Why can’t the news media be more of a force for good?

Covering the most powerful media companies to the smartest startups, former Independent media editor Ian Burrell examines the fraught problem of how news is funded today. Follow Ian @iburrell.

Journalists, like aid workers and members of the emergency services, can witness awful events. It’s part of the working life they signed up for. Correspondents might be confronted with starving babies in famine areas or children wounded by air strikes, while domestic news reporters can encounter passengers hurt in train crashes or grieving relatives of victims of gang violence.

But while the 999 worker or NGO staffer instinctively steps in to help, the news professional is trained to merely observe and document. One BBC journalist recounted to me his recent frustration after speaking to a traumatised woman, who had witnessed the death of her young relative in an accident. He took her quotes but but had no professional training for helping her.

While objectivity is a critical ingredient in the integrity of journalism, the financially-challenged news media could do more to demonstrate that it does not merely profit from tragedy but is part of the solution. It’s a contentious area. Many journalists have become comfortable with the notion that real news is bad news; war, protest, political rancour, corruption, abuse. And a story is only a story unless someone somewhere is angry at being exposed. They may have to refine that position.

Social media, which has become the dominant platform for news consumption, will have a defining influence on the torrent of negativity in news and the principles behind it. No longer can editors simply hand down their tablets of stone to a waiting public. A distribution system dependent on individuals sharing information among friends is inevitably subject to the human instincts of not wishing to be the bearer of bad tidings but being keen to be the bringer of good cheer.

This need not mean a deluge of amusing tales in the style that ITV News championed in its “And finally” closing segment. There’s plenty of cuddly animal content online already.

And proactivity for the good guys should never equate to the ill-advised decision by the Mail on Sunday’s Mark Nicol to strike a macho pose with a rifle seized from Islamic State by the Kurdish Peshmerga forces he was accompanying on the front line in Iraq.

But there is a way for news organisations to adopt a more positive mindset without compromising journalistic values. By adopting it, editors might start to dispel the cynical view, especially prevalent among younger generations, that the news media is exploitative and driven by self-interest. While investigation, reportage and analysis must continue to lead the output, a prominent place could be found in the schedule for stories that highlight practices that make the world a better place.

A spark for change?

This is the concept behind Spark News, which has aligned some of the world’s leading news organisations – including USA Today, Le Figaro of France, El Pais of Spain, Haaretz of Israel and Asahi Shimbun of Japan – in a commitment to supporting what is being called “solution journalism”. Among the 55 prestigious titles signed up to the core work of this alliance, not one is British. Fleet Street papers have been “really difficult to get on board”, says Sandra de Bailliencourt, managing director of Spark News, which is based in Paris. “They really don’t see why they would do this.” This disengagement is a “shame”, she says. Spark News’ most high-profile event is Impact Journalism Day, when the 55 titles each contribute two stories of solution journalism to a pool of content which is shared by all the participating papers. Editors can choose which of the 100-plus articles to publish and many cover them all in bespoke supplements.

Impact Journalism Day began in 2011 and takes place each June. Examples from the last round include a feature from Taiwan’s the China Post on the Infant Crying Translator, an app that uses data from 300,000 crying babies and deciphers whether cries signal hunger, pain, tiredness or the need for a new nappy. USA Today wrote on a Crisis Text Line, which provides life-saving support to young or deaf people who prefer texting to talking on the phone. And Greek paper Ta Nea highlighted the Ithaca Laundry, a mobile launderette that gives homeless people the dignity of clean clothes.

Positive initiatives such as these have long been covered by socially-minded newspapers. But combining them in an initiative which reaches a potential combined circulation of 120 million means good ideas are amplified and can scale internationally.

De Bailliencourt admits that it often “takes a lot of time” to persuade papers to join the scheme but says no one has abandoned it yet. “They all feel the difference,” she says. “Some say they sell more advertising because advertisers are happy to be associated with a supplement dedicated to solution journalism. Others say they can reach a younger audience. This alliance is growing every year and nobody is leaving.”

