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How insights from psychology can improve journalism

Practical knowledge, tