Constructive journalism is ‘pressing, urgent, and needed everywhere’: inaugural B° Future Festival
by Allan LEONARD
15 September 2023
The Bonn Institute hosted an inaugural, two-day B° Future Festival for journalism and constructive dialogue, held in the city’s LVR LandesMuseum. The first day for registered delegates was conducted mainly in English and discussed various dimensions of constructive journalism — such as focusing on human experiences and solutions, trauma-informed interviewing, community engagement workflows, and the business case for newsrooms. The second day was opened up to the general public, with a long list of information and practical sessions at various pop-up and small venues throughout the pedestrian-friendly city.
The festival was opened by Ellen Heinrichs (CEO, Bonn Institute), who set out the theme of the event. She shared an anecdote about encouraging her daughter to watch the news so that she could be a more informed citizen; after a few days she told her mother, “I can’t keep doing this — the news is depressing me.” Heinrichs reminded the audience that journalists work for real people, providing platforms where people go to get information, and journalists have a role beyond presenting just facts:
“We need to figure out how to be helpful for people, because helpfulness means relevance… If we fail this, we fail to excite the people we’re here for. And these people are not anonymous audiences; they are our neighbours, our friends, voters, politicians… They are my daughter. They are all of our kids.”
Heinrichs added that B° Future Festival is a festival with a purpose: “to make journalism better for our society and more successful for our industry”. She acknowledged the challenges in changing mindsets, encouraging participants to make the most of the festival to share knowledge and learn from each other:
“The constructive compass is not engraved on newsroom walls — yet.”
By this, she was referring to a model of journalism that includes dimensions beyond the traditional accountability role of public representatives (“holding power to account”), to having future-oriented interview questions along with a discussion on “potentials” or solutions. (Indeed, the festival revealed a range of beliefs on how much journalists and editors should incorporate this in their work.)
Kübra Gümüşay followed with a clear declaration: “Constructive journalism is pressing, urgent, and needed everywhere.”
Gümüşay’s work focuses on social justice and public discourse, and she is the founder of several award-winning campaigns against racism and sexualised violence. She made her case through a metaphoric device of an imaginary “Museum of Language”, which is occupied by “the unlabelled” and “the labelled”. The unlabelled are those who fit into norms and so aren’t distinguishable enough by the museum curators to apply labels. Those that are different and not easy to understand are labelled by the curators and placed in glass cages, accompanied with definitions. These labelled items run into the glass walls, either retreating into stereotypes or cracking the glass, which catches the attention of the curators to investigate, inspect, analyse and place into a larger glass cage. This in turn makes the labelled item content, or it keeps trying to crack the glass.
Gümüşay brought this thought experiment back to the auditorium room, full of individuals of multiple identities and perspectives. She gave examples of previous experiences of such gatherings where individuals are singled out, finding themselves having to defend an entire section of the population, such as a white man having to argue he is not a racist. Gümüsay said such labelling “turns rooms into cages”.
She said that much of this is due to an illusion of “knowing it all” about any section of society, and suggested that constructive journalism has a positive role to play. Gümüşay made her point with an analogy. You and others are placed in a dark room containing an elephant, and asked to describe it. Someone will say the elephant is long and soft, others will say it is thick and hairy, or heavy and leathery:
“All of these things are simultaneously true. However, if any one of those people claimed to know the absolute truth — if they were to universalise their limited perspective and claim to know it all, not only would all the other perspectives be oppressed, but we would also miss the opportunity to put them together to more clearly see what there is.”
Gümüşay made this point more directly relevant for newsrooms:
“Let’s use an example of racist police violence. There could be two perspectives on this topic. One could be, ‘I trust the police. The institution represents security and peace to me.’ And another perspective could be, ‘This institution represents violence, racism, and death.’ Those two conflicting perspectives are simultaneously true to each person. What we observe today is how these two perspectives are supposed to fight against each other, and we ask ‘Who speaks the real truth?’ When, in fact, we could bring those perspectives together and ask other questions. When the institution of police is not allowing everyone to feel safe and secure: one, can it actually provide peace and security for everyone; two, are there alternatives to living in peace and security within a society, other than through the institution of the police? We don’t even get to these questions because we’re stuck at the point of whether the problem exists or not.”
