By Karen McIntyre Hopkinson, journalism professor at the Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture at Virginia Commonwealth University, and Nicole Smith Dahmen, associate professor at the School of Journalism and Communication at the University of Oregon
The Democratic Republic of Congo is a country plagued by political instability, violent conflict, poverty, and disease. The DRC is one of the poorest countries in the world, and the majority of news stories reflect that truth. But that is not the only truth. It is also true, and equally newsworthy, that “the world’s most troubled country” is on the brink of eradicating a deadly disease. As The Guardian reporter Sarah Boseley describes in her 2018 article on the topic, “Congolese doctors are finally winning the battle with sleeping sickness,” a deadly insect-borne infection classified as a neglected tropical disease.
While that news is certainly promising, there are challenges, including a shortage of doctors, long waits for effective drugs, and patients who are hard to reach or don’t seek medical treatment. But despite these challenges, doctors have seen a more than 96% drop in the number of cases of sleeping sickness in the past 20 years.
Boseley received the Future of Journalism Award for her story, called “The Big Sleep.” The award, given by the Solutions Journalism Network and Constructive Institute, recognized the story not only for its solutions-based focus, but for its balance and context, and for contributing to a fuller and more accurate portrayal of the Congo, and the world.
The story is just one example of what we refer to as productive and socially responsible reporting. Productive reporting practices push the conversation forward, engage and empower audiences, and seek to create meaningful impact. Socially-responsible journalism considers society’s best interests by covering the news beyond the problem-based narrative, by reporting with depth and embracing complexity, and by emphasizing connection and collaboration with the community. To be clear, journalistic practices that do these things are not positive news or fluff reporting intended to create feel-good pieces.
In a time of journalistic disruption, an overabundance of negative news (heightened by the COVID-19 pandemic), extreme political partisanship, and low levels of public trust in the news media, we believe productive, socially responsible forms of reporting that go beyond the typical problem-based narrative offer a way forward.
Sarah Boseley received the Future of Journalism Award for her story, called “The Big Sleep.”
Why Journalists Need To Report Beyond The Problem
Right now, people aren’t listening. At least not as much as they used to and not as much as journalists would like them to. One reason is because the news can be depressing and stressful. Almost all American adults (95%) say they follow the news regularly, yet more than half of them (56%) say it causes them stress.
Chances are you can relate. Who hasn’t felt the sadness, disgust, or hopelessness that leads you to switch off the TV newscast or close the browser window? Indeed, research has long documented the negative effects of consuming (especially television) news. Negative news can cause people to feel less emotionally stable, increasing sadness and anxiety, and these emotional states can affect our thoughts and behaviors, leading us to think less of strangers and entire communities, to distrust our political leaders, and to catastrophize our own worries. And we wonder why people aren’t willing to pay for news.
In addition to perceiving the news as depressing and stressful, the public also questions its accuracy. Seventy-two percent of American adults say the media blow things out of proportion. Perhaps that also helps explain why they are losing trust in journalists. In 2016, only 6% of Americans had a “great deal of confidence” in the news media—an all-time low.
In addition—or perhaps in response—to anxiety and loss of trust, the public is disengaging. Audiences for nearly every major sector of the U.S. news media fell in 2017. A survey of individuals who cut back on their viewing of local broadcast news found they did so because the stories were too negative, too often about crime and too infrequently included positive stories. And of course all of these problems come on top of well documented devastating financial losses in the news industry since the turn of the century, including massive newsroom closures, layoffs and declines in advertising revenue resulting from the growth of the Internet. COVID is making the financial picture even more bleak.
Socially Responsible Reporting – “it’s just good journalism”
Socially responsible reporting approaches—including constructive journalism, solutions journalism, peace journalism as well as other well documented and emerging reporting forms—offer a way forward. These approaches hold true to journalism’s professional values—seek truth, minimize harm, act independently, be accountable and transparent—while implementing productive, socially-responsible reporting approaches that inform the public with the understanding that our democracy cannot prosper without an informed populace.
Socially responsible reporting approaches—including constructive journalism, solutions journalism, peace journalism as well as other well documented and emerging reporting forms—offer a way forward.
We absolutely still need journalism to document and uncover problems. Whether it be breaking news about gun violence or an in-depth investigative report on systematic failures in a public school system, shining light in dark places and holding the powerful accountable is a critical journalist role. But the news media have a duty to go beyond pointing out problems. As the academics Kovach & Rosenstiel argue:
The press should recognize where powerful institutions are working effectively as well as where they are not. How can the press purport to monitor the powerful if it does not illustrate successes as well as failures? Endless criticisms lose meaning, and the public has no basis for judging good from bad (p. 174).
We agree with journalists such as Boseley: Giving the whole contextualized and complicated picture beyond the problem would benefit both journalism and society.
The above is an excerpt from the introduction of It’s just good journalism: Eight approaches to productive and socially responsible reporting, published in fall 2020.