We are proud to present to you the talented constructive journalism alumni of 2022-2023.
Why did I apply to become a fellow?
As a child, I often “wandered around,” as my mother called it. I would roam around our garden without a specific purpose, getting lost in the grass in search of a four-leaf clover or exploring the kitchen garden for sprouting plants.
In many ways, my childhood self-embodied the visions of the French philosopher Michel Serres, whose work was part of the curriculum in the course “The Long Term: A Sociological Perspective on the Climate Crisis” at Aarhus University.
In the early 90s, Serres published “The Natural Contract,” where he was one of the first sociologists to address climate change and the transformations caused by industrialization, greenhouse gas emissions, consumption, and globalization.
He argued that humans need to rebuild their connections with nature, connections that have been forgotten by the elite: administrators, researchers, journalists—those who work indoors at a time when “we are physically touching the Earth globally for the first time, and tragically, we seem to ignore its response,” as Serres wrote in “The Natural Contract,” where he proposed an expansion of the social contract formulated by Jean-Jacques Rousseau in 1762.1
According to Serres, our way of relating to nature has become our biggest problem. Thus, we must approach it differently and see it as a source of life rather than an object to be exploited for our own products and lifestyles.
Serres shared his observations 30 years ago. Yet, it is only now that nature has truly become part of the public discourse. The loss of nature and species, along with the enormous challenges it poses to our planet, are starting to resonate with business leaders and politicians. In December, 196 countries agreed on a deal called the Paris Agreement for Biodiversity, which aims to protect nature to a much greater extent than today.
While I used nature as something to lose myself in as a child, the pace of society has only accelerated, and the time for daydreaming is long gone. The pace is high both in workplaces and in Danish homes. We must make the most of our time, preferably by engaging in activities that create value or promote learning.
This puts everyone under a certain amount of pressure. Some of it comes from society itself, and some from our own expectations regarding everything we need to accomplish at work and in our personal lives.
The same pressure is mounting on the media industry and journalism, where the development of social media and new media habits, especially among younger demographics, has necessitated a new business model. Advertising revenue is declining, as is the number of users.
At the moment, artificial intelligence, ChatGPT, and other language models dominate the discourse. Developments in this area are explosive and raise concerns among politicians and even within the AI industry itself.
Additionally, there is internal pressure within the media industry: the race to be first, to get the most clicks, and to have the most angles on today’s most urgent issues. The pace seems to be increasing, while journalists yearn for more time to thoroughly investigate their respective areas.
I love my work as a journalist. Gaining access to various environments and companies and uncovering issues holds great meaning for me. Since graduating as a journalist in 2012, most of my professional life has revolved around news journalism, which has naturally been characterized by delivering quickly, extensively, and on a daily basis.
It has been enjoyable and enriching to provide prompt coverage, whether it’s about Maersk’s significant investment in new ships or Danish Crown being accused of overstating their efforts in the field of climate change. The pace of journalism has also fueled my desire for immersion and more time to absorb knowledge about my current field as a journalist at Børsen Bæredygtig, covering the green transition in the business sector.
Sustainability and the green transformation are already characterized by great complexity, where agendas such as circular economy, recycling, expansion of green energy, loss of nature, and reporting on ESG intertwine and place significant demands on the journalist’s understanding and, most importantly, ability to communicate development, knowledge, and perspectives in a way that allows readers to understand what is truly happening in the field – and what is at stake for all of us in a climate and nature crisis that does not slow down on its own.
Time to thoroughly read a report or a scientific study about a subject is rare in today’s news tempo. That is why I applied to become a fellow at The Constructive Institute in Aarhus, hoping for some breathing space to reflect on journalism, gain new perspectives on our profession, and have the possibility to read in-depth instead of just skimming reports and flipping through to recommendations and conclusions.
