Sunday, August 5, 2018

The case against "constructive journalism"

Radio New Zealand’s Mediawatch this morning featured an interview with Stuff journalist Nicola Brennan-Tupara, who’s promoting the notion of “constructive journalism”. She’s seen it in action in Denmark, where the Danish Broadcasting Corporation has evidently adopted a policy of not depressing the hell out of the Danes by relentlessly bombarding them with bad news.

It’s an approach I have some sympathy for. A good editor will always try to ensure that bad news is leavened with more positive stuff. But the inescapable fact is that news, by definition, is about the unusual; anything that’s outside the norm. And what’s outside the norm is often bad.

To give an example, it’s not news if the 6.47am commuter train from Masterton to Wellington arrives safely and on time. But it is news if the train breaks down and catches fire in the middle of the Remutaka Tunnel.

You can try to brighten up the news with cheerful items, but tragedy, misfortune and conflict are always going to make up a substantial part of any newspaper or TV bulletin, and editors would be failing in their duty if they set out to suppress it. After all, the function of journalism is to reflect, as accurately as possible, the world as it is, not as some of us might wish it to be.

Besides, “good news” journalism has been tried before and it doesn’t work. Some people might complain that they don’t watch the TV news because it brings them down, as Brennan-Tupara says (heck, even I sometimes give the 6pm bulletin a miss at the end of a gruelling week), but they will soon see through a bland, sanitised news diet that misrepresents what’s happening in the world.

Of course there’s scope for news items that present the better side of the human condition, which is what Brennan-Tupara seems to be on about. But a zealously pursued “constructive journalism” policy risks being misleading and even downright dishonest. It could also serve as a smokescreen for social engineering, of which we have a surfeit already.

Incidentally, it’s worth noting that much of the bad news that features so frequently in the New Zealand media – for example, stories about poverty, inequality, homelessness, climate change and obesity – is promoted by agenda-driven leftist reformers whose doom-laden claims are unquestioningly accepted by sympathetic journalists who shirk the hard questions.

Much of this is opinion dressed up as news and given a spurious aura of credibility because those pushing it have academic titles like “doctor” and “adjunct professor”. If there’s any category of bad news that could be dialled back (note that I say “dialled back”, not suppressed), I’d suggest this might be a good place to start.


pdm said...

Karl TVNZ have got the good news aspect sussed.

Every Sunday at about 6.57pm they have a short `good sorts' segment which is their weekly quota of good news. lol.

Unknown said...

Hi Karl, good to see that you listening to my spot on RNZ. Just one thing though, constructive journalism isn't about publishing "good" or "positive news". It's, like you say in your blog, trying to reflect, as accurately as possible, the world as it is. That means finding the right balance in our news mix. By ONLY focusing on what is going wrong we can give a skewed view of the world. Constructive journalism is about moving stories forward and not just reporting the same old problems over and over again. It's about asking what next? Can this be done better? What has been tried and failed? It's still reports the problems...but then it moves the discussion forward. So not exactly what I'd call positive news.