It’s been a while since I’ve been asked to write something that I was uncomfortable with – and I don’t mean out of my depth uncomfortable but morally uncomfortable. I’ve never done a tabloid scandal piece; I’m sure if I did I would have to cry myself to sleep, personally. Yet sometimes during my journalism course things I’ve been told are acceptable or certain ‘news values’ niggle away at me.
I’ve always questioned things I’ve been taught and studying journalism is no exception. Being told to write down quotes only after an interview has been officially declared over was one such piece of advice which made me look at my lecturer skeptically.
News values are a major part of teaching on most print/broadcast courses. We’re taught the basics like cultural similarity (with the UK in our case), a story having to have reached a certain ‘threshold’ of intensity before being reported, or reference to something negative such as a tragedy, etc. It’s strange to think that instead of trying to highlight the good in the world, sometimes it appears we are being taught to solely focus on playing to our ingrained negativity bias.
Steven Pinker, an experimental psychologist and popular science author, argues that because more people than ever are living in peace, it shouldn’t feel like the whole world is shrouded in gloom. More are surviving infancy, there has been less genocide than in previous decades and wars now do not reach the fatality level of wars that took place in the mid-20th century.
How the news is chosen and written is very selective. This is a fact that most journalism students come to terms with; scandal, war and death sell.
Despite the moral ambiguity of some stories, journalism students are not really encouraged to question the norm, and not until recently.
I only learned about the concept of constructive journalism through a seminar held by the Constructive Journalism Project, hosted by Danielle Batiste. This was an optional seminar which was held out of course hours for all the journalism students at my university – only about 18 or 20 attended and that included the masters students.
Constructive journalism is defined by the Constructive Journalism Project as: “rigorous, compelling reporting that includes positive and solution-focused elements in order to empower audiences and present a fuller picture of truth, while upholding journalism’s core functions and ethics.”
Sometimes, people confuse wanting to cover more positive stories with ‘fluff’ news. Constructive journalism is not ‘fluff’ news, it’s a fair way to look at both sides of the story and show that there is hope which many news outlets refuse to recognise. If you’re saying that it’s not real journalism then you really need to evaluate why so many people feel disinterested in current affairs – is this because of the way it’s told?
Constructive journalism is not the first movement to question the way the mainstream covers events. Peace journalism is a more specific movement which obviously focuses on the issue of the coverage of war and conflict. Peace journalism, most notably pioneered by Jake Lynch and Annabel McGoldrick, focuses on conflict analysis and highlighting non-violent solutions to conflicts.
What is often said about these two movements is that we can’t expect journalists to put a hopeful spin on every story but what I’m arguing is that journalists should take at least a minute to consider if what they’ve written is really a fair representation of any issue.
There is a need for negative stories but it’s about how we report them and how many stories can imply blame instead of trying to find out the real cause(s) of the problem. Not allowing students to understand and learn about the alternative approaches to news completely decreases the amount of talent coming into journalism. Many talented students can be turned off by the one-size fits all approach.
You may be asking, what’s this got to do with morality? How you report something has everything to do with your sense of morality and integrity. Truth is seen as the epitome of good journalism but seemingly there is a bias towards ‘truth’ which unveils the monsters of society rather than the people who are solving the issues plaguing our everyday life – or at least trying to.
Whether we mean to or not, news outlets have an effect on the lives of millions through playing to their perceptions of the world.
Journalism students are taught to question everything except what they’re taught. Every course, whether NCTJ-accredited or not, should involve some basic moral code of conduct, legal studies and ethics; if just so future journalists can cover their backs.
Whether or not you agree, many academics concur that there is something intrinsically wrong with how the media has adapted to the 24-hour news cycle. Isn’t it about time we changed journalism for the better by incorporating some fairness into reporting techniques to prevent the sensationalism of the news?
Photo 1: Flickr: Tom Magliery
Photo 2: Kevin Harber