season one look at local and regional journalism, The Troublemaker and The Terrier.

Jacky Barker (JB)
And local was the way to go, and particularly with Covid, people are more locally focused.

NB
They used to say all politics is local, all journalism is local too right?

JB
Yep, absolutely. 

NB
And our recent episode with the ‘brat from the back blocks of Brisbane’ — her words not mine — Leigh Sales.

Leigh Sales
People come up to me all the time in the street and go ‘Oh Leigh you’re so brilliant I’m gonna miss you…blah blah blah’ That’s, that has to be as meaningless as people telling me online ‘ah you’re crap’ you’re a slut’.

NB
Well maybe it’s the BBC’s is Ros Atkins with a masterclass on his viral explainers.

Ros Atkins
The telling of the story isn’t a secondary thing. The telling of the story is the thing.

Nick Bryant
You can find these and more in your podcasting app.