Ulrik Haagerup, the founder and CEO of the Constructive Institute, experienced a profound realization during his tenure as Editor in Chief at a prominent Danish media outlet: he recognized that the majority of the news he was delivering to his audience was overwhelmingly negative and fear-inducing. So he decided to leave in order to create the rules for a “better journalism”. Today, the institute that he leads, helps journalists and news organizations to apply constructive reporting through fellowship programs, training curricula’s, and initiates independent academic research. For 10 years he was the Executive Director of News at the Danish Broadcasting Corporation, Denmark’s public service broadcaster. He was Editor-in-Chief at NORDJYSKE Media, and Jyllands-Posten and an investigative reporter the same time. He won the Danish version of the Pulitzer, The Cavling Prize in 1990. He is awarded the knighthood of Dannebrog by Danish Queen Margrethe.
The Editor-in-Chief of Portalb.mk, Elida Zylbeari, visited the venue of Constructive Institute in Aarhus, and attended some of his lessons on how journalists can become peoples “best friend”. Afterwards, she had an interesting discussion with him.
Please explain shortly: What is constructive journalism? What is not?
Ulrik Haagerup: Constructive journalism is forward-looking journalism; it is answering the question “now what? and “how?”, questions that at least I did not learn in journalism school and most people or your colleagues did not either. Journalism now is most focused on the “who did it” and “what happened”, “who’s to blame”, while constructive journalism is an add-on to the breaking news and investigative journalism, it’s not an alternative to it. It’s not activism, it’s not positive happy-go-lucky journalism, it is critical, forward looking, inspirational journalism about potential solutions to the problem we have together.
With the rise of digital media and social platforms, what is the role of constructive journalism in shaping public discourse and countering polarization?
Ulrik Haagerup: It is about changing the mindset of news organizations and the journalists working there, thinking that the role of journalism is also to build bridges in society, it’s to be a facilitator of the public discussion about how we can improve society without crossing the line so we think we should decide how society should move forward. We should be that third place between the government and opposition, we should try to be unbiased, try to be impartial, trying to be curious on behalf of the public. We should be the best friend of the public, not the best friend of the opposition, or the government, or the oligarchs on this side or that side. We should be collaborators for truth and not competitors for scoops.
What motivated you to establish the Constructive Institute?
Ulrik Haagerup: I went into journalism like most people, because we want to do good for society, we want to tell important stories to people so they can be better at understanding themselves in the world and what’s going on so they can make better decisions. So that’s the ideal, and that was also the ideal for me, but I saw myself becoming more part of the journalistic culture where you basically try to do stories that other journalists like, your teacher, your editor, your colleagues, people at other places will love your story, or you will win prizes from journalist committees. Therefore, that became the focus point, and that in combination with the digital age where we can measure everything, we have data for many people clicked, liked or shared, all that becomes important. So the “Watergate Syndrome”, which is: we want to do stories that bring other people down so we can win the awards, combined with this idea that journalism is just a product and you measure how people use your product, and if they click on explosions you get the more explosions. That was the reason for me deciding that I have to leave. I needed time to think: “is journalism part of the problem in the polarization and mistrust we see in democracies?” and “how do we become the solution for this?”. We have to bring solutions, journalism is so important, not for journalists but is important for society, and when journalism is not really working, and right now, it’s not working, democracy is not working.
What is the role of constructive journalism in fighting disinformation? Can it help?
Ulrik Haagerup: We see a rise of misinformation, we see a rise of fake news and the way to tackle that has been for too long to do fact-checks, but it’s not doing the trick. The trick is that we understand the power we have, the responsibility that goes with press freedom, we understand that we, also in the time of AI, our main asset is that people trust what we do, so we should tell people the best obtainable version of the truth, and we should spend all our time to do that. We should be the best friend people have, and the best friends do not lie to you, they don’t only tell you nice stuff, they will tell you if your hair is a mess today, if you need to do something different, they will tell you all the things that you need to do in order to be a better version of yourself. We have a role to play in society, as being the best friend, and people more than ever need a place they can turn to, who are there not to manipulate you to think the way they think, not to try to sell you something, but try to be your guidance in life. People don’t need more information, but they do need navigation.
