How journalism can help us all create a brighter future
Journalism needs an overhaul. It is time for a better form of journalism, and that is not a criticism of journalists, and it is not even about the struggling economic model that is supposed to fund journalism. Let’s lay on the table at the outset that most journalists are aiming to do the right thing. However, journalism as a profession has lost its way so that even the most high-minded of journalists are operating under a pressure that leads to producing mostly useless distraction. This article is about the move towards creating a paradigm of journalistic practice that can revitalise the essential societal institution that is journalism and, more importantly, the society in which it operates.
A loss of trust
Around the world there is a profound disintegration in trust in societal institutions, including in democracy itself. At the heart of that meltdown is journalism. Faith and interest in what journalism has to offer is at an all-time low. Although we are at the nadir now, in truth the decline in journalism’s reputation goes back more than a century. In 1919, American author Upton Sinclair wrote in his book The Brass Check, “When you read your daily paper, are you reading facts or propaganda?” That concern about the value of what journalism produces is reaching fever pitch in the 21st century.
In June 2022, the News and Media Research Centre at the University of Canberra released the Digital News Report (DNR): Australia 2022. The report is part of a global research project across 46 countries co-ordinated by the University of Oxford. The findings included that in Australia 68 per cent of respondents actively avoid the news and only 41 per cent trust what they see or hear reported. There is no doubt that the public perceives that journalism is letting them down, and 62 per cent of people surveyed felt they had encountered misinformation in the previous week. The report concluded, “many are cynical about news media organisations and believe they are putting their political and commercial interests ahead of the
needs of society.”
This report lines up with a consistent theme in surveys about modern journalism. The Reuters Digital News Report for 2020, in which 75,000 respondents across 40 countries took part, showed that 39 per cent of respondents said that media is too negative, 32 per cent said they avoid the news often or sometimes and 28 per cent said that is because they don’t feel there is anything they can do about what is being reported.
All of this accumulated negativity is resulting in people thinking that the world is headed in the wrong direction. In a survey of 10,000 people aged 16 to 25, published in 2021 in The Lancet Planetary Health, 75 per cent said they thought “the future is frightening.” It is no wonder that the ambient feeling is concern, when journalism disseminates outrage and pessimism rather than knowledge, confidence and understanding.
The good news is that it does not have to be this way, but before we get to the better model of journalism we can create, it helps to understand where we have gone wrong.
Challenges and churnalism
In his 2018 book Breaking News: The Remaking of Journalism and Why It Matters Now, Alan Rusbridger, former editor-in-chief of The Guardian, wrote, “We are, for the first time in modern history, facing the prospect of how societies would exist without reliable news.” There are a few reasons why the reliability of journalism has been undermined.
Since the late 1800s journalism has been largely funded by advertising, with the result that the mainstream journalism product has not been so much about the content but about gaining attention. Niche publications are a little different, because attention to the content is already granted by the reader, but in the generalist world of mainstream media the attention economy has produced screaming headlines and clickbait content.
The result is that journalism fails in its fundamental promise, to keep us informed about what is happening in the world. Instead, it shows us the unusual, the horrible and the sensational. This skews our view of the world and other humans, having us thinking about the things that we don’t necessarily need to be thinking about. “If it bleeds, it leads” is a journalistic dictum, and it means that what is covered is not only sensational, but also negative.
So the economic philosophy of modern journalism leads it to produce negativity, but there are other challenges too.
Social media and blog sites have allowed unreasoned opinion to be disseminated as truth, and people can easily, more easily than ever, simply search out the silo of information that will reinforce what they want to believe. Balanced, substantive journalism struggles in that environment. At the same time the advent of “dot.coms” has choked off a reliable source of revenue for media in the form of classifieds and other advertising. The difficulty in maintaining advertising revenue has meant that journalistic jobs have been shed, repeatedly. Admittedly, the News Media Bargaining Code in Australia has helped. Legislation was passed in February 2021 meaning that in Australia digital entities like Google and Facebook must pay media outlets for the news stories they run. It seems absurd that for a while these online entities could use content produced by other organisations for free, but in fact it is still happening around the world, and countries are looking at the Australian model to make organisations like Google and Facebook pay for what they use. In Australia, it has meant that more money has flowed to media organisations and more journalists are being employed as a result. It has not reversed the losses of recent decades, however, and journalistic standards have still been eroded.
To understand how this erosion affects journalism in practice, consider the example, published in the UK Tribune magazine, given by one journalist who, understandably, wants to remain anonymous. They say, “Every story I wrote came from me being asked to essentially plagiarise other news stories for clicks. The editors would see that a particular story was doing well on social media and would ask people to rip them.”
This not the experience of every single journalist. Certainly, there are a few journalists who have the luxury of detailed original reporting. There are also some who choose a freelance lifestyle, and the uncertainty that goes with it, who can make their own decisions as to how and what they write. Yet the model of journalists pumping out attention-grabbing rubbish, reporting puerile trends on social media and copying stories from elsewhere for fear that they will lose their job is all too real and pervasive. In fact, it has been given a name by award-winning journalist Nick Davies who incisively dubbed it “churnalism”.
