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Book review: Reporting beyond the Problem (eds. Karen HOPKINSON and Nicole DAHMEN)

Book review: Reporting beyond the Problem (eds. Karen HOPKINSON and Nicole DAHMEN)
by Allan LEONARD
9 September 2021

While there is a historic tradition of journalism that strives towards a common, public good (however defined), this has occurred in a paradigm of a professionalisation of journalism and a business model where editors responded to a pressure to publish content — whether print, radio, or television — that attracted audiences and satisfied advertisers. Some may say these were halcyon days, when advertising revenue subsidised reportage that took time and effort, such as investigative journalism or in-depth coverage. 

The emergence of social media oligopolies has utterly upturned the news economy, by providing viewing metric information that individual media houses can’t offer. In response, traditional media raced to a floor of cost savings, attempting to retain whatever audiences they could whilst ditching reportage of local events and compelling journalists to multitask new production under shorter deadlines.

Reporting beyond the Problem is a compendium of eight alternative approaches that attempts to rebalance, if not reorientate, where journalism should be. The book covers civic journalism, constructive journalism, solutions journalism, explanatory journalism, participatory journalism, engaged journalism, peace journalism, and slow journalism. Helpfully, brief definitions are provided in the book’s Introduction.

The book’s editors couch these as “socially responsible reporting approaches that inform the public with the understanding that our democracy cannot prosper with an informed populace”. This infers that there are socially irresponsible reporting approaches as well as a debate about the role of media in enhancing democracy, for example its independent role in holding power to account and/or collaborating with communities to encourage civic engagement. Such dimensions get a good inspection throughout the approaches explored in the book.

Civic journalism is argued to be the origin of other approaches, such as constructive journalism and engaged journalism. The principles of civic journalism have been described as “a journalistic movement whose primary goals are to enhance civic commitment to and citizen participation in democratic processes”, including deliberative dialogue and cooperative problem solving.

Constructive journalism appreciates the unhealthiness of overexposure to a diet of negative, conflict-narrative news, and incorporates positive psychology with an aim “to improve societal well-being by covering stories about progress, achievement, and collaboration as much as stories about devastation, corruption, and conflict.” Constructive journalism differentiates itself from “positive journalism” in that the former has high societal significance and adheres to core functions of journalism, while the latter has no societal significance and does not adhere to core functions of journalism. Or as the editors say in their concluding chapter, “Focusing only on the darkness — or only on the light — is not productive.”

Solutions journalism shares a similar feature of reporting on evidence-based responses to social problems, but appears to have a greater ambition of encouraging civic action. Research to date is unclear about such results, which may reflect a confusion about whether solutions journalism is more than an approach, constituting instead a movement, as some participants refer to it. As with other alternative approaches explored here, there is a lack of a standard definition of impact.

A distinguishing feature of explanatory journalism is its drawing upon models of science, social science, and data science in providing context on the reportage of policy issues, as opposed to editorialising polemics. Although one can readily see how open data and other online resources such as Google Scholar and PubMed facilitate contemporary research topics, the principles behind explanatory journalism go back to Walter Lippmann’s books in the 1920s, which called for social-scientific approaches in news work to combat propaganda and to better understand an increasingly complex world. Or as journalist Edward Murrow said, the press must go “beyond mere stenography”. But in creating higher levels of meaning by going beyond the facts, journalists grapple with an age-old discourse on how their interpretive powers can best serve the public. At issue is the norm of objectivity, but even as a journalist may claim to present a dispassionate rendering of fact, the selection of what to report and how the reportage is framed immediately introduces subjectivity. With explanatory journalism, the motivation remains to prepare the public “to make smarter adaptive choices that can lead to resilience”.

