Constructive journalism

… and how it could benefit from the systems approach

This morning (Dec. 2, 2016), the somewhat sceptical article on constructive journalism by Adri Vermaat in Trouw (a Dutch newspaper, article not free) triggered me to write this post. We live in a complex world, so it is inevitable that many things go wrong, even to the point of threatening all or part of humanity. Therefore we need tools to deal with complexity, not only in debates (as in democratically elected parliaments) but also in news reports. From my point of view (as a systems approacher) journalism is one of the many professions that would do well to get acquainted with the knowledge and skills to apply the systems approach. How could this idea fit in a framework for constructive journalism? Contrary to what you may think, the systems approach is not so much about efficiency (although it is), or models (although it is, be they mostly in your head), but rather about values and world views. It provides principles and methods to understand and improve problematic situations as a whole. The key issue is that both, the inquiry (i.e. understanding) and design of interventions (e.g. policies) in complex situations are themselves also complex and therefore difficult (complex) to communicate. This is not just a matter of resources (posing limits to the number of people to interview), but also a matter of communicating systemic complexity itself. I suggest that only the systems approach can offer the theory and practice for linking ‘the particular’ of positive emotions with ‘the general’ of solution information.

Cathrine Gyldensted      … is the Danish reporter who coined the term “constructive journalism”. She did so together with Karen McIntyre, who completed the world’s first Ph.D. dissertation on the subject in 2015. Gyldensted is obviously a person in what Singer called “the heroic mood“, which drives people to take on uncertainties (about what is right, true or good) in ever new disguises. In the case of Gyldensted, she wants to make news reports more meaningful.


Homeless woman     In a Ted speech in Dresden, Germany, Gyldensted recalls interviewing a homeless woman in 2008 in crisis-struck Washington, who had lost her job and her home, but not her hope and strength. Reader response to this story of ‘constructive’ hopefulness rather than ‘negative’ homelessness gave her the idea that a focus on positive emotions can be newsworthy, too. Gyldensted currently teaches constructive journalism at the Academy of Journalism of Windesheim University of Applied Sciences in Zwolle, The Netherlands.

Conventional journalism      The trouble with conventional journalism is that it focuses too much on flaws and disconnects, especially in government policies and institutional decision-making. The underlying logic is that the press is the watchdog of government, to see that it does what it says it does, and to bring to light cases of abuse of power and corruption. The principles underlying this form of journalism is explained in “the bible” of modern reporting, entitled “The elements of journalism” (Kovach and Rosenstiel, updated in 2014). Conventional journalism has played its role to keep Western governments in check for about two centuries. Yet we see a rising mistrust among the people, not only in government and the institutions, but also in media and in society as a whole. This mistrust even gives rise to radicalization which undermines society even more. In Gyldensted’s analysis, conventional journalism fails to address this problem of mistrust (accidentally elderly statesman Jan Terlouw addressed the same problem this week; more Dutch, sorry) and actually reinforces by always focusing on the negative news of the flaws and disconnects.

Constructive journalism       In addition to focusing on positive emotions, constructive journalism may also provide solution information. When the two are combined people or institutions may see the relevance of engagement and get inspired to engage in some form of action. The example used by Gyldensted is that of an article (again in Dutch, sorry!) by Karel Smouter in The Correspondent on the way the deportation of rejected asylum seekers may be improved by the agency concerned. Smouter mainly used interviews with agency staff, who were asked how they would handle things. The article ‘Five steps for a better repatriation service’ was picked up by the agency management, which unexpectedly invited Smouter to present his findings. Those of us who know something about Wenger’s communities of practice (and the principles of deception-perception of the systems approach) will recognize that what Smouter did was apply some principles or organizational learning. In a way, the writing of the article was a kind of pop-up version of a community of practice to address the management flaw of ignoring the tacit or not so tacit knowledge of those who are doing the actual work.

The problem of complexity        Many problems, whether in the workplace or in politics, are very complex. Typically, complex problems, also known as ‘wicked problems‘, need to be handled with great care. In fact, the concept of ‘problem’ is problematic. In the case of a problematic situation This means that defining the problem is something that is part of the inquiry and part of the formulation of the solution. What is more, the concept of ‘solution’ is also problematic. In many cases, there is no definitive solution, but only a resolution on some form of improvement or transformation about which there can be some level of mutual agreement. This idea of mutual agreement brings us to the question: mutual among which people? Who are concerned? Who are the stakeholders? Who ought to be consulted? How can they be involved in decision-making? These and many other questions can be part of the systems approach.

Did we run out of ‘simple’ problems?       The main rationale for constructive journalism is its supposed potential to reduce mistrust. What people forget is that the world has been growing more complex for a long time. The term wicked problem was coined by Rittel in the mid-1960s. The ‘systems approach’ was developed by Churchman in the same period. Anybody who reads his books that were written half a century ago will notice how easy it is to map all our current problems (except perhaps global warming) on the problems he described and used as cases. One of the issues in the development of the systems approach is the objectivity-subjectivity problem. As reality becomes more complex, the truth about it becomes less clear. This doesn’t mean truth becomes irrelevant. People simply cannot do without truth and meaning. In the systems approach contrasting or conflicting perspectives bring out those aspects of the ‘truth’ that are most difficult to agree upon. With the right tools and attitude it is possible to hammer out an agreement on what the ‘intersubjective’ (i.e. common agreed upon) truth could be that makes sense to all (or most) parties.

By way of conclusion       It seems to me that the problems constructive journalism seeks to address are actually wicked problems. There exists a theory and a praxis to address wicked problems of all sorts and sizes, which is often known as ‘the systems approach’. There is no other theory with the same integrative, transdisciplinary power available. The theory is deeply grounded in philosophy and in practice. It is also ignored, mostly because it doesn’t suit idiosyncratice, discipline-specific, preconceived ideas about problem solving. Journalism is transdisciplinary par excellence and would do well to consider taking serious notice of the systems approach. How it can be integrated in constructive journalism and similar initiatives is hard to predict, but there is little doubt (in my mind) that it can be very helpful, if not crucial. Not just  to sense-making, but also to addressing the many problems that plague the modern world. And it is not even difficult to learn! (but it may be difficult to master…).

P.S.    The world’s first conference on Constructive Journalism took place on Friday the 2nd of December, 2016. The second (on ‘Constructed | Constructive Journalism’) will be held from 8 to 9 December 2016, in Brussels, Belgium.

About csl4d
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