She said that this is the same problem we have when we discuss climate justice, social justice, racism, sexism, and more:
“What constructive journalism is offering is multi-perspectivity [and] the art of bringing them together. And not to fall into the trap of, ‘Well, there are multiple perspectives — you just choose one.’ But bringing them together by contextualising them.
“Yes, the elephant might have beautiful and long eyelashes, but it may be irrelevant to the point of whether or not the elephant is dangerous.
“The art of constructive journalism is… understanding the need to give a platform to perspectives that can allow us to have a more complete [and] holistic view of what there is. The art of constructive journalism is contextualising. The art of constructive journalism is to also show how the problems we’re describing are solved elsewhere… to allow the readers to fully let themselves into the world. To wonder and be curious.”
Julius Fintelmann and Martina Monti from The European Correspondent made a presentation, “Why objectivity is not the future of journalism”. They explained their approach, where they have correspondents “in every European country”. Fintelmann gave an example of the situation in Nagorno-Karabakh: “We have people in Armenia and in Baku (Azerbaijan). Everything we report on Nagorno-Karabakh… is always a collaboration between the two.”
Addressing the issue of objectivity, Monti spoke about standing up for values:
“We [at The European Correspondent] decided what’s wrong and what’s right. It’s a norm. You choose your ethical guidelines. You just choose what feels right to you, and you stand up for it.
“The biggest takeaway we want [for] you.. is: ‘One does not only read to think, but one does read to feel…’”
A lively question-and-answer session ensued, with practising journalists cautioning against not verifying what you write. The dam collapse near Nova Kakhovka in Russia-controlled Ukraine was used as an example. Fintelmann personally believed that Russia was responsible for the event, citing a history of warnings from the “Ukraine side” that this was going to happen, months and weeks in advance: “But no one listened.” However, the questioner wasn’t satisfied: “We still don’t know, and it really hurts if we find out two months or two years later that what we said in the headline — ‘Dam blown up’ — was wrong.” Fintelmann retorted: “You cannot believe a word that comes out of the Kremlin because most of what they say is lies. And then to take what they say as equally weighted as what Kyiv is saying is not appropriate now.”
Another attendee came back with: “Isn’t rather the task of a journalist to discover as many facts and objective perspectives as possible… then isn’t it rather the reader’s job — based on the information you’re providing them — to make conclusions about what is right or wrong?” Fintelmann agreed that their job is to bring together as much information as possible, but in cases such as the Nova Kakhovka dam collapse, “all the information that we have clearly points to one direction and that’s what we need to say now.” The questioner responded: “That’s deciding upon a truth that you consider to be the truth. Shouldn’t you focus on finding [evidence] to support this, than calling it the truth?”
In response to how to approach impartiality and objectivity, Fintelmann and Monti defended themselves by saying that what one reports is situation-dependent and “part of our job is agenda setting”. Monti answered that she gives more weight to what she thinks matters more, whilst being aware of her biases. Fintelmann added, “You pick your sources and this is reflected in your discourse.” In terms of transparency, Fintelmann said that ideologically they are pro-Europe.
Méline Laffabry from Aidóni led a workshop on how focusing on human experiences and solutions can contribute to more constructive and inclusive conflict reporting. She acknowledged the reality of news agencies needing to report from the frontline. However, she argued that readers appreciate stories of impact and hope. Laffabry spoke of individuals in conflict areas, such as in Ukraine presently, who are collaborating together to maintain some semblance of normality in delivering public services. One example was of a playground inside a train station — to look at the conflict from a child’s perspective. The intent is to complement the dominant narrative.
Laffabry emphasised that there are opportunities for journalists to learn from other journalists (whether locally or internationally) about such work. She spoke about refugee and diaspora networks that develop stories of hope and impact, going beyond a traditional, perpetrator-victim-oriented narrative.
