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Let’s Get Galtung Right

Ulrik Haagerup, CEO and Founder of Constructive Institute on Johan Galtung

February 2024

A giant misunderstanding in the media industry still defines the criterea of news. As the Norwegian scientist Johan Galtung passed away mid February 2024 at the age of 93, international news media mentioned him as the man behind the criteria, which journalists around the world to this day use to filter the world for the public: Conflict and sensation being two of them.Johan Galtung would have hated that this should be his legacy. “It’s a total misunderstanding,” Johan Galtung explained to Constructive Institute, when we met him in his home in Spain in 2019.Normally he would no longer speak to journalists, because he felt misused.

At Constructive Institute, after our launch in 2017,  we were trying to find out, why news media so often still angle so many stories on fear, drama, conflict and something extreme. We found that Johan Galtung and the Norwegian researcher Mari Holmboe Ruge published the first academic article about news back in 1965. Before that time journalism was a manual craft without much definitions and theory behind it.

And in that academic work the two Norwegian researchers on peace, defined 12 critiea, which four newspapers in Norway in the early 1960s used to prioritize the content they published. Those 12 criteria were in later decades in newsrooms often concentrated to 5: Importance, identification, sensation, actuality and conflict. And for decades this is with variations what to this day new generations of reporters are being taught in journalism schools. In Denmark every new journalist are taught about the so called AVISK-criteria that defines news.

But when reading though the original almost 60 years old academic article we suddenly realized that the research paper was not a reciepe for news: It was a warning to society and the news industry on the consequences to society, if news media continued to filter the world in this way.The way news media describe the world will lead to a growing tension between the center and the peripheries. And it will give the public a too negative picture of the world, we could read.

How could this be? And was Galtung still alive, at 89 and if so whree was he? We jumped into a plane to Spain, where Johan Galtung lived with his wife.

I was describing what news media did and warned against that way of filtering the world. But they think they are perfect, so news media used my research to describe what should be done instead of what was done. The consequences are many. One of them is the effect on politicians. It makes them negative, instead of focusing on the good things they what to construct,” Johan Galtung said.

We invited him as a keynote speaker at our 2nd Global Constructive Journalism Conference in Geneva in 2019, where he repeated, that he never meant for us to see the criteria as future guidelines for great journalism. On the contrary, we should see his research as a reminder of what we have already had too much focus on in the media, and he argued how important it is for journalism and the society that we cover to balance our reporting to not only the negative, but also the positive. 

We call that Constructive journalism.

Thank you Johan Galtung. Rest in peace.