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A fuller picture of reality

Often as a journalist, you meet people who help you gain an insight into a small world previously unknown to you. Occasionally, you come across someone who helps you challenge the status quo.

“Five random facts and an opportunity to work together”, I wrote in an introductory email to Seán at the beginning of last year. If I could have predicted even half of the opportunities we would end up pursuing, I probably would have run away in fear of the sheer volume of work that lay ahead. Luckily I am much worse at predicting the future than I am at diving into the unknown, head first. As it turned out, we were in for quite a journey.

Seán is the editor of Positive News, the world’s first publication dedicated to reporting positive developments. Having reported about the world’s problems for many years, I felt that their mission to take a solution-focused perspective on the challenges facing society was much needed in the media landscape. We started to make plans over coffee. Some 16 months on, we are still drinking coffee, but by now many of those early plans are turning into reality.

The news magnifies only a fragment of reality.

As a boy, Seán produced his own homemade newspaper. Growing up, he began to realise that the concept of “news” was not set in stone, but rather a result of a complicated editorial decision-making process. A process, he felt, that didn’t do justice to the world as it was. “I knew that the stories of war, crime, scandal and tragedy were vitally important. I also came to understand that they weren’t the full picture, that the news magnifies only a fragment of reality.”

By the time he started editing the paper, he realised that his gut feeling - about the story that was not being told - was shared by many others. I just happened to be one of them and we met at the right time. Not long after, we started the Constructive Journalism Project to address the issue of what Seán now calls “peak negativity” in the news.

To understand the disconnection between journalists’ values and the media they produce, you can start by asking them two questions: “Why did you become a journalist?” and “How do you feel when you watch the news or read the paper?”

In the past year, we put these to several hundred journalists of all ages and nationalities. We ask groups of reporters to submit their answers on coloured Post-It notes and include specific values they deem most important to their profession. Through an anonymous count, we identify the commonalities within each group.

“To hold power to account” is always up there – and thankfully so. When prompted to explain why, colleagues often say that they want to inform people of wrongdoings. When asked why that in turn is important, they mention the underlying desire to have an impact in society and ultimately, to contribute to positive change.

Yet when participants hand over their notes describing their feelings after consuming news themselves, a different set of words come in. Like many average news consumers, journalists mention words like “depressed”, “sad”, “overwhelmed”, “hopeless” and – perhaps most worrying of all – “desensitised”. Working in a news ecosystem that does not reflect their personal and professional values leaves some frustrated and unsatisfied in their jobs.

There is a famous quote attributed to Napoleon Bonaparte. I often try to picture how he would have spoken these words during his time as French emperor from 1769-1821. “Never awake me when you have good news to announce, because with good news nothing presses; but when you have bad news, arouse me immediately, for then there is not an instant to be lost.”

Journalism has come a long way since Napoleon’s day. A growing number of media organisations worldwide are starting to recognise that they can provide a fuller picture of reality, beyond just what is going wrong in the world. The notion that “if it bleeds, it leads” is no longer the only thing that determines what news is. Meeting Seán has shown me that – at least sometimes – “if it succeeds, it leads”, too.

Photo: (C) Ahsan Abbas.

This is the 10th part of the series, “Someone I met”. For previous episodes, visit http://daniellebatist.com/someone-i-met.

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