One of the biggest challenges publishers face in the modern era is reader disengagement. People’s attention spans are now at an all-time low. A study by Microsoft found that humans now have attention spans shorter than that of the goldfish.
One of the reasons for this reader disengagement may be the fact that news coverage has become increasingly negative… a consequence of the “if it bleeds, it leads”, tragedy-focused journalism strategy we have seen dominating the news world lately.
To offset this unfortunate trend, we are now seeing a rise in constructive journalism, with increasing engagement from both the public and the press. With consumer news fatigue and outright rejection increasingly contributing to reader disengagement, there’s a need for an urgent cure, a sustainable solution.
According to Craig Silverman, editor of BuzzFeed Canada, there is “a silent majority that is actually tired of news”, and constructive stories, which focus on solutions and responses to problems, make readers less cynical about the news that is presented to them.
A report from the Engaging News Project also found that people engage more with content that is solutions focused.
As the name suggests, constructive journalism focuses on more positive aspects of the stories being covered. It’s not glossing over the important issues of the day in favor of feel-good fluff; rather this is a holistic practice that attempts to present a fuller, more accurate picture, while also highlighting solutions to the problems presented.
Constructive journalism has been gradually moving from certain niche journalism and activist circles to the mainstream news arena. Recent examples include BBC’s 100 Women Challenge and the Upside series by the Guardian.
There has been an increase in focus on constructive journalism of late. Earlier this month, the Guardian organized a discussion on the impact of the modern news cycle on our health and wellbeing, and whether a greater focus on positive, hopeful, solution-based stories could help to mitigate this.
The Guardian’s team was joined by some journalists and academics who are studying this issue, including Dr Denise Baden, an Associate Professor within the University of Southampton Business School, whose research has looked into how people are affected by positive and negative news stories, who joined Seán Dagan Wood, the publisher of Positive News – a current affairs magazine about progress and possibility (Sean is also the co-founder of the Constructive Journalism Project) and Giselle Green, Editor of Constructive Voices, an NCVO (National Council for Voluntary Organisations) project encouraging a more constructive, solutions-based approach to news coverage.
Also participating were Mark Rice-Oxley, the Guardian’s head of special projects and series’ editor of The Upside – bringing together journalism that uncovers real solutions, and the Guardian’s Executive editor for membership, Lee Glendinning.
The discussion focused on the effects of negative news on our mental health, how it affects our trust in the media, why negative news has historically been more prevalent at the expense of positive, solutions-focused, constructive news, and whether a more balanced picture of the world lead to greater empowerment and individual actions to make things better. (Download the full podcast here.)
At a newsrewired panel with speakers running a range of constructive projects, participants—many of whom you know from the podcast discussion earlier—talked about the pitfalls of our existing journalistic system, and the potential benefits of a more constructive approach.
Mark Rice-Oxley, from the Guardian, stressed that it’s important that journalists realize that “we aren’t just a mirror to society, as many in journalists would describe themselves as. We do shape society, sometimes by magnifying horrible things such as with suicide coverage fuelling copycat effects.”
This could lead to “news fatigue” or aversion, and more constructive content can keep readers engaged, especially younger audiences, mentioned Julia Migné, co-founder of INKLINE, an international media platform that features positive news.
It’s almost a rejection of the traditional model. Especially in the last few years, it’s been tiring to see the constant negativity and you might feel like you’d rather not read the news at all.
The panel agreed on the difficulty of the task ahead, noting that complex issues can’t have quick fixes, and with limited resources, constructive journalism can be a hard sell to mainstream media.
The good news is that constructive journalism also has demonstrable benefits for newsrooms. User engagement for constructive stories is higher, and they are often among the most shared content. They are easier to consume, and readers tend to spend more time on such pieces.
The panel also observed that constructive news has been “taking off” over the last few years, which is probably because news consumers are becoming more conscious and critical, and are wanting to be engaged.
“If the traditional outlets won’t bring more constructive stories to their audience, the readers may find a way to fill that demand themselves proactively by choosing other outlets,” notes Christian Jensen of journalism.co.uk.