All of these pressures have led to the broken model of journalism and its two most recognisable forms: “breaking news” and “investigative reporting”.
Breaking and blaming
A key feature of the failed journalistic model is that it is only about today. After every major societal shock from Black Summer Bushfires, to COVID, to the economic impact of the war in Ukraine, we ask, “Why didn’t we see this coming?” This is because these things arise out of phenomena that take place every day (climate change, viral drift and Russian foreign policy) rather than something that happens spectacularly on one day. Things that happen all the time aren’t conducive to generating click-through or headlines, but they are the things that matter because they are what shapes our world, and that is what journalism should be talking about. Instead, journalism tends to either focus on what sensational thing happened or who to blame.
The breaking news model of journalism looks at what is happening now and is dependent on speed, ideally beating other journalists to the story. It focuses on what happened and when it happened, and is sensationalist.
A thought-step up from breaking news is investigative journalism. This style really goes back to the 1960s and 1970s and the Watergate incident. The focus of investigative reporting is what happened yesterday to lead up to the present moment, and it usually seeks to assign blame. It will ask who did things and why they did things, and sees the issues in terms of victims and wrongdoers. It was Watergate journalist Carl Bernstein who said that this investigative style is about obtaining “the best obtainable version of the truth”. There is value in that proposition, it is certainly better than just acting as a mouthpiece for a politician or business owner, but it is still not enough. Breaking news and investigative reporting have their place, but they do not generate positive outcomes, which is where journalism can do better.
A constructive solution
Obsession with blame and sensation distract us from what journalism is supposed to be about. That is, helping the public understand the world well enough so that a reasoned discussion can be had about what needs to be done.
Journalists need to get outside the news cycle, read widely and listen to people outside the PR circuit. There are people doing work on the better model of journalism, and sometimes this better journalism is called “solutions journalism”, but that is by no means the only term used. For instance, the Constructive Institute runs out of Aarhus University in Denmark, and it advocates “constructive journalism”. Regardless of what we call it, what matters is what this better form of journalism looks like.
The starting point for better journalism is that it should be inspirational and should be about the future. It is fine to consider the past but only as a way of understanding the present, and constructive journalism then asks what comes next and how can it be achieved. Rather than the drama or critique that characterises breaking or investigative news models, constructive journalism will be interested and curious. Importantly, the end goal of constructive journalism will be to facilitate the discovery and application of solutions in a best-practice way.
Ulrik Haagerup, founder and CEO of the Constructive Institute, sums up the philosophy of constructive journalism by saying, “We claim that trusted information ought to be a human right and is a common good. We believe that the main mission of constructive journalism is not primarily
to save journalism from itself or to help a struggling media business. It is to reinstall trust in the idea that shared facts, shared knowledge and shared discussions are the pillars on which our society balances.”
In some ways this might seem like utopian thinking, but that response in itself probably arises out of the cynicism that infests the old models of journalism. Constructive, solutions-based journalism is not a fairy-tale objective. The history of humanity is a history of progress against the odds, and this is a moment when journalism can make a progressive leap, and we need it to. As David Bornstein, co-founder of the Solutions Journalism Network in the United States, says, “You can’t hold people to account for bad performance if you can’t prove that it’s possible to do better.”
This is the key point: a better journalism, constructive journalism, solutions-based journalism is a not an indulgent ideal, it is an immensely practical and necessary pursuit that we need now more than ever. Jay Rosen is a professor of journalism at New York University, and in his keynote speech at the opening of the Bonn Institute in April 2022 he observed, “Solutions journalism is not only gathering good information and reporting on ‘fixes’ that work; it’s distributing that practical knowledge to the people who need it to solve their own community’s problems. Put it all together and it is public service at a high level.”
Good journalism is expensive, it takes time, and it is a partnership. It is a partnership with you, the consumer of the journalism and a member of the community that the journalism serves. Journalists should not be the lackeys of those in political power, they should not prostitute themselves to business and they should not sit in an ivory tower deciding what is to be talked about. Journalists should be a partnered voice for the community, allowing reasoned discussion of the things that matter in order to find the best available ways forward. Your role in enabling that is crucial.
Rob Wijnberg, journalist and publisher, says, “I believe that humanity’s fate is best served by sharing knowledge and experience instead of outrage and fear. Together, we can still understand the world, and a world that we can understand is a world we can change.”
As a start, be prepared to pay and be prepared to be informed rather than titillated. Manage your expectations, your time and your money. Take the time to find journalism outlets that offer reasoned, thoughtful, inspiring stories that suggest solutions rather than assigning blame. Support journalism that shows the way forward by being prepared to pay for it and give it your time. Between us, we can construct a future that will sustain everybody.