For participatory journalism, a motivation for collaboration between professional journalists and ordinary citizens is “to set news agendas and to amplify the concerns of those who are otherwise systematically overlooked”. (This is not to be confused with “citizen journalism”, which does not involve professional journalists.) A significant challenge is the parameter of boundaries; namely, how do journalists collaborate with some members of the public without seeming like they are advocating for them? (But do some media such as Fox News already appropriate this?) On the other hand, the author suggests, social media and other digital technologies mix amateurs and professionals together in the same spaces, and citizens can already reach mass audiences; professional journalists have to accept an erosion of their role as gatekeepers of what mass audiences see. We may be witnessing what the author suggests is a “paradigm reconsideration”, where journalists are setting out new courses in the new world. However, does a professional boundary not still exist? A key differentiation of professional journalism is accountability, with legal and ethical parameters. One can appreciate the ideal of collaboration with loyal communities for civic engagement, but as with any negotiation of power, whose integrity is compromised when the project goes sour, through internal politics or external hijacking through disinformation or bad actors? Encouragingly, the web-based platform, Hearken, has a proven effective means of managing audience collaboration.

Engaged journalism shares many elements of participatory journalism; it is in the same realm of having citizens or a group of citizens play an active role in the production and dissemination of information. It has a vision of journalism as relational rather than transactional — building connections among communities for meaningful feedback loops between journalists and the public. The chapter explains a co-design/co-creation process, with the aim of power equally distributed among all partners. Like participatory journalism, evidence shows that professional journalists are reluctant to pursue this with vigor; there is other evidence that journalists will collaborate with each other. For example, in the discipline of fact checking, collaboration between professional fact checkers and crowd source fact checking has had mixed results, while collaboration among fact checkers has a proven track record (for example, through the affiliation with the International Fact-Checking Network).

The case for peace journalism lies in the argument that the manner — framing and word choice — of news reportage can itself “inflame conflict, exploit and/or deepen societal divisions, create distortions, and perpetuate stereotypes while ignoring solutions and reconciliation”. The chapter has sample, real news stories, with contrasting “Traditional Reporting” and “Peace Journalism Story” versions. Peace journalism is motivated by a version of peace theory — working towards “positive peace” with reportage that include non-violent resolutions to conflict. While there is a well articulated defence that this is not the same as advocating for peace, the term “peace journalism” remains hostile to many journalists. Perhaps this conflict can be seen in the more traditional debate about the role of journalists in “serving the public good”; who defines the public good or agrees what one’s peaceful society should look like (particularly when reconciliation hasn’t yet taken place)? In the case of Northern Ireland, for example, the pillarisation of much of its media (serving distinct ethno-nationalist audiences) provides ready channels for those who set out to offend and/or are easily offended. So while there is evidence that audiences will embrace peace journalism-style reporting, media landscapes can remain too incentivised to continue with the episodic and sensational, rather than the thematic and contextual.

Thematic reportage is practised by slow journalism, which is purposely deliberative. The idea is that there are few news events that must command your immediate and perpetual attention. The motivation is to reduce the amount of noise, including misinformation and disinformation that can be exacerbated by the speed of online news reportage. A piece of advice is to wait a full 24 hours before publishing what you have just seen or experienced. Obviously this makes slow journalism not practical for journalists bound by the 24-hour news cycle. One could argue that peace journalism doesn’t have this limitation; peace journalism says you cover whatever is newsworthy in the timeframe you’re afforded, but to do so in a more socially responsible way.

The editors conclude with a chapter on “Bringing Clarity to Productive and Socially Responsible Reporting”. By “productive”, they mean practices “that push the conversation forward, that engage and empower audiences, and that seek meaningful impact”. By “socially responsible”, they mean journalism “that considers society’s best interests by covering the news beyond the problem-based narrative, by reporting with depth and embracing complexity, and by emphasizing connection and collaboration…” The editors acknowledge the challenges that remain, such as the friction (boundaries) between journalists and their communities, definitions and evaluation of impact, mediating what a society’s best interests are (i.e. defining the public good), and having the skills and support to add depth and context to reportage. Meanwhile, they provide a helpful set of recommendations, for example sending a reporter to a local school board meeting and publishing tweets of key actions immediately but being allowed to spend more time writing a piece that puts the meeting in context.

Reporting beyond the Problem is insightful guidance for those journalists who take the profession’s value of public service seriously. The contributors spell out how the information ecosystem has irrevocably changed, with suggestions for adaptation that remain grounded in the fundamental elements of journalism: seek truth, minimise harm, act independently, and be accountable and transparent.

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