The news is broken. These journalists are trying to repair it.
For decades, newsrooms have followed the dictum ‘if it bleeds, it leads’. Is a more helpful form of journalism possible?
- 29 Mar 2023
- Written by
- Georgia Frances King
- Close Reads
- Reading time
- 11 min
One Friday evening, Ulrik Haagerup slumped into the couch with his family in his Copenhagen home. He’d gotten home late, as usual, but the kids were clean, his wife was happy, and there was red wine on the table. As he was settling into his evening, he did what most families did: he switched on the television to watch the nightly news.
For Haagerup though, this was work. He had recently started a new job running the biggest newsroom in the country, and as the news director, he had to take notes on the programming. Everything looked great: the nice jingle, the attractive, competent anchor, and the sleekly produced packaging for the first story, about a terror threat in Denmark. That was followed by a shooting incident somewhere in Europe, a woman abducted and abused in a cottage in Sweden, and a plane crash that killed 100 people. Then it was time for an uplifting story—a giant mechanical spider was ‘terrorising’ Liverpool—before the weather (the rain continues, of course). Have a nice evening, the presenter cooed.
“And I was sitting there with my family taking notes and thinking, I want to flush myself down the toilet,” Haagerup remembers. “What was going on? Why was I suddenly feeling so depressed?”
Haagerup went through his notes. There was nothing wrong with any of the stories. They were all well told—not too short, not too long. They were factual, had good footage, and the presentation was fine. But he felt terrible. Was this really the result of his newsroom’s ambition to give people the truth?
He began to wonder: “What’s the result of us day in, day out producing a picture of a world that’s going to hell?” For years, he had believed the newsroom adage that “the bad story is the good story—the more dramatic and full of conflict, the better”. But that evening, a switch flipped: he wanted to change the news we all consumed. “And in order to change something,” he says, “you have to start changing yourself.”
And so, in 2017, Haagerup quit. After a lauded early career that earned him both the Danish equivalent of the Pulitzer and a knighthood, he realised he had lost sight of the reason he became a journalist in the first place: to do good for society. To get back on track, he decided to spend his time promoting a different way of reporting the news—one that deemphasised what was going wrong in the world. He called it ‘constructive journalism’.
If audiences are only shown what’s wrong with the world, they’ll start to feel like these issues are insurmountable. Psychologists call this ‘learned helplessness’.
The term may have been new, but the principles underlying Haagerup’s idea had been gaining traction for years, bolstered by an increasing number of journalists who had grown tired of working in a media ecosystem that gave more air to the bad guys than the good. Also sometimes called ‘solutions journalism,’ the movement stemmed from a common belief: if audiences are only shown what’s wrong with the world, they’ll start to feel like these issues are insurmountable. (Can you really save that poor polar bear floating on an ice cap, after all?) Psychologists call this ‘learned helplessness’, a state of fatalistic apathy that only tends to compound existing problems.
It was only natural that the news then swung the other way, albeit briefly. To counter the media’s negativity bias, a few outlets in the late 2000s began experimenting with what they called ‘positive news’—upbeat human-interest stories to inspire audiences rather than depress them. These types of stories proved popular online, but as commentators have pointed out, they could be just as demotivating as bad news.
Eventually, journalists started to realise that the answer to our problems would require more subtlety than heavy-handed affirmations. To help find that nuance, in 2017 Haagerup established the Constructive Institute, an EU-based hub for journalists looking to make news that would help rather than shock or entertain. He wasn’t the first to found an outfit dedicated to this cause: The Solutions Journalism Network had been doing similar work in the US since 2013. (The terms “solutions journalism” and “constructive journalism” are used more-or-less interchangeably.) Both organisations train newsrooms to move away from negatively geared reporting techniques and towards what they see as a more impactful mode of journalism.