Mahfuz Anam, editor of one of the participating titles, the Daily Star in Bangladesh, has become convinced after 40 years in journalism (he was previously a guerrilla fighter in the 1971 independence war), that a fresh approach to news is needed. “With all our reportage, editorials, exposes [and] investigative journalism we have not been able to solve the problems of the world,” he says. “From journalism of the mind, we now have to bring journalism from the heart. We have to publish stories that inspire, that solve problems, that bring harmony in society.”

Spark News is funded by sponsors including the insurance company AXA but its media participants make all the editorial decisions. Its focus goes well beyond Impact Journalism Day. Other solution journalism projects involving alliances of media brands are planned on the themes of immigration and women’s rights. African media will work together to produce and share stories on new methods of accessing energy. Next month, to coincide with COP22, a series of business-based titles will together focus on initiatives in addressing climate change. At least this project includes a British publication, the Financial Times, in an alliance that includes Handelsblatt of Germany and Les Échos of France.

De Bailliencourt says that the themes Spark News has chosen all “provoke big interest with millennials”.

In between these projects, Spark News attends international events with editors, spreading the word about how news can be a force for good through social journalism. Javier Moreno Barber, former editor-in-chief of El Pais and now head of the influential Leading European Newspaper Alliance (LENA), was among its presenters at the One Young World youth leaders summit last week in Ottawa. “The power of collaboration” between titles, he says, can create better journalism. “Isolated action will not serve us at the end of the day. Working together to understand challenges has led us to a greater understanding about life and truth.”

Become the story

Other ways are also being explored of making news a vehicle for social reform. Before he entered the media, Bryn Mooser was a Peace Corps activist working in Africa and a humanitarian worker in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake. He co-founded RYOT news to create an organisation that encouraged its audience not only to consume its stories but to act on them too. “RYOT’s mission has always been about how do we use story to bring people closer together, to foster compassion, empathy, understanding,” he says.

RYOT has built a reputation for filming in immersive media, including virtual reality, and Mooser says the 360-degree picture helps viewers to connect directly with victims of disasters and also to show the good that people are doing in such situations. “The picture on the ground isn’t always just black and white, it isn’t just disaster and suffering,” says Mooser. “Often times in disaster zones you see the best of people and the brightest of humanity, [with] people helping each other – and with VR you actually have an opportunity to see all around you.”

By shooting the Nepalese earthquake of 2015 in 360-degrees, RYOT was able to evoke a a tearful response in viewers intrigued by a VR experience. Mooser believes that interest in the film would have been far less if the film had been shot in standard fashion. “It would have been hard to say to everybody ‘Hey guys, I want to show you what Kathmandu looks like now and how you can help.’”

Earlier this year, RYOT was acquired by AOL’s Huffington Post and will shortly launch the “first virtual reality world news show”, hosted by Mooser on the Hulu platform.

“The hope is, is that by people having a better understanding of what’s happening…that that can lead to a better society,” he says. “If you can bring people to see what the scientists see in the Arctic when they watch glaciers melt, or bring people to the streets where they can see the devastating effects of war, I think you have the opportunity to push public opinion and… VR is the perfect medium [for that].”

What makes RYOT different is its catchphrase imploring its audience to “Become the Story”, with its pieces including a call to readers to “Take Action”, via a link to a campaigning organisation. By focusing on subjects such as protecting the dolphin population or helping children exposed to domestic violence, RYOT shares a passion and commonality in outlook with the NGO sector.

Good journalists have always performed a vital public service in simply reporting events. But with younger generations so distrustful of media and so autonomous in the way they consume and interact with it, the news industry is going to have to work harder to show it’s on the side of good.

Ian Burrell's column, The News Business, is published on The Drum each Thursday. Follow Ian on Twitter @iburrell

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