News Media kills Political Visions. Help: Prospective Psychology

News Media kills Political Visions. Help: Prospective Psychology

Activism September 28, 2015 / By Cathrine Gyldensted
News Media kills Political Visions. Help: Prospective Psychology

Introducing how prospective psychology can help inform a much needed political debate in the media

‘This is what's wrong with this debate. We are not talking about real issues.’ 

Governor Scott Walker turns angrily to Donald Trump, who´s face visibly show signs of forbearance and slight irritation. Mr. Trump raises his finger. Like a student would do in a class room.

But the thing is… we are not in a classroom. We are in the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in California watching the 2nd Republican Presidential Debate on September 16th 2015. 

A state afflicted with historical droughts, wildfires and extreme water shortage. Between Jan. 1 and July 11 this year, California fire officials have responded to more than 3,381 wildfires, 1,000 more than the average over the previous five years. California needs solutions and fast. Like many other regions in the world. 

Ronald Reagans Airforce One sits there behind the eleven GOP candidates for president. 

It´s shining and terribly grand. But, the debate it´s acting as a backdrop for, isn´t. 

It´s mostly bickering and arguing. Carly Fiorina throws zingers at Donald Trump, and we are entertained. Jeb Bush accuses Trump of having tried to buy politicians in order to better expand his Casino business. Still we are entertained. 

But, even though the debate is historically long, over three hours, huge parts of crucial information are still left in the dark. All the candidates say they hold a better vision for the USA. In fragmented answers we get somewhat of an idea of what they believe their vision to be. It´s hard to get an overview, because no candidate really gets a chance to finish before one of their opponents interrupts. Clearly that is a hindrance for achieving clarity or a visionary debate, but another hindrance stems from us, the journalists. Because of questions journalists very rarely ask which would be those shedding light on possible futures - future oriented questions like: 

  • What visions do the candidates concretely hold for the USA? 
  • What are the details of these visions? 
  • How will they accomplish them? 
  • In what way will their visions be important?
  • Who will they need to collaborate with, to attain their goals? 
  • When will they act? 
  • How will their presidency shape a better future for the American citizen? 

I propose that journalists should open their eyes and take on the responsibility to inspire thought-processes of our decision makers towards possible desirable futures. The public gets it. 

It’s time journalists do to and in the scientific community, they have already taken on the task. 

On the opposite coast from California, in Philadelphia, a handful of researchers and scholars are busy at work at the Imagination Institute at the University of Pennsylvania. 

Here they conduct prospective psychology research which is looking into the generation and evaluation of mental representations of possible futures. This ability fundamentally shapes human cognition, emotion, and motivation. Scott Barry Kaufman, the Scientific Director and the Executive Director, professor of psychology Martin Seligman is at the helm at The Imagination Institute. They have launched a global effort to fund a wide range of research projects on prospective psychology at partner universities and research institutions around the world. Some researchers are looking into studying a motivational approach for the enhancement of imagination. Can illumination and inspiration be measured and developed? A team of researchers will study genetic architecture of imagination; others will look at the measurement and development of narrative imagination, which involves the ability to evoke the past, anticipate the future and combine these elements in a creative way. Yet others will look at the neuroscience. How is the brain generating creative ideas and what parts of the brain are active in the process? 

News journalism is mostly describing things, which have occurred or are happening right now, so in news journalists act as detectives looking at the past and reporters reporting on the present. Almost never do journalists facilitate a future oriented and thus, visionary political debate but journalists have a part to play when it comes to influencing the way of thinking by our decision makers and power holders. If they are solely being asked about broken promises and errors, then this is what they get most skilled at answering.

Many European political elections this past year have been criticized for lack of visions, my own country’s latest election included. But, what is the media’s own responsibility for this? Do journalists play a role?

Let´s begin with the latest example, which was CNN´s GOP Presidential Debate. 

(Disclaimer: My inquiry is not specifically aimed at CNN or the GOP. The reason for my choice is simply that CNN´s debate is the most recent one.) 

Looking at the facts means viewing the full debate and dissecting the transcript and what I found was thought provoking and sobering: 

Seventy-two (identifiable) questions were asked by the three moderators Jake Tapper, Dana Bash and Hugh Hewitt during the three-hour debate. Eight percent of the questions inquired about things that have happened, like asking Jeb Bush about the appointment of Chief Justice John Roberts by his brother President George W. Bush:  ‘Looking back on it did your brother make a mistake?’