In pursuit of that goal, the Constructive Institute asks newsrooms to break the positive-negative news binary. The trick, they argue, isn’t to produce feel-good puff pieces instead of ‘bad news’ items, but to provide audiences with a properly contextualised picture of the world. To do this, Haagerup’s team established three core principles of constructive journalism: 1) Reporters should focus not just on the problem but also its possible solutions; 2) They should cover nuances and avoid simplifications; and 3) They should promote ‘democratic conversations’—ones that treat journalists as unbiased facilitators of conversations that fuel curiosity, rather than as aggressive prosecutors of particular arguments.
Just as crucially, they should avoid reporting on silver bullet ‘solutions’ and snake oil. “Very rarely do you have one bite that solves everything,” says Tina Rosenberg, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and the co-founder of the Solutions Journalism Network, which has been promoting these practices since 2013. And just as there are no simple fixes, there are also no single markers of what a solutions-based story should look like. Take, for example, two different New York Times initiatives Rosenberg has had a hand in. In 2014 she helped launch Fixes, a series of columns that explore how people have tackled social problems, from non-profits fighting unaffordable housing to inmates in Maine growing their own healthy prison food. Later, in 2021, Rosenberg extended the Times's solutions focus with Headway, a series of deep-dives into the world’s trickiest challenges, covering everything from innovative approaches to tackling homelessness to a poetic, interactive guide to the carbon-capture wonders of peat (yes, really).
The diversity of these examples shows that there are many ways to write constructively: some approaches investigate a single idea that solves a tricky problem; others compare proposals for a solution and interrogate their shortcomings. And though both Fixes and Headway appeared under their own solutions-specific sections, Rosenberg says in an ideal world, these kinds of stories would be dotted throughout the whole newsroom as part of everyday reporting. “For anyone who covers a beat where you look at a lot of widely shared problems—that includes environment, health, education, criminal justice, and democracy—there are solutions stories that should be part of your beat,” she says.
Young reporters are taught the ‘5 Ws’—who, what, when, where, and why… Haagerup suggests an addition: what now, and how?
To teach journalists how to do journalism better, Rosenberg and Haagerup’s organisations offer detailed guides on what constructive journalism looks like up close. But it’s often just as useful to show journalists what constructive journalism isn’t. For example, you can’t lop a positive spin on the end of an otherwise negative news story and call it a solution; not only will it lack nuance, but it’ll promote the unrealistic concept of a quick fix. Journalists must also be careful to be objective, and not give undue space to starry-eyed innovators aiming to cloud their vision. “You should be equally critical to the people with the easy solutions,” Haagerup says. “Can you prove it, is it scalable, and can it work elsewhere?”
Rosenberg says a good solutions article interrogates the positive and holds people accountable to their promises; the first series of Headway, called Hindsight, did this by comparing pitches made a decade ago—such as solutions for creating clean drinking water, abundant solar power, and a slum-less Delhi—to their real-world impact today.
As well as examining the past, constructive journalism also looks to the future. “Breaking news is about what’s going on right now, and investigative journalism is about what happened yesterday,” Haagerup says. “We are so focused on yesterday and now that we don’t care about tomorrow. But journalism can and should also be about tomorrow.” In J-school, young reporters are taught the ‘5 Ws’—who, what, when, where, and why. This mnemonic covers the basics of both breaking news and investigative reporting, but it doesn’t train journalists to think about what comes as a consequence of the facts. Haagerup suggests an addition: what now, and how?
Thinking about the future requires a mindset shift for reporters. They also have to recalibrate their instruments to look for positive stories as well as negative ones. Often when a journalist snares an interesting database, the instinct is to find the worst data point and report on it. But instead of always focusing on the story of failure, Rosenberg encourages journalists to look for the winner. “Use the data to find a positive deviant,” she says, and investigate why that wound them up on top.
She uses the example of hospital C-section rates, which have been dramatically increasing around the world and often signify medical misconduct. “Normally when we get a database like that, we only go to the worst performer and we pounce on them,” she says. “But what if we were to look at who’s doing the best and how they were doing it?” It’s a very simple change to a reporting tactic: flip the negative deviant to a positive one.
