The world is not all black or white: constructive journalism breaks the negativity bias adding nuances and closing the gap between scientists and journalists
News fatigue and the problem with all-time coverage
Most people feel worn out by the amount of news there is today, a feeling that has persisted for several years and it’s linked to different factors. Data present in journalism nowadays is often overestimated.
The perception of the people distorted; it’s a phenomenon that covers topics from job unemployment and criminality to climate change, making people believe that the situation is worse than it actually is.
Since we’re overloaded by the amount of information we are getting from different platforms, we eventually find out whether it was about a lie or not. What happens when people find out? They stop trusting news.
This year ESMH Summer School offered journalists a great opportunity to tell complex stories dealing with a hard-to-face reality that is climate change. The summer summit covered not just climate but all news regarding this topic.
From a statistic shown by Kristoffer Frøkjær from The Danish School of Media and Journalism at said event, the trust in media coverage raised significantly in 2020 during Coronavirus.
But still only 44% of the world population trust news and media today; since the majority of them is always looking for the best obtainable version of the truth. When people don’t trust news they avoid it, actively or at times, because they think it negatively affects their mood.
The change in approach: constructive journalism
Constructive journalism is a response to increasing tabloidization, sensationalism and negativity bias present in the news media, a response that doesn’t rely on overemphasizing negativity, but aims to provide audiences with a fair, accurate and contextualized picture of the world.
Perhaps some might think that constructive journalism is a syllogism for positive news – like the fireman picking up the kitten from a tree – which could momentarily cheer you up and forget about the surrounding situation.
Instead, journalism of this kind focuses on solutions, and tries not to cover topics depicting reality like it’s all black or white but exposing the problems and offering the possible solutions available.
The ambition is to contribute to democratic conversation through critical and constructive news so that people will listen to them and formulate their opinion based upon analysis rather than affirmations.
This could be achieved by getting a realistic picture of the world, and real curiosity from journalists who want to be curious and cover nuances of every story, using only information from established scientific knowledge and avoid the less established.
The media coverage of climate change
The conversation around climate change is currently shifting: from superficial understanding of a transitional event, to public concern used in deeply politicized and polarized environments; the argument has been dividing the public opinion for the use it is made of in the news.
To make people read, listen and watch climate-related journalism, stories should be about bringing solutions to the problem that is covered. If anyone has solved it, then it should be about the possibility to apply that solution in another tangible context, because the people who get interested about climate change are the same who want to be guided and put forth concrete solutions.
Reported in an article written by BBC environmental analyst Roger Harrabin, a global survey illustrates the depth of anxiety many young people are feeling about climate change: around 60% said they felt very or extremely worried, ignored and abandoned by politicians and adults.
More than 45% of those questioned said feelings about the climate affected their daily lives, causing them stress, news fatigue and hopelessness, leading them to completely avoiding news.
How today’s journalism is causing hopelessness
The progressive loss of interest in news today is evident: if we take a look at the breaking news, whose category is taking over the social media platforms, it’s all about channeling immediacy and covering as much news as possible in the shortest period of time.
The goal is to arrive first than any other competitors and create drama: ‘What happened? And when did it happen?’ are the questions they look for answers for, and they want them now. This uroboros-like endless circle creates a very high amount of distress.
One of the studies carried out by Pew Research Center survey on more than 12,000 U.S., showed that about two-thirds of Americans (66%) feel worn out by the amount of news there is, while far fewer (32%) said they are trying to dose the amount they are getting.
Another category is investigative journalism, and it’s about yesterday, pointing the finger to critical decisions made by people in the past.
The difference with constructive journalism is that it tries to take it into tomorrow, to look for inspiration for solving the problems. The questions asked are ‘What now? How can we do this? How can we translate this solution into reality?’ instead of concluding with a sense of uncertainty.
Framing in climate communication to make people care
The current social pressure in society about climate change is escalating. But despite the higher news coverage, people don’t really seem to be alerted, and this feeling has been categorized as a social issue: why don’t they really care?
Psychologist and professor Espen Stoknes listed the five barriers that stop us from dealing with what the world needs – the also called five Ds, which also include the sense of Identity –.
First one is Distance: something read on the news is often perceived very far away so it doesn’t trigger us enough to take immediate action. Since it feels so far away in time and in space, the event seems outside our circle of influence, so we do nothing about it, and we feel helpless.
Second is Doom, that triggers fear, a feeling we don’t like so we quickly tend to shut it down. After the fear is gone, the brain soon wants to avoid the topic altogether; consequently, the media framing climate communication as an irreversible disaster lacking practical solutions, doesn’t help, and wants us to avoid thinking about it.
Barriers that stop us from dealing with what the world needs
Third is cognitive Dissonance, a psychological mechanism triggered when we know we’re doing something bad for the environment but at the same time we refuse to consider ourselves as bad individuals.
Blaming ourselves doesn’t feel good and again, we can’t break the pattern that led us to behaving badly. A sudden change in our behavior is very difficult and complicated; working on our cognitions to convince yourself that we are not the only ones doing can be done easily, and would be a very valuable step forward.
Final is Denial, occurring when we are suppressing information. This is felt as an inner discomfort that we try to get rid of by starting to come up with justifications.
All these issues are very known to the anti-climate movements and they use them to create doubt about relevance.
So far, climate communicators have not been able to frame them successfully. People need to want to save the planet.
The Constructive Institute
An independent center that helps journalists and news organisations to apply constructive reporting. Based in Aarhus University, Denmark