At another workshop, Irene Caselli (Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma) reviewed “Trauma-informed interviewing: what to consider when interviewing children migrants and other people who have been affected by trauma”.
She began by explaining that there are no “traumatic events”, but that stressful events can cause trauma in individuals — directly, indirectly, or vicariously (for example, by first responders and journalists attending the scene). Caselli pointed out that not everyone reacts to stressful events with trauma; thus, journalists shouldn’t presume that all migrants are experiencing trauma from their journeys, for example.
Then there is the responsibility of a journalist to recognise traumatic behaviours. For example, a migrant may tell a particular narrative, but with inconsistencies; this may reflect an attempt to make the best meaning of their stressful experiences, concealing facts that may be too difficult to bear.
During the discussion, I talked about the work of Queen’s University Belfast and the Commission for Victims and Survivors in Northern Ireland, in developing and publishing a two-set pack of media guidelines for journalists and interviewees. These guidelines have been supported and endorsed by the Dart Centre for Journalism and Trauma (Columbia Journalism School) as well as by the National Union of Journalists. I argued that it was just as important for NGOs — for example those working in refugee centres — to be informed about this learning so that they can make appropriate choices on who to put forward for journalists’ interviews.
A final workshop of the day was “Journalism learns to listen: community engagement workflows in practice”, with contributions from Jos van Essen (Follow the Money), Martin Tege (Tactile News), and Julia Hildebrand (Correctiv). This revealed a variety of approaches and levels of engagement with readers and contributors. Hildebrand explained that at Correctiv they see readers as part of the newsroom, inviting them into the editorial process. She also defined community engagement as working on a goal together, a shared purpose; she suggested starting with small groups of about ten people with additional topic experts.
The panellists also discussed technical aspects, such as being wary of overly investing in any social media platform, as you have no control over your relationship with users. Hildebrand said that Correctiv is implementing CRM (customer relationship management) software, with engagement tools (surveys) and a payment system. Open-source software solutions are available, at a lower cost, but are often reliant upon volunteer development. Hildebrand remarked that she would like to see technical solutions pooled across the journalism sector [a possible B° Future Festival agenda item? — Ed.].
The second day of the festival featured dozens of talks and interactive events throughout the city of Bonn. One of the few conducted in English was a screening of films, organised by 99 Media. Lena Roche described how the organisation translates short documentaries (of about 20 minutes or less) into other languages. The purpose is to extend the reach of such films from around the world: “We offer them a second life.”
99 Media works with cinemas, schools, hospitals, prisons, etc., to provide the films and facilitate discussion, including with the filmmaker where possible.
Currently, there are 40 films, translated into ten languages, in 99 Media’s catalogue.
At this event, about half a dozen films were shown, including ones on saving lives by urgent delivery of blood (Blood Rider), the lives of those who identify as a separate gender in a region of Mexico (Muxes), and how an amusement park has brought solace to a young woman with a troubled childhood (Keeping Balance).
Another screened film was The Shampoo Summit, which takes place in the mixed city of Haifa. Recorded conversations by patrons — with the camera fixed over the shampoo sink — reveal both the richness of the city’s history over generations as well as the love and respect the women have for each other. As one remarked: “People say this is co-existence. Actually, it’s not co-existence; it’s life itself.”
This inaugural festival was attended by 500 registered delegates on its first day, and over 1,000 people on its second day, when it was opened to the public. There were over 200 speakers from 21 countries (with over half as female) — journalists, creators, editors-in-chiefs, data scientists, writers, trainers, and media managers.
As Ellen Heinrichs summarised: “It’s an incredible privilege to witness the birth of a new community — because that’s what it felt like… You all helped us to practice what we at the Bonn Institute preach in our workshops and seminars: ‘To put the people at the heart of journalism’… We literally started a new, big conversation. We listened. And that’s so important for the future of journalism.”
A second edition of the B° Future Festival is planned for 2024.
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