Over the past 10 months, every week, I have met with researchers, politicians, media professionals from both Denmark and abroad. Together with my fellow fellows, I have gained access to voices that have candidly shared their views on the world, shared concerns, or interesting findings from their research. I have gained insight into troubling trends in media consumption worldwide, into the considerations of tech giants like Google and Facebook regarding future collaborations with the media, how laboratory animals in a basement under Aarhus University can pave the way for a new treatment, how being conflict-averse can lead to even more conflict, how human nature is initially inclined towards negative bias.
And the list goes on. It has been 10 months filled with knowledge and insights into areas I have not previously engaged with or have only superficially touched upon during my many years in the Danish education system.
It has been a year of reflection on my own role as a journalist and how I can do things differently when I return to my newsroom.
Trust and Time, a Recipe for Creativity
On one of the doors at Constructive Institute, there’s poster featuring ten rules for creativity, put up by a fellow who saw just how well it fit. The first rule is as follows: find a place you trust and then try trusting it for a while. When asked to explain what I’ve accomplished during my fellowship year, or why it has been life-changing in that intangible way a great journey can be life-changing, this is my response: I found a place that I genuinely trusted. And I trusted it for long enough that I inadvertently stopped feeling the pressure to perform, inadvertently began to… play.
When we play, we forget about time and place. And we forget the fear of making mistakes. Some call it flow. It’s like when a child forgets that they were supposed to be home by 6 o’clock and keeps playing football (or building sandcastles or chasing Pokémon Gos). Or when a journalist forgets that they were once burdened by deadlines and countless evaluations, and instead leans back on a sofa at Constructive Institute, enjoys a beer, writes a book, and gets 1000 new ideas every day.
When the fear of failure has disappeared, and when we (what a miracle in the midst of a busy, professional life!) have lots and lots of time, we can play for long enough that some of our games turn into projects. Some of which have the potential to transform at least a corner of the media industry – and isn’t that why we became fellows in the first place?
In other words, as fellows we receive the gifts of enough time, and of trust – to sing badly, to make a new friend, and to learn from each other essential and fun stuff (like how to cook Korean food in a New York restaurant or pay for a wife in Samoa). These gifts in turn allow for new ideas to start appearing.
And because we don’t have deadlines hanging over our heads or a million unread emails in our inbox or an evaluation that our boss will discuss with us in a meeting shortly, ideas can bubble long enough to develop through play and hard work: Many in a foolish direction (not one mentioned, not one forgotten). Many towards something quite wonderful. Most prominently when we, all fellows together, published a series of booklets for other journalists. But also, in the form of presentations, graphic recordings now hanging on walls in prominent media houses in London, interviews on Danish radio shows, the development of new methods and conversation formats…
My point is that, yes, at the Constructive Institute, we spend time discussing the idea, the concept, and the pillars of constructive journalism. We practice and engage in discussions on constructive journalism with each other and with media bosses from all over. However, the constructive impact that the fellowship leaves on the industry and (on a good day, hopefully) the world is not solely dependent on these obvious activities. To a much greater extent, it is linked to the space of trust and playfulness that exists within the Constructive Institute. The next step, then, is to maintain such a space within ourselves and bring it back safely to our deadline-packed work lives (easy, right?!) and share it with our audiences.
I met a friend at a party. He was a journalist; someone I occasionally bumped into at social events. We chatted, and he told me he was about to start a year as a fellow at something called the Constructive Institute, where he would be researching constructive journalism.
I reacted in a way that I have since grown quite used to having other journalists react when I tell them that I am now a fellow of the Constructive Institute myself: I launched into some knee-jerk reaction about how journalism ‘is about conflict and debate, good vs evil’, or, as a guest lecturer from The Sun newspaper who once visited my journalism college in London put it, “Every story has to have a fucker and a fuckee” – in other words, someone doing something bad, and someone having something bad done to them. There had to be conflict, and it was the journalist’s job to elucidate that conflict. Turn it up to 11. Someone had to be blamed for something, exposed as a wrong-doer, and there needed to be victims. The worse the situation, the better.
