By Dimitrinka Atanasova
If you have been following developments in journalistic practice, you will have heard about constructive journalism. Constructive journalism, also referred to as solutions journalism, challenges the conventional newsroom slogan that “if it bleeds, it leads”. In other words, that an event or issue will be reported as news as long as it is negative. This dominant negative news angle is unhealthy for both media organisations and society. Negativity turns people away from the news and thus contributes to declining news audiences, but it also leaves people feel powerless and unmotivated to take action on important societal issues.
To counter this, constructive journalism is not simply offering positive news – entertaining, feel-good, emotional stories on topics of limited societal significance – such as “Cat rescued after 13 days up a tree”. News articles written from a constructive journalism perspective cover socially significant issues like climate change and race relations, but they do it differently. In addition to the five Ws that news articles answer – What happened? Where? When? Why? Who was involved? – constructive journalism asks “what can be done now?” to achieve a better society. In answering the latter, its proponents are particularly keen to amplify alternative discourses that are affirmative, creative, under-reported, and give voice to underrepresented social actors.
Constructive journalism is embraced by a growing number of specialised media outlets and the number of dedicated sections within major mainstream news websites keeps rising. And while the ideas behind constructive journalism are not entirely new, with parallels, for example, in slow journalism, it appears that it is riding a wave of growing hunger for constructive discourses.
Developments in journalistic practice, especially the news representations of important societal issues such as those mentioned above, have been a core area of research for social scientists for a long time. And one of the most widely used approaches for analysing news content in the humanities and social sciences has been critical discourse analysis. Critical discourse analysis is not a homogeneous entity and several schools exist, but here the term is used in an inclusive sense. Broadly defined, critical discourse analysis reveals how texts may foreground or background aspects of the events and issues they describe by means of grammatical and vocabulary choices (e.g. “the protester was shot” versus “the police shot the protester”). The aim of critical discourse analysis is to deconstruct and expose the power imbalances, biases, and discrimination that might otherwise remain concealed in texts. It is also an inherently activist and political approach which aims to create a better world, effect societal transformation, and empower underrepresented social actors.
Indeed, critical discourse analysis has proven useful in exposing inequitable states of affairs and demonstrating what is problematic in text and discourse in the world, but there is also recognition that many of the projects conducted under this banner have remained just that – critiques of texts and of the social practices implied by or realised in those texts. Disappointment with the largely negative nature of the body of work produced within the field provoked calls, around 2004, for positive discourse analysis – the idea that in addition to deconstructing language in the service of power, critical discourse analysts should also study constructive discourses that inspire and act as agents of positive social change.
Similar to the goals of constructive journalism, the aims of positive discourse analysis were defined as amplifying discourses that are alternative, often underrepresented and marginal, but which open up possibilities for positive social change and inspire action. By analysing how these more constructive discourses work, researchers could be in better service of helping imagine possibilities and advising on the challenges that might exist when designing more constructive discourses.
More than a decade later, the positive discourse analysis approach remains marginal. But there appears to be an opportunity for researchers active in critical discourse analysis to play a greater part in empowering positive social change by revisiting the concept of being “critical” to include both critique of unhelpful discourse and analysis of constructive discourse (e.g. what linguistic features convey the worldview of constructive texts).
By focusing on deconstructing and exposing how power, inequality, and discrimination work through language, critical discourse analysis confines our attention to what impedes societal flourishing. This is a valuable endeavour. But it would seem equally valuable to contribute to better understanding the discourses that help imagine positive social change. This could be done by 1) more actively analysing constructive journalism outputs as new genres that strive to contribute to positive social change; and 2) revisiting the concept of being “critical” to include deconstruction of both what is problematic and what constructively moves society to a better future.
To be sure, there are many unresolved questions around positive discourse analysis and how exactly it should be done, but there are promising efforts emerging.
Dimitrinka Atanasova is a lecturer at the Linguistics and English Language Department, Lancaster University in Lancaster, UK. She is interested in media framing and health & science communication.