An overwhelming majority, seventy one percent, of the questions focused at the present. Questions like: ‘Mr. Trump, what would you do right now, if you were president, to get the Russians out of Syria?’ or ‘Governor Christie… …what do you make of skeptics of climate change such as Senator Rubio?’ 

The remaining twenty one percent were future oriented questions. That might seem like an impressive share, but looking closer, many of the future oriented questions in this debate were of a very lighthearted character. The moderator Jake Tapper asked the candidates what woman they would like to see on the ten dollar bill and what their Secret Service code name would be if they become president. Funny and human, but hardly the embodiment of a visionary debate where a better future for America is at the core.   

Distribution of past, present and future oriented questions in CNN´s Republican Presidential Debate, September 16th, 2015 


Why is this sobering you might ask? Because it´s time for media and journalists to realize how reporters create realities via our questions and what news media decide to cover. In my book ‘From Mirrors to Movers’ document how it’s a myth when journalism believes it mirrors the world. No, journalists are moving it. But in which direction? At present, journalism totally fails when it comes to facilitating a visionary and future oriented debate that could trigger more action towards solutions.  

The need for a debate or conversation like that is more present now than ever, with climate change, ISIS and mass migrations being some of the most dire challenges in the world today.

But is this lack of future oriented political debate in the media just a problem in the US? Not at all. It´s a problem everywhere I have looked. Take for example one debate from the British Parliamentary election earlier this year. Sky News and Channel 4 hosted the program ‘The Battle for Number 10’, a Q&A session with the two candidates running for Prime Minister, David Cameron and Ed Miliband. 

For twenty minutes, and one at a time, they faced questions from the highly profiled and hard hitting anchor, Jeremy Paxman. Their session was followed by questions from a live studio audience of voters. What I found, looking at this program, was again eye opening. The majority of the questions posed by the professional journalist were oriented towards the present and the past. Many questions focused on broken political promises and on what was earlier said by the candidate. However, when the public had the chance to ask questions, the focus changed dramatically. The public was much more interested in the future.

When the voters, the live audience, got the chance to ask questions, a majority of the questions were future-oriented. 

Examples of questions were: How will you be different from the current Prime Minister? Would you consider appointing a Cabinet Minister for older people? How will you achieve a better balance of the budget? Would you like to see more NHS (Health Services) provided by private companies? For the first time in my work monitoring the style of questions in news interviews, the weight shifted. Future-orientation takes a first place when voters, the public, get to ask questions. 

All in all, the numbers were quite striking. Thirty seven percent of the anchor’s questions were aimed the past, compared to only four percent when it was the voters asking the questions. Both were interested in the present, with Paxman’s forty five percent compared to voters’ forty four percent. The voters’ interest in politicians’ future plans were prominent. Over half of their questions were future-oriented, fifty two percent, to be exact. 

 Voters questions to Miliband and Cameron. From Sky News/Channel 4’s debate ‘The Battle for Number 10’, part of the 2015 UK Parliamentary Election.  

It is a no brainer to realize the huge potential for news media here. Creating debate formats with a set of new rules: Questioning that mainly looks to the future. Still critical, still well-prepared, still quality interviewing. Journalism can do this without losing the ability to be detectives or the ability to report on what is happening right now but, if news journalism lacks a future-oriented approach, we risk slowing down or even counteracting visionary decision making on needed societal development. 

British newspaper The Guardian has taken the first step. When their then editor-in-chief Alan Rusbridger launched their journalistic effort to cover climate change in new, powerful ways, it had future prospection as part of the methodology.  

So, instead of childishly accusing the politicians for lacking visions, when news journalism is in fact an active part of the problem,  it´s time to change.

The Guardian has taken on the responsibility to stop solely looking in the rear view mirror but also look ahead.  

Which media will be next? 

The world needs visionary thinking  - and doing.


Cathrine Gyldensted is the initiator of applying positive psychology and related fields to the innovation of journalism. She has pioneered constructive journalism methodologies since 2011 and works with media companies and journalism schools globally. Many portrayed in her new book ‘From Mirrors to Movers. Five Elements of Positive Psychology in Constructive Journalism’.

She has worked for 15 years as an investigative reporter and foreign correspondent and holds a Master of Applied Positive Psychology from the University of Pennsylvania, USA.

Follow Cathrine @CGoldensted

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