I calmed down a little. My next thought was this: ‘Actually, it’s possible that I’ve been doing constructive journalism for most of my career, without realising it.’ The thought after that: what if I could take ten months off to find out more, to take a step back from a 25 year writing career, and refresh my approach to my work?
After all, if I am lucky, I might have another 25 years of working life to fill. I wanted to make that as meaningful as possible.
My friend listened patiently and then calmly explained that constructive journalism can still expose problems, report on wars and disasters, and take dodgy politicians to task just like conventional reporting. Despite its Danish origins, constructive journalism was definitely not hygge – journalism. Nor was it advertorial or PR puffery.
I was also already well aware that there is a crisis in journalism, and that a crisis in journalism has a direct impact on democracy. For years journalists have been telling the same story about their industry: News media is in decline, social media has stolen its content and advertisers, and audiences are turning to streaming services, or podcasts. Surveys support our fears: whether in print, digital formats or flow TV, people are avoiding news and current affairs in increasing numbers.
The general public seem to have had enough of a media diet of disasters, political gossip and emotional porn. They are tired of the rolling earthquake death tolls and mass shootings in America. Doomy climate change coverage makes them feel hopeless. And they are wise to click-bait headlines which promise that we “will be shocked” or that we “won’t believe” what they are about to tell us about Kim Kardashian, or whoever.
Perhaps constructive journalism might have some of the answers? I applied to become a fellow, but assumed that as a foreigner, and even worse, a freelancer, I stood little chance of being accepted. Somehow, though, the administrators at the institute felt I was worth taking a chance on.
Since completing the fellowship, I’ve learned more about what constructive journalism is, what it involves, and why it’s important. And I have also had time to explore new avenues of knowledge.
In my ten months as a fellow I was afforded the great privilege of following courses at Aarhus University; we were also visited by a stream of fascinating guests in the institute lounge; and we enjoyed memorable trips to visit media houses, tech companies and universities in London, Oxford, Copenhagen and San Francisco. Above all, there was a constant dialogue among the fellows about our trade, its future, and the changes we might be able to implement.
I have a few reflections about taking constructive journalism out into the real world. Constructive stories can be a hard sell to readers more used to conflict and friction: there is a risk that they can be a bit preachy, dry, straight-laced or sometimes overly optimistic, verging on the Panglossian. When you remove sensationalism, you need to replace it with something else. Good writing can help: colour; simple, robust language; maybe some humour – perhaps incorporating some of the tricks of narrative non-fiction: first person reporting, strong characters, authentic dialogue, telling details and so on. I don’t know. I don’t have the recipe yet. Constructive Journalism is a work in progress, but I am convinced that old school journalism needs to change.
As Steve Jobs once said to Rupert Murdoch: “The axis today is no longer between liberal and conservative. The axis is constructive-destructive. You’ve cast your lot on the destructive side.”
Perhaps those journalists still currently clinging to a job, and those editors still clinging to a readership, need to ask themselves which side they want to be on when they look back over their careers. Constructive, or destructive? Not really such a difficult choice, is it?
Lucky Is The One Who Is Let Into The Holy Halls of the Fellowship
Constructive Institute: Write an essay about why somebody should apply for this fellowship. Me: ? Why on Earth wouldn’t anyone want to?
In short: If you get the chance to apply: Go for it! This should save you reading time. Just do it.
If you still want to know more, here we go:
There are 10 months between me stepping out of my role as editor for Involvement & Dialogue at TV 2 Kosmopol and stepping out of my role as Fellow at Constructive Institute.
I look like the same person on my work ID but I’m changed. That is what the fellowship does. It lifts you. For me, it has been great to finally know things. Like deeply know the mechanisms behind the power and value of listening and working with the people we serve. I knew it, but I didn’t know it.
Insights from academia and progressive media have helped me develop a method for BETTER LISTENING that creates a more listening mindset in the newsroom. My findings are on this website for everybody to dig into, thanks to the Constructive Institute and TrygFonden that made it possible.
