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How journalism can empower and engage audiences without making them feel depressed

A new book co-edited by VCU journalism professor Karen McIntyre Hopkinson explores eight socially-responsible news reporting practices.
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Journalists have a duty to report news that is often negative, yet research has shown that the media’s emphasis on the problem can have negative effects on the public, the press itself, and democracy.

A new book, “Reporting Beyond the Problem: From Civic Journalism to Solutions Journalism,” explores a variety of journalistic genres that cover the news in ways other than the traditional problem-based narrative.

Edited by Karen McIntyre Hopkinson, Ph.D., an associate professor of journalism in the Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture in the College of Humanities and Sciences at Virginia Commonwealth University, and Nicole Smith Dahmen, Ph.D., an associate professor at the School of Journalism and Communication at the University of Oregon, the book is the first academic text to examine these socially-responsible news reporting practices.

Hopkinson recently discussed the new book with VCU News.

How would you describe the central argument of “Reporting Beyond the Problem”? What’s its main takeaway?Karen McIntyre Hopkinson and Nicole Smith Dahmen [View Image]Karen McIntyre Hopkinson, Ph.D., and Nicole Smith Dahmen, Ph.D., at the University of Oregon. (Contributed photo)

The news can be depressing and stressful. This book makes a case for eight new (or reemerged) socially-responsible news reporting practices — such as constructive journalism, solutions journalism and peace journalism — that aim to empower and engage audiences rather than leave them feeling hopeless. Each chapter focuses on one approach, overviewing its foundations and detailing its practice and known effects on audiences. At this time of journalistic uncertainty and instability, by reporting beyond the problem-based narrative, these approaches have the potential to restore public trust in the news media while building a sustainable business model.

What led you and your co-author to want to undertake this project? And why is it important to explore socially-responsible news reporting practices?

As researchers in this area, Nicole and I saw that journalists and journalism scholars were practicing and studying several emerging forms of reporting. While each approach was distinct, collectively they had similar goals. They prioritized the social responsibility theory of the press — the idea that journalists have an obligation to consider society’s best interests in their newsmaking decisions. We thought it would be helpful to synthesize this work to bring clarity to the field. And with all the challenges that journalism faces these days (low public trust, criticism for being too negative, economic instability, etc.), we wanted to bring awareness to these approaches that can help the field move forward.the book cover of reporting beyond problem [View Image]The cover of "Reporting Beyond the Problem" was designed by Josh Smith, an assistant professor at the Robertson School.

Each chapter explains one form of reporting that goes beyond the “problem based narrative” that defines a lot of journalism. What’s one example? What does that look like in practice?

One example is solutions journalism, which is reporting on how people are responding to social problems. This style of reporting calls on journalists to cover responses to problems just as rigorously and relentlessly as they cover the problems themselves. For example, instead of writing a problem-based story about how indigenous communities are some of the hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, flip the frame and write a story about an individual or organization that is helping to slow the spread of the disease in these communities by translating public health information into local languages, like journalist Julia Sklar did for the Boston Globe. Solution-oriented stories are not feel-good stories. They critically examine responses to problems, including the limitations of those responses.

Most newsrooms are short staffed and filled with busy reporters. How hard would it be for reporters to incorporate some of these journalism tactics you’re describing into their work?

Some of these approaches do require more time and resources, such as slow journalism, which by definition encourages reporters to slow down. But many other techniques can be easily incorporated into a journalist’s routine. In most cases, it’s more about shifting your mindset and the way you approach a news story rather than adding additional work.

You’re an expert on solutions journalism. And you also have conducted research on solutions journalism and media in Rwanda. How does your research inform “Reporting Beyond the Problem”?

I have studied several of the approaches in the book, not only solutions journalism, but also constructive journalism, peace journalism and civic journalism. My research experience allowed me to better synthesize these techniques — to identify their distinct methods and also their commonalities. Further, my research on the topic in other continents, not only Africa but also Europe and Asia, served as an important reminder to include a global perspective of these approaches in the book, when possible.

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