At a time when news consumers are questioning traditional journalistic notions of balance and objectivity, research suggests the way journalists view their own work is evolving. Readers, too, are embracing that new ideology.
For more than 40 years, the American Journalist surveys have periodically asked journalists what they thought were the most important aspects of their jobs. Researchers then used these responses to classify journalists into ideological types. Historically, journalists were divided into two groups: the Disseminators, who favor detachment and objectivity, and the Interpretives, who favor involvement and advocacy. By the early 2000s, two new roles emerged: the Adversarials, who show a more combative outlook toward government and business, and the Populist Mobilizers, who reflect a movement toward civic journalism that emphasizes giving ordinary citizens a voice.
A just-published study that surveyed more than 1,300 newspaper and online journalists across the US showed the emergence of a new journalistic ideology: the Contextualist. The study–a collaboration among myself, Karen McIntyre, and Jesse Abdenour–finds that this new group of journalists places high value on acting with social responsibility, contributing to society’s well being, and alerting the public to both threats and opportunities, while still holding firm to journalism’s responsibility to portray the world accurately.
This new classification of journalists reflects emerging genres of reporting that go beyond the immediacy of breaking news. While conventional news stories focus on conveying information (a just-the-facts approach), contextual news stories provide a deeper understanding of the news, thereby providing a big-picture approach.
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In recent years we have seen an increase in this type of reporting across news media outlets, from legacy to local newspapers and from magazines to alternative news sources. Take Eli Saslow, for example, who has been writing haunting pieces about the personal and lasting effects of gun violence. Saslow’s stories foster depth, understanding, and empathy beyond the breaking news of the mass shootings in San Bernardino and Roseburg.
Despite the growing trend, there is a lack of both professional and academic understanding or consensus regarding contextual reporting. To begin to address this void, we surveyed newspaper and online journalists from newspapers across the U.S. with a circulation of more than 10,000. Our survey specifically asked journalists about three recently termed genres with growing momentum: constructive journalism, solutions journalism, and restorative narrative. Stories reported through these genres can cover a wide range of topics, but they often address societal issues, such as gun violence and mass shootings.
Constructive journalism intends to engage and empower audiences and ultimately improve society. For instance, this New York Times story in the wake of the Orlando nightclub shooting focuses on how gay and Latino communities came together. Solutions stories are rigorous and fact-driven news stories that provide credible solutions to societal problems. While many stories report the statistics of gun violence, solutions stories offer information regarding what is and is not working in addressing the gun violence epidemic. The Guardian, for example, highlighted community programs that have been shown to reduce gang-related murders and limiting ammunition capacity, rather than banning military-style weapons. Restorative narratives focus on recovery, restoration, and resilience in the aftermath, or in the midst of, difficult times. As illustrated by a Tampa Bay Times story about the recovery of a survivor of the Orlando shooting, the text and photos make real for audiences the raw physical and emotional pain, while also showing the resilience of one survivor and his family.
While the journalists in our survey generally weren’t familiar with the terms used to describe these genres, they said that they were actually doing this type of reporting. In addition, the journalists responded that they intended to employ these journalistic styles significantly more after learning about them through our survey.
Journalists tended to be the most familiar with solutions journalism, followed by constructive journalism. Younger journalists were most supportive of solutions journalism, suggesting that this type of reporting could be gaining popularity as news moves farther from its traditional roots. Female journalists held more positive views toward all three contextual genres, especially restorative narrative.
Audiences need depth and engagement in addition to straight reportage of breaking news. Initial research shows that journalism that offers a solution, rather than just focusing on the problem, provokes greater interest in audiences and leaves audiences feeling positive and encouraged.
These new genres of contextual reporting, which actively consider the best interest of society, could also help to restore trust in the news media. Stories don’t end after the news breaks. Contextual reporting gives audiences a more complete story, often focusing on how communities respond and adapt. While the specific story may be unfamiliar, the experiences and problems facing individuals and communities are mutually experienced: crises of poverty and economic disparity, racial tensions, social justice, mass shootings, challenges to education, natural disasters, and the like. This trend may also lend more transparency in reporting, which could help restore trust in the news media.
In describing his reporting to CJR, Saslow explained, “In the stories I’m most proud of, what I hope I’ve done is walked the reader up to a clear pane of glass, and they’ve had a direct interaction with the story. They haven’t felt my presence in it and they feel like they’ve seen something for themselves. The conclusions that you draw feel entirely like your own.”
This time of great challenge to the news media has left many journalists considering how to restore trust with readers. If more journalists are introduced to these styles as actual genres of reporting, which can augment breaking news, the industry could move toward a more interpretive, socially conscious journalism.Nicole Smith Dahmen is an assistant professor at the School of Journalism and Communication at the University of Oregon. Her research examines ethics and technology in visual journalism with a recent focus on contextual reporting.