What it is like to be a fellow at Constructive Institute
The fellowship experience is a whimsical realm where folk high school meets a gathering of open minded individuals, diving together into a fountain of knowledge, wisdom, friendship and inspiration from the labs of Aarhus University to the tech giants of Silicon Valley.
For me, certain aspects, narrowed down to three here, stands out:
1. The Amazing Package
So much fun, so many intellectual discussions, challenging our perspectives, and igniting our curiosity. So many shared experiences and, now, friendships for life. The interactions with brilliant minds from various fields. The delightful blend of university teachings, interactions with the professors and bright, young students at the courses. The idiotic way academics write in a crazy language that no one outside academia understands. Access to the amazing Royal Library and the democratic Folk University. The vibrant sessions in the Lounge with interesting people from all over the world. The incredible study tours. The way that I, as a fellow, have been invited to share and test my special knowledge with colleagues and leaders from the international media industry. It has been a truly unique and unforgettable adventure.
2. ‘Talk To All Kinds’: Bright Minds And Value-Adding Individuals
The fellowship bestowed upon us the gift of being exposed to a multitude of bright and knowledgeable individuals. From esteemed academics to accomplished professionals in a variety of fields – not just in the media industry which tends to be talking to itself a lot of the time. Like professor Andreas Roepstorff of AU told us during the first week at the institute: “Talk to all kinds and as many of them, while you are here.” That was good advice.
3. Your Project Matters: CI Loves To Fill Your Days
The Institute tells you that this will be an academic year of lowering your shoulders while delving into amazing resources and unexpected joys, soaking up new knowledge and perspectives, getting away from the cruel demands of everyday production. That is true. Apart from the ‘lowering of your shoulders’.
You did get your funding from a foundation that has certain expectations that you will enrich the media industry with original and helpful findings for their money. Be aware that time will fly. By January, you should be pretty sure about what you are looking for and who you want to contribute. Don’t count on getting a lot of free time at the end of the academic year to do your product, get your fellowship thesis together and write this essay. CI loves to fill your days – which is wonderful – but design, testing and production matters, too, for you as a fellow.
Can You Believe Something Like This Actually Exists?
That was the feeling I had before I became a fellow. The feeling hasn’t changed one bit. Stepping away from my professional life after three decades in the news media and once more becoming a student in the friendly city of Aarhus has been a rare gift. The chance to dive headfirst into completely new experiences with a bunch of new friends, ending up knowing things that not many others do, is rare.
Whether you’re already a pro in the constructive approach or you’re just dipping your toes into this way of thinking, it doesn’t matter. What truly matters is getting wiser and finding ways to contribute to the greater good in the most enjoyable way possible.
Like we say in Class 6: “That was a good one!”
My year as a fellow at Constructive Institute
It has …
… been amazing and privileged to be able to gain knowledge at Aarhus University. Just as it has been eye-opening – sometimes even scary – to be confronted with the cracks in your profession.
It is …
… developing and enriching to meet like-minded colleagues from other corners of the industry and exchange experiences and discuss the future of journalism.
(The fact that they’re also absolutely fantastic people makes it all the more fun!)
Everyone should experience…
… how healthy and affirming it is to relive your own fascination with our profession and most importantly be equipped with new tools to take good care of it.
I have several times …
… felt myself becoming more confused week by week. About myself, about my profession – about the world in general. But when I look back it has perhaps been the greatest gift. To shake and poke at the entrenched notions that we as journalists may have about our industry, our purpose, and incentive structures.
I would also call it…
… a kind of healthy confusion and doubt. Because it has led to valuable reflections that will probably continue to surface. It has brought new realizations and perhaps most importantly, an openness to try to do or see things differently.
In this way, …
… the many guests in the CI lounge, courses at the university or visits out of the house have both inspired and drawn threads into my professional working life, even though it is not all immediately transferable 1:1, I know that it will all still leave an imprint when I once again put my soles on the hallways of DR in Aarhus.
10 months of treasure hunting, finding ideas to improve journalism!
