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Faculty Q&A Series: Karen McIntyre

Aug 8, 2016

Posted in: News

Karen McIntyre, Ph.D., is a journalism professor in the Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture. She teaches both undergraduate and graduate courses in the journalism and multimedia journalism concentrations.

RS: Can you tell me about your current research focus and what first caused you to have interest in it?

KM: My main research focus is constructive journalism. In general, I do research on the psychological effects of news media, but specifically on “constructive journalism.”  I’ve always been interested in psychology, and I’ve always been passionate about journalism. I define constructive journalism as applying techniques from the field of positive psychology to journalism in order to create stories that are more productive and better for society. I came to that focus during my Ph.D. program where I had to compile a list of “positive news” websites for a professor. I didn’t even know positive news sites existed before this. Their focus is kind of the “cat in tree” type news stories. I’m not interested in that at all, but I thought that they were on to something about giving some positivity out there because so much of the news is negative and full of conflict.

One day, I was online and came across an article on constructive journalism that was authored by Cathrine Gyldensted, who is one of the leaders in the field of constructive journalism. After I read the article, I reached out to her kind of blindly, and we set up a Skype conversation. After our talk, I was very inspired to keep pursuing the subject and felt like it was a really good fit for me.

RS: To most people news and the word “positive” very rarely go in the same sentence without accusations of fluff journalism. Is there any concern (maybe from critics or people with a limited understanding on the subject) that constructive journalism might make the news seem too bright sided than it otherwise would be?

KM: That is a common, and totally reasonable, perception among people who maybe don’t fully understand what constructive journalism actually is. In no way am I advocating “positive news.” What I am advocating is that we cover the same conflicts, the same negative information, the same hard-hitting stories as we’ve always covered as journalists, but that we do it in a way that is more forward looking and solution focused. I’m saying that in addition to–not instead of– covering stories about war, disaster and tragedy that we also cover stories of recovery, resilience and growth. It’s this other half of the story that is equally as newsworthy, in my opinion, but that doesn’t get covered nearly as much. It’s not just the feel-good aspect of the story. It’s basically like adding missing pieces to conventional news stories with the hopes making the news more beneficial to society’s well-being. Constructive journalism stories must have widespread social significance.

RS: What are some of the consequences that you see of your typical news story today that is covering say a foreign conflict or a domestic protest of some sort?  

KM: In general, I think a lot of the news is very negative and very full of conflict, exclusively. As a journalist, I understand that you have to cover information that is inherently negative, but the problem with that is that it can have a lot of negative effects on the public. For example, when you feel (because of some news coverage) some negative emotions, like sadness, that can cause avoidance tendencies to occur so you want to disengage from the news. And that is happening. Studies are showing that people are cutting back on their news intake because they find it to be so depressing. There’s a concept called “compassion fatigue,” which is basically when people become apathetic to human tragedy because they are inundated with it. As journalists, we want people to get engaged, right? A big reason that we publish these stories about problems and conflict is because we want people to get motivated and help contribute to solving the problem. If we cover stories in a more constructive way, I think we can get people to engage in the news rather than disengage from it.

RS: A question that came to mind in that last reply, and it might seem topical but I’m still curios, is that is constructive journalism a mindset as much as it is an actual journalistic practice? Is it a 50/50 split between them? Is it about how you approach covering a story and then how you construct that same story?

KM: Good question. It’s definitely both. In order to practice more constructive journalism you can make changes at every part of the journalistic process. You can adjust your mindset at the beginning in regard to what story you’re going to cover by asking the question, “what is newsworthy?” You can try and think about things differently as well instead of asking, “where is there conflict?” you can ask, “where are people collaborating? where has there been progress made?”

Adjusting you mindset is the first place you can start to practice constructive journalism. But it goes all the way through the process with things like, who you decide to interview, which of the interviewees’ responses you decide to quote in your story, choosing the order of the information in the story, anything along those lines. I think it starts as a mindset but it can develop into an actual technique as well. There is some research that shows if you put some positive elements at the peak of the story and at the end of the story, it can have a greater impact than it would otherwise in the story. Cathrine Gyldensted and I are actually developing five techniques that will answer the question of “how do I actually do this?” For example, one of those techniques is called “solutions journalism,” which seeks to offer solutions within a given news story. This is the reporter asking interviewees for possible solutions to possible problems. There’s also an area of psychology called prospective psychology, which is basically the study of the impact and the power of imagining a good future. This is another thing that we’ve tried to incorporate in constructive journalism as well. What happens if (when reporting) you look toward the future and ask questions that are more forward thinking rather than past looking?

RS: What are some of the prime examples of the types of stories where constructive journalism could become beneficial? What type of story does it take for constructive journalism to really display its full ability to reshape news?

KM: Politics…I think often when we cover a political story it’s A versus B. We tend to focus on the conflict of one politician and another to really point out their differences. I think that pointing out their difference is necessary but also asking questions like, “how can you work together? what can be done?” are also important. I think that this is a better way of holding power accountable, too. When you ask questions like that, you kind of make politicians commit to working together on a problem. So in political reporting, constructive journalism could be very useful, but it could also be useful in a story like the Syrian refugee crisis. There are a lot of stories about the hardships of fleeing your country, and that’s all very valid, but some more constructive stories might focus on how local individuals and the refugees are working together on certain things. There was recently a story out of Denmark that focused on what the local Danish community was doing to help the refugees assimilate into the community. I think that is a really good example of a constructive news story– telling the stories of resilience and growth.

RS: So to wrap things up a bit, what is the ultimate goal of constructive journalism?

KM: I think that it depends on your perspective and that there could be multiple goals. One main goal is that, ultimately, we are contributing to a healthier public climate. I think it’s in everybody’s best interest to live in a society that is working toward trying to contribute to the betterment of the world around them. I think that is probably the ultimate goal. But, I think if you get down to it, there are also financial goals. Like I said, people have been disengaging in the news because they think it’s too depressing. That’s a very common thing you’ll hear from a lot of people. The whole idea of “if it bleeds it leads” is starting to change. There’s research that’s starting to show that people don’t want all this depressing stuff anymore and that they want to feel empowered and inspired. So financially, I think a lot of journalists, editors and publishers might be hesitant to publish constructive journalism because they won’t get the page clicks and page views and that it won’t be financially profitable; but that might not be the case at all now. There’s a news site in Denmark – De Correspondent – that practices this type of journalism. They’re crowd-funded and recently beat the record of raising the most money out of any crowd-funded journalism endeavor– ever. To me this shows that, financially, constructive journalism could be viable. Personally, journalists themselves might see the benefit of writing in more constructive ways. When reporters are writing these negative stories that are full of conflict all the time, they are taking a big hit emotionally speaking. I think that constructive journalism allows the journalist to still be completely critical but also not cynical.