This isn’t how reporters are traditionally trained to think. Rosenberg tells the story of a journalist who was investigating the long wait times at different emergency wards in a city. When she got to a hospital with a system that meant people were never waiting more than 10 minutes, she said to herself, “There’s no story here,” and walked out. She was so used to finding the negative that she couldn’t see the positive.
That’s because decades of reporters have been trained on the adage “if it bleeds, it leads.” Both Rosenberg and Haagerup believe that newsrooms need to shift their internal culture away from this attitude—but there’s an uphill battle for top-down change. Heritage publications can be solid, lumbering beasts that thrive on bureaucracy and process. Their behemoth size and seniority are what allows them to break news and apply pressure, but it also makes transformation tough. There are lengthy procedural protocols to be followed, style guides to be adhered to, and reporting practices to be respected.
Reporters can still find ways to make an impact—whether they have their editors’ permission to write constructively or not.
“What’s been really difficult has not been attitude change but behaviour change,” Rosenberg says. This is especially tough when newsrooms are operating at a fraction of their previous sizes. Pew figures indicate that US newsrooms have shrunk 26 per cent since 2008, leaving many reporters covering the story load of three people. “That doesn’t leave them any time—not just for solutions journalism, but for anything interesting,” she says. “Journalists need time to do these stories, and they need to work in a newsroom that doesn’t make them take that time between 5 and 7 in the morning… They’re so busy today that they’ll think about their solutions story tomorrow. And tomorrow never comes.”
Despite decimated staff sizes and pressure for viral stories, reporters can still find ways to make an impact—whether they have their editors’ permission to write constructively or not. Rosenberg gives the example of a writer who became the sole opinion columnist at the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel after staff cuts. He asked himself what he could do as one person, and decided to turn his section into a solutions project. He called it the Ideas Lab, and even though he did a third as many pieces, he got nine times the engagement. The publication was thrilled.
“It was a very good choice for a single person,” Rosenberg says, “… but now of course he’s been fired, too.”
In addition to budget cuts, newsrooms seeking to do more constructive journalism face another challenge: the belief that the journalist’s job is to report on problems, not pontificate on solutions. But Haagerup and Rosenberg don’t think the two modes—reporting on problems and solving them—have to be mutually exclusive. And they say there are several ways to maintain impartiality even when you’re getting into the murkier business of looking for solutions. “You need to make sure you’re conservative in your language and not claiming that this is the solution to the problem,” Rosenberg says. “You want to actively avoid saying, ‘Here’s my horse in the race, and I want to actively endorse this winner.’” She suggests that journalists can do this by either reporting different solutions in a series of articles, or by cutting a big problem into bite-sized pieces and looking at who is doing better tackling each of those bites. That way, you end up with a nutritious whole.
While we’re far from living in a solutions-focused media utopia, the idea is catching on. To date, the Solutions Journalism Network has worked with more than 500 news organisations and 20,000 journalists worldwide to boost civic engagement and positively engage readers with stories that build trust and depolarise discourse. And back in Scandinavia, Haagerup’s vision appears to have taken hold: Norway’s public service station has decided that constructive journalism’s principles should underpin not just all news, but all content, including children’s programming and narrative dramas. “They’ve made the purpose of the station to help solve common problems by creating a feedback mechanism that can help society improve or self-correct,” Haagerup says, adding that the Swedish public station has done the same, and his institute is currently training the Danes.
Aspiring constructive journalists don’t need to jump on a plane to Denmark or New York to get involved. Both Haagerup and Rosenberg’s organisations offer courses and training for newsrooms, educators, and individual journalists alike. There are scores of interactive toolkits available on Solutions Journalism’s Learning Lab, which also offers free monthly training for anyone interested. The Constructive Institute runs a fellowship and produces more traditional print-out materials.
If this speaks to you, you don’t need to wait for top-down change. You can start with one solution—one story of someone who has fixed the world instead of broken it. Then ask yourself: what now, and how?