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…and my fellowship at Constructive Institute

By Jack Meehan

 

The 2020 Constructive Journalism Project

 

Due to COVID-19, this one month fellowship has actually happened on the second anniversary of the Constructive Journalism Project that Ben Bilua and I won in 2020. The competition in Australia was generously supported by the Judith Nielsen Institute and the Journalism Education & Research Association of Australia. 

My journalism lecturer at Swinburne University said the competition would be worth taking a shot at. I hadn’t heard of constructive journalism before then, but I imagined it was analogous to a democratic solutions-focused reporting style. 

Is Constructive Journalism a set of rules, a map, a destination or a bridge? What impact will my time in Aarhus have on my own journey?

 

The Fellowship

What a welcome! I have been surrounded with courtesy and consideration. Everybody in the institute has been accommodating and generous with their time, answering all of my questions and listening to me struggle to articulate my ideas. Despite a different culture and language, I didn’t feel like I was on the outside. Although Ben and I’s small fellowships were much shorter than the others’, I think what I experienced was a great vertical slice of the wider Constructive fellow’s experience; meeting, learning, experimenting, presenting and reporting

Talking with the fellows and visitors of the institute showed me new possibilities. I saw constructive processes being created for different niches, not strictly journalism. 

I saw research for many things, constructive reporting on particular topics and issues, like Thomas’ on health inequality, Anne’s on science, Mads’ on infrastructure. Constructive reporting in various modes and formats, like Michael’s on freelancing and Mette’s on visual stories. There was ancillary research, like Jesper and Nanna’s work on constructive teaching and the didactics of constructiveness, and work on making particular media houses more constructive as well. 

In Australia, most journalists in mainstream media are budget and time constrained. There is very little accommodation for the audience-driven or solutions-driven forms. There is a particular challenge around the very high levels of media concentration, where audiences are rejecting what seems to be clear political bias, where the interests of media owners are mapped onto the political landscape through agenda-setting and formal or informal mainstream media campaigns. 

The resulting headlines, “investigations” and puff pieces increase audience disenchantment, further weakening the readership and trust in the mastheads, and abandonment for digital media.  

How do I integrate these new perspectives and processes for a wider Australian context? While I figure that out, I may as well start with myself and lead by example.





Take-aways

Constructive Journalism rests on three pillars; finding solutions, truth and community. The journalist is encouraged to be curious, not judgemental or dramatic, exploring nuance, and inviting audiences into conversations about the process of knowledge gathering and creating collaborative outcomes. Instead of being a judge, jury and executioner, the journalist facilitates understanding.

There are many interesting ideas posed by Constructive Journalism; a lot are things that feel natural and intuitive to me, even though I hadn’t heard them articulated before, like I was hearing something I didn’t know I already agreed with. 

For me, this has really exemplified the agreeability and do-ability of Constructive Journalism; it isn’t just a list of abstract ideals. There is real will and ambition behind the process of Constructive Journalism, as well as the ideals and goals. 

There is a great practical extent and depth to which solutions, nuances and community can be developed. There is a raft of ideas and concepts to be learned from Constructive Journalism, but they have been underpinned by processes to achieve them that are fairly comprehensive and understandable, such as the method of finding and developing how you may report solutions to a problem.

One interesting idea about Constructive Journalism I have been struck by was that a large portion of constructive stories can be identified by the written content and form of the introduction, in part, the intention of the piece. This was counterintuitive to my initial notion that Constructive Journalism was supposed to be focused on solutions or nuance from the view of an authoritative journalist, who naturally wants to make longer pieces where solutions are proposed in the end. 

Constructive Journalism aims to be circular in its interaction with its community of readers and contributors. Journalism can be practised with a public spirit; written from the view of a collaborative journalist, who has and maintains their authority, but does not use it to separate themselves from readers or the audience, and condescend them from an ivory tower. Of course, this practice requires balance. 

The ease of identifying, as well as reading, a constructive piece of journalism from the audience’s point of view makes Constructive Journalism more valuable when you can signal to the reader that you intend to make them smarter, rather than just more informed. Constructive journalism also aims to be open ended in its reporting generally; being frank when we don’t have a solution or finality for an issue and guiding readers through this uncertainty. Constructive Journalism aims to be as clear and precise as possible, but it is also comfortable with uncertainty.