When was the last time you went on a treasure hunt? You should have joined the one at the Constructive Institute at Aarhus University in late March 2023. Just before lunch on a Wednesday, 10 fellows were examining a hallway under reconstruction, attempting to spot the forms of microflora from a pig’s stomach—a part of a relief from 1974.
The artist’s name is Allan Schmidt, who was also a scientist. The treasure hunt was closely connected to his way of thinking and his methods of finding inspiration. In this artwork, the inspiration came from what he had observed through an electronic microscope.
With each successful step in the treasure hunt, the fellows had to answer questions about the joy of life, placing their written answers in a small box. This provided inspiration and case stories for a journalistic series of articles about the joy of life.
Journalists often discuss engaging their readers, listeners, and viewers. Can we engage them in better and perhaps fun ways? Could a treasure hunt be a means of engagement, easily accessible to the audience once the treasure hunt is created?
That’s what I was testing in the hour before lunch, and my answer is “yes, we can.” And we need to! It is crucial for us to surprise and be more innovative in how we engage and tell the story, whether the tool is a treasure hunt or something else.
Okay, so this fellowship is all about playing and having fun? Like being on holiday, returning to work with ideas never to be seen in reality? No, definitely not. I simply decided that it would be too boring to praise the fellowship at the Constructive Institute in a more traditional way at the beginning of this essay.
Two days before the treasure hunt, on a Monday afternoon, I was listening to and engaged in a discussion about AI in a democratic perspective in a class with international students and Professor Kees van Kersbergen. How do we ensure that there is a “human in the loop” when using AI to make decisions or help us make decisions? Just one of the many interesting discussion points.
Every Tuesday and Thursday in the spring, I attended a course about our digital life, and it quickly became a course that challenged all the “well-known stuff” and the prejudices about echo chambers and polarisation.
I loved being a student once again, reading hundreds of pages of research articles every week and discussing the content with the talented professors or associate professors and their students. As a fellow, you can – with a few exceptions – attend the courses that fit into your project and interests. Not having to sit exams gives you the time to delve into the wilderness to find treasures out there – for example, reading books or research articles inspired by the references in your favourite articles.
In the lounge at the Constructive Institute, you’ll meet guests and engage in conversations about journalism. These discussions could revolve around remarkable journalistic stories from recent years or ideas on how to improve as a journalist. Two incredible study trips have brought valuable knowledge from abroad, helping to create a dynamic and well-integrated group of fellows – both enjoyable and inspiring.
In a world where news avoidance is on the rise and the business model for private media, particularly local and regional media, is broken, it’s easy to feel disheartened. What can be done? Constructive journalism is a very important part of the solution, even though it remains a puzzle. There are no simple answers, no effortless ways to practice constructive journalism.
Speaking from my own experience, having worked in local journalism for 20 years, I’ve grown increasingly frustrated with repeatedly covering stories about the same problems year after year, with very little progress to report. I started contemplating how journalism could take an extra step. First, we describe a problem, and then we facilitate a discussion about potential solutions while bringing nuanced perspectives into the stories.
I don’t have the exact solution on how to practice constructive journalism in local journalism, but I do have plenty of ideas to test in the coming years. I have thoroughly enjoyed every minute at the Constructive Institute in the company of the fantastic staff members and talented fellows. Of course, I missed my family in Græsted during the long and busy days in Aarhus, but they quickly noticed that my days in Aarhus were like refueling the journalist Steffen.
One autumn day, my wife and I came up with the words “Inspiring Conversations” – two words that describe what I found in Aarhus, and the words also describe what happened when I returned home on weekends and asked my wife for her opinions on the new knowledge and perspectives. It is also the title of my report and a tiny book with a summary of my project, which was published I June 2023 as a part of several books published by fellows.
It has been inspiring, all of it. Thank you, Constructive Institute, fellows, and thank you Trygfonden for sponsoring fellows at the Constructive Institute.
Essay: But what have you learnt as a fellow?
My fellowship consisted of three parts. One was purely academic research and understanding of the healthcare system – both internationally and especially in a Danish context. I both took a class on healthcare economics and one about inequality and inequities in health at the Department of Public Health.
