Author’s Note for PPND Readers: I know that the majority of Positive Psychology researchers and practitioners are not great consumers of news. You are way too aware of the detrimental effects of watching the news reports. However I hope that you will read on to get the good news on the news.
Two years ago around this time of year, I felt split in two.
One part was busy attending the 2nd World Congress of the International Positive Psychology Association in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The other part was constantly on the phone trying to get American reactions and interviews following the Norway massacre, where Anders Behring Breivik killed 77 and injured 319 of his countrymen.I remember listening to the opening sessions where leaders in the field of positive psychology outlined their most important new research on Love, Meditation, Flow, Positive Education, and Character Strengths while text messages from the newsroom back home constantly fed me with breaking news information about the devastation following a car bomb outside government buildings in Oslo, the capital of Norway. How people were seen in the streets of Oslo, shocked and mangled. Then, the text messages changed. Now there were reports of a single shooter gunning down people on the island of Utoya, also in Norway.
I, serving as one of Danish Broadcasting´s U.S. correspondents, had to jump to work.
When something like this happens, American reactions are a sure follow up. Juggling a conference on the science of well-being on the one hand and a catastrophic news event on the other was frustrating even for the newly minted MAPP graduate that I was.
New Constructive Tools for Journalists and Newsrooms
Since then, I and a handful of colleagues have worked to change that situation.
I am happy to report, that it is possible to create constructive news stories when covering school massacres, bombings, war, global recession, and other horrible events. It’s being done in a growing number of conventional newsrooms.
Here´s a brief overview of the tools where Positive Psychology is used to temper the news to lead to constructive journalism.The Interview: Journalism’s Fundamental Tool
Eight out of ten times the news interview fosters victimology because of the questions we journalists are taught to ask. Let me give you a concrete example.
Before studying Positive Psychology, when I covered a story on homelessness, I would ask homeless people only about their suffering and setbacks. I skillfully honed in on the negatives, because that´s where the “dynamic conflict” lies.
Naturally, I would get answers only exploring suffering. That would lead me to induce that suffering threefold: in my interviewee, in myself, and in my evening news viewers.
After MAPP I began to ask questions exploring resilience. I’ve asked people to be curious about other ways the event affected them, about people who have helped, about other solutions, and about looking for the meaning they take away from the event. Then, the same homeless person might give me answers exploring positives. Suddenly, you have soundbites of positive emotion, hope, resilience, and inspiration to put in your news piece, while still being a story highlighting the challenges of our economic recession. It leaves the audience with inspiration, hope, and solutions that were already there in the situation, just not uncovered by our earlier questions.
Peak/End RuleThe peak-end rule attributed to Daniel Kahneman and others states that the way we judge our past experiences depends almost entirely on how the experiences were at their peak (pleasant or unpleasant) and how they ended. This rule helps explain why the way we construct news stories highly impacts the emotional mindset of our readers, listeners, and viewers. The dramaturgy of the news story can be constructed with a positive peak somewhere in the story and a positive end-statement from the main interviewee. Other information is not lost, but it is not placed at the end.
While exploring this, I realized that ever since journalism school, I seemed to have a default installed for constructing a negative peak and a negative end. That´s the way journalists are currently taught that effective storytelling works, but change is underway.
A study I conducted as my capstone project at the University of Pennsylvania suggests that a news story with a positive peak and a positive end fosters inspiration, hope, and engagement in the reader.
Using Martin Seligman’s construct identifying 5 pathways to human well-being is a winning structure for brainstorming on constructive angles in the editorial meeting. We use it methodically. When covering a major news story, we ask the following:
- Positive Emotion: Who´s happy? Who has solved problem or conflict?
- Engagement: Who´s lost track of time? Who’s experienced engagement? Who´s passionate? Who´s doing something out of the ordinary?
- Relationships: Who´s helped? Who´s been brought together? Any examples of closer ties among people? Any increases in community spirit?
- Meaning: Who´s learned something or grown? Who has experienced post-traumatic growth? What´s been learned that might be life-changing?
- Accomplishment: What has it taken to come to this point? What´s been gained? What´s been overcome?
After a round of brainstorming around PERMA, we usually end up with a handful of great, substantial story ideas or angles that easily belong among the top stories of the day.
Examples of PERMA in Stories
Let me provide some examples of places that we’ve found PERMA in Superstorm Sandy, Sandy Hook, elections, or the situation in Egypt.
- People canvassing for the candidate they believe in, explaining why is it important for them. This could be an election news story with an underlying message of being engaged in society.
- How people in NYC and Jersey Shore helped each other, inviting their neighbors who lost electricity or their homes to bunk with them
- Examples of first responders engaged and finding meaning in their task of saving/rescuing someone
- Reporting on Post Traumatic Growth that followed terrible situations such as those at Utoya, Sandy Hook, and Boston
- In Egypt, looking for citizens forming new relationships because of the uprising. Maybe even across political beliefs. Are there any constructive outliers? Any examples of solutions to uprisings that have a positive outcome, such as those in South Africa and India?
- For accomplishment, we could look for any positive outliers in the economic downturn, who through resilience and creativity have found jobs or turned their businesses around
In Denmark we have courses in Constructive news reporting aimed at professional journalists on a quarterly basis, and we will probably be launching relevant courses in the UK, too.
The Head of News at Danish Broadcasting Corporation has implemented constructivism as a part of the foundational values of his newsroom, a newsroom that counts hundreds of reporters.
I and a colleague are currently writing a textbook for journalism schools covering the tools and approaches of constructive news.
BBC Radio is currently testing a pilot that will cover positive news stories on a weekly basis.
Huffington Post has launched two sections Good News and Impact to showcase positive stories. In my opinion, Impact is the better of the two in terms of quality content.
The New York Times runs Fixes on a weekly basis, where top reporters explore solutions to major social problems. Fixes consistently ranks as most read, week after week.
Constructive change is coming to news reporting, and I predict that positive psychology will be playing a crucial role in this change. It´s still a long road ahead, but the work has begun.
Editor’s note: Cathrine led a symposium at the IPPA World Congress titled Constructive, Critical Journalism Informed by Positive Psychology, with speakers including herself, Hans Henrik Knoop, Peggy Kern, Meghan Keener, and Paki Tandon.
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Photo Credit: via Compfight cc
Devastation on the street courtesy of philippe leroyer
What stories could he tell?
TV Reporter courtesy of Shavar Ross
Egypt Uprising courtesy of Jonathan Rashad
Newspaper readers courtesy of Hamed Saber