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Category
Academic Insights

Country
United States

By Karen McIntyre, PhD, associate professor and director of Graduate Studies, Virginia Commonwealth University, and
Kyser Lough, PhD, and Assistant Professor, University of Georgia.

To find out what the research actually supported, we looked at the 22 existing experimental studies. We found that solutions and constructive news stories unequivocally affect people’s emotions. These stories make people feel good, or at least less bad.

Constructive journalism has gained significant traction around the world in journalism research over the last 10 years. Both of us have studied it extensively during this time, as well as brought it to our university classrooms. Recently, we took a moment to pause and explore all that has been done in an attempt to help better define the field and see where it needs to go next.

So, what did we do?

When Karen finished her dissertation in 2015, the term “constructive journalism” did not appear in the academic literature. Now, there are more than 100 journal articles, books, and graduate theses/dissertations on the topic. In 2021, we thought it was time to take a broader look at what all this research, cumulatively, reveals about constructive and solutions journalism. We systematically gathered all the academic research studies we could find that were published at the time (through 2020). Then we carefully reviewed each one, maintaining a spreadsheet with information including the year and source of publication, geographic location of the first author, geographic focus of the content, whether the study focused on constructive or solutions journalism, how those terms were defined and measured, and what the findings were in each study. This effort resulted in two published articles (if you don’t have access to read the full articles, contact us and we’ll be glad to share them) :

What impact do constructive stories really have?

One of our primary questions was: What consistent effects are constructive/solutions news stories having on audiences? After all, we commonly hear people claim that this type of reporting could save journalism by improving trust, engagement, mental health and behaviors. To find out what the research actually supported, we looked at the 22 existing experimental studies. We found that solutions and constructive news stories unequivocally affect people’s emotions. Every study that tested emotional impact found significant results. These stories make people feel good, or at least less bad. We can say that with confidence. 

Other audience effects of constructive and solutions journalism were less consistent. Sometimes these stories gave readers a greater sense of self-efficacy, or feeling that they could contribute to the solution (three studies supported this and four refuted it. Sometimes they caused readers to say they would engage with the content, for example, by “liking” or sharing it on social media (six studies supported this, five did not, and one revealed mixed results). And, sometimes these stories caused people to actually act in prosocial ways (one study supported this, two did not, and one found mixed results). Not enough research has been conducted to speak to other possible outcomes, like constructive/solutions journalism’s impact on trust. Only one study examined trust; they revealed encouraging findings. But ultimately, we learned that it’s premature to make sweeping claims about the impacts of constructive and solutions journalism that reach beyond its emotional effects. 

Sometimes constructive stories gave readers a greater sense of self-efficacy, or feeling that they could contribute to the solution

Photograph for representational purpose only

What’s the broader state of research in this field? 

Broadly, constructive journalism is being researched world-wide, in a variety of contexts, by a growing group of scholars. There is still room to grow and there are still places and topics that need more attention, but by 2020 we already had studies focusing on 23 countries. Approximately 64% of those were North America and Europe.

The exciting and frustrating part of a new area of research is that the field is wide open for exploration. The result is an exciting body of research that approaches constructive journalism from a variety of angles, but there are still some inconsistencies among theory and definitions that we see in more-established areas of research.

Existing studies on constructive journalism are primarily focused on processes and production, such as how journalists produce the stories, how it has been implemented in news organizations or how it applies to multimedia formats. These studies help us understand the real-world implementation of constructive journalism better. Roughly one-third of the studies looked at audience effects, as detailed above.

What now?

After reviewing the state of research on constructive and solutions journalism, we offer recommendations for moving forward:

  • While we found that research on constructive/solutions journalism is a global effort, there remains an emphasis on the US and Europe. Future research should continue to internationalize this work by studying the topic in the lesser-studied continents such as Africa, Asia and Latin America. This includes both more publications from authors in these regions as well as more research on the implementation of constructive/solutions journalism in these areas.
  • We recommend scholars use the most common definitions of these approaches in the literature thus far in an effort to create conceptual clarity. Specifically, we propose that constructive journalism be regarded as an umbrella term that encompasses several ways to practice socially responsible journalism, and solutions journalism be described as one form of constructive journalism.
  • We recommend future experimental studies testing the effects of solutions and constructive journalism continue to clarify the other main effects variables—perceived efficacy, behavioral intentions and actual behaviors—as well as additional variables including interest, attitudes, knowledge (real or perceived), trust, recall, persistence, and perception of journalistic standards. Clear and consistent findings in these areas will complement the emotion findings and allow us to better understand the impacts of these practices. 
  • We recommend continued efforts to connect scholars and practitioners to create more cohesion between the practice of constructive/solutions journalism and the academic study of it. 

While we found that research on constructive/solutions journalism is a global effort, there remains an emphasis on the US and Europe. Future research should continue to internationalize this work by studying the topic in the lesser-studied continents such as Africa, Asia and Latin America.

Note that our research included a review of studies published through 2020. Of course, scholars have published more research on constructive and solutions journalism since then. To view the latest publications, check out Kyser’s public bibliography of solutions and constructive journalism research.