A second part of my fellowship has been all the lectures and talks about constructive journalism, that all fellows at the Constructive Institute has been presented with during our stay. Most of them at the institute, but we have as well been on several study trips.
Thirdly, I have spent time on coding and data driven research. Through different classes at the Department of Political Science, I have learned to use the code language called R – one of the most intuitive code languages and used my many data journalist around the world.
I will briefly explain what I have gained from my fellowship in those three areas of interest.
Basic knowledge of the health care system
Health economy was my first course, and it gave basic knowledge on how to describe the demand and supply of health services as well as preventive, health-promoting and health-damaging goods and services.
I have a better basic knowledge of economic instruments for controlling and regulating the production and consumption of health promotion, prevention, and treatment, and I can explain funding models for health care and health promotion.
I can describe common methods for economic evaluation of health interventions (cost-effectiveness, cost-utility and cost-benefit analyses). And critically assess available economic analyses related to health.
On my second semester, I took the class on inequality in health, as well at the Department of Public Health. The class was for undergraduate students writing the bachelor exam in this area. The theme was to explore and explain the inequalities not merely on a quantitively level, but as well through qualitative field interviews and fields trips.
A lot of the literature and lectures from these two classes has inspired me for further readings on the subject and has helped to frame my interviews with scholars and journalists concerned with these issues.
As a journalist, I’m being presented with a lot of projects with possible solutions to health issues such as diabetes, overweight, mental issues and so on. With the classes, I’ve taken I have more tools to ask the right questions critically and constructively.
And what about constructive journalism?
It’s hard to pinpoint what exact lectures, talks, excursions, and debates have influenced my understanding of constructive journalism and the effects of constructive journalism.
It’s been 10 months with almost endless number of experts in Constructive Institute’s lounge, who under Chatham House Rules have both explained their specific knowledge on everything from the war in Ukraine, happiness, nudging, mental health of kids and their view on journalism’s role in their field ox expertise.
At the same time, we have met tons of journalist and editors, who reflects on their own work and again journalism role in society. Seeing other colleagues work in depth and debating the small details and nuances, always adds perspective to my own work and gives ideas to new ways of creating content.
On top there’s been study trips to San Francisco, London and Copenhagen, where we met with both opponents and supporters of the ideals behind constructive journalism.
What does the data show?
During my 15 years as a journalist, I’ve done numerous attempts to become a real data journalist. I’ve used almost every free infographic app available online, participated in online courses on how to scrape, analyse and present data in a correct and beautiful way and tried to code with the language Python on my own.
Even though, I’m decent with Excel and I know basic CSS, HTML, and PHP-coding, I never took it to the next level. The everyday deadline has taken over more of my time, focus and motivation.
During this stay, I’ve been lucky to have courses, where the programming language R was used. R is great, because it is used throughout academia, it’s open source and free of charge. At the same time, it can both gather (scrape or basic download) data, analyse it and also present it in beautiful infographics.
Both classes were at the Department of Social Science: The Role of Geography in Politics and Political Data Science: Digital Skills.
The first course used various models to analyse and debate the role of geography in politics. Large scale data sets with e.g., voters, refugees and classes were analysed and visualised using R.
The second one introduced methods broadly termed ’data science’—from automated data collection and processing unstructured data to visualisation and methods for exploiting big data. The substantive focus for the course was applying these skills to study public administration and politics, but I can also use it as a journalist.
The public sector produces vast quantities of data. Managing and analysing this information is crucial for academics who study how government functions, for government employees who aim to improve government performance and for the media and businesses who rely on public data for their work.
In that context R is a concrete tool that I will use, when I research and later write stories connected to health issues, and I’m really thrilled that I had the chance to start my journey deeper into this field. It could not have been done without my fellowship at the Constructive Institute.
Each year, around 10 media professionals spend an academic year at the Constructive Institute in Aarhus, Denmark, working on an individual project related to constructive journalism.