Much of the above is practised by traditional journalism, but the need for the development of these ideas in the first place is evidence that these ideas are not being widely instituted in traditional journalism.





How should Constructive Journalism be compared to traditional journalism?

One of the most important and tangible impacts of Constructive Journalism throughout its development has been the introduction of new vocabulary and language to describe how, through its conception, journalism could and should be. 

In a linguistic sense, Constructive Journalism’s language has been developed through its gradual emancipation from the terminology, identity and ensuing culture of traditional journalism. While the language of Constructive Journalism does inform its concepts, it also exists on its own as descriptors of constructive news writing itself. 

These core concepts of Constructive Journalism provide a framework to guide which story and angle a journalist may write, but the language of Constructive Journalism itself provides a framework to guide the journalist in creating a form that embodies its content, helping make the story constructive by terming, describing its structure and form. 

These frameworks, built in reference to traditional journalism, naturally invite comparison.

From the outside, Constructive Journalism may appear as a set of dogmatic mandates, targeted at, and thrust upon, journalists. Certainly some of the learning experiences and principles of the concept are instructive and principled, some even being based on the same principles as the vast majority of western journalism that many see as being dogmatic. 

Some might say it is like an ideology. The appeal of Constructive Journalism’s principles and values, as opposed to traditional journalism, are clearer when journalists shift the lens with which they view how the world and journalistic practices are currently, and how they should be, in time, when the principles are enacted and values adopted. 

This tension between world-views, how it is and how it should be, can become self-fulfilling, as the perceived rejection of Constructive Journalism can reinforce the view that journalism today suffers an ethical deficiency under late-stage capitalism. Inversely, traditional journalism proposes its rejection as evidence of journalism suffering a moral deficiency under that same late-stage capitalism. 

This can translate to a reading of Constructive Journalism as being “soft” journalism that aims to dull those traditional principles of criticism and authority that many journalists have cut their teeth on, some of whom have already reached a similar conclusion. But it is also likely the larger majority of journalists are ready to practise, or are already practising, Constructive Journalism, or at least something else analogous to it.

In this regard, Constructive Journalism aims to put a name to things many journalists have already been doing. 

The reading of the two concepts, as being two sides of the same coin, in contravention to one another, does have a practical basis. Constructive Journalism requires a point for comparison, however an overemphasis on this frame of reference isn’t always necessary and in most cases misses why Constructive Journalism is as referential to traditional journalism as it is; not to become a replacement that obfuscates the foundational principles of traditional journalism, but as an addition to those principles.

 


 

This fellowship has allowed me to look at the question of ‘why do I want to do journalism?’ more deeply, and how a constructive practice would help me be more effective in exploring solutions and engaging audiences.

The practice of Constructive Journalism itself is not a reason to do journalism, however constructive form and practice can make purpose more evident, allowing clearer signposts and more satisfying or resonant destinations. The purpose should be evident in the form, holding reader and content together, facilitating deep and continuing audience and community engagement.

This time has helped me to begin to explore how audiences can be motivated by external structures and framework, and to be more conscious and deliberative about structuring.

Constructive journalism offers a framework that adds onto the aspirations of traditional journalism. Good quality traditional journalism offers nuance, is critical and is correctable. However, only focussing on news values or clickability gradually peels away audiences who face many questions, from personal crises to existential issues at a societal scale.

What is needed is inventiveness, creating places for work that disturbs, excites and challenges. Not just long form, but many layered multiforms that are rich enough for audiences to continue to explore, and where the structure and solutions come from and work through community concerns.

I hope that I have started on the process of integrating Constructive Journalism principles not just as a way to parse the subject matter but also as a flexible visioning, research guiding and story shaping process.

Although at present the Fellowship has opened more questions than I even know how to gain answers for, I have gained not just a toolkit, an exploratory attitude and hope for the future of journalism.




About the author

In late 2020 then-journalism students Jack Meehan (from Swinburne University) and Ben Bilua (from the University of the South Pacific) were announced as the winners of two fellowships to attend Constructive Institute. They were selected from hundreds of students, across 27 institutions, who submitted stories for The Junction‘s Constructive Journalism: Making a Difference 2020 project: A project funded by the Judith Neilson Institute. Covid-19 intervened, disrupting air travel and so the fellowships were put on hold until late 2022.

Both are now back in Australia and Solomon Islands, processing what they learned. This is Jack Meehan’s fellowship reflection.

Visit Jack’s website