How can Artificial Intelligence (AI) help journalism?
Ulrik Haagerup: Technology has always helped us to do the boring stuff. AI should also help us do all the things that are trivial and easy. The fact is that too many journalists now spend their time doing boring stuff, doing their research behind the desk, while robots can take over. They can easily do that, and they can produce exactly a lot of the stories that we’re producing and trying to sell to people which don’t want to pay for it anymore. In the future, we need to climb the value ladder, we need to add to the data and the information, we need to climb higher so we also serve people knowledge and wisdom. Using the journalistic empathy, going there to speak to people, to tell them how does it smell, how does it feel, getting to know people, getting the trust of people so they will tell you the stories that are important for other people to learn from. That’s what we can do that AI cannot do. We have to figure out what is it that we can do that AI can’t do. Doing constructive storytelling is part of that, really looking for the new answers, the full picture, getting not more information, but the relevant information for people while using empathy. Being a human being, going out there on behalf of other human beings and explain to them as the best friend they have what is really going on, and how can you get involved in order to have this problem fixed.
Can you share a specific case where constructive journalism made a tangible positive impact?
Ulrik Haagerup: There is one story that created a great impact on the discussion. The problem was the lack of doctors in the rural districts of Denmark. I think this is a problem in many countries, young doctors don’t want to leave the university cities where they live and have a family, so we have a lack of doctors in rural parts of the country. Therefore, while we go on talking about who is to blame for the problem, which is of course also relevant, but while we do all this blame game to find the culprit, people out in the rural districts have only one concern: when will there be a doctor? So, looking for other places in the world where they’ve had the same problem, lack of doctors in the rural districts, and where they actually did something about it and was successful, that’s what you should look for, that’s the research to do. We found that in Norway hey have found the solution to this problem, and telling that story changed the narrative and the public debate in Denmark. They had the problem solved, so now we can discuss that it is not something that can’t be fixed, we proved that it can be fixed. So if the politicians and decision makers don’t like that idea, we have to ask them: “what is your alternative?” Now we don’t discuss about who to blame but rather what solution to apply.
How do you strike a balance between being critical and constructive in your reporting?
Ulrik Haagerup: We have to define what is being critical. I personally was so afraid that other journalists would see me not being critical enough, that I sometimes was being aggressive in order for other journalists to see that I was not being uncritical. Being critical is also being natural skeptical. If you say I have a cure for cancer and you want me to write about that, I have to be curious and see is that really so, but I also need to ask you to see the documentation for your claim that you actually found a pill that can cure cancer. We have to be critical, asking can you prove your point, can I see it, can I talk to the people, have it been peer reviewed etc. You have to ask all these questions while not being aggressive, rather being curious. Of course, you shouldn’t just write the story because someone says they had done something, but when somebody has really done something and they are improving the society. We should also tell the audience that we have asked those critical questions, not in an aggressive way, but we ask them on the behalf of people: can we trust your claims, can you document what you say and so on.
Your message for young journalists?
Ulrik Haagerup: Dare to believe that in the time when journalism has lost the monopoly of telling stories to the mass audience, there’s never been a big and need for journalism, but good and decent journalism, trustworthy and constructive journalism. That it is possible to do journalism that builds on all the values we have: to be the fourth state, that we have to hold people in power accountable, but at the same time, also play this role in society where you are people’s best friend where you really want to help them to make better decisions in their life. You want to enlighten them, you want to give them guidance, you want to inform them, you want to help them “clean up the mess” so you don’t overwhelm them. You want to give them an accurate picture of the world, not just the picture that will get their attention. If you do that, there will be a need for what you’re doing more than ever, there will be a need for the young journalist who thinks this way and works this way. This is a great way of being a journalist, it’s most likely the reason why you went into journalism, because you want to do this and don’t want to do click-bait for the rest of your life.
And will it make journalists happier?
Ulrik Haagerup: Yes! I am so convinced that it is really meaningful profession and a great profession. However, we have turned it into an industrial profession with an industrial worker sitting in front of a screen doing click-bait and looking for assholes on the internet, extremist that we can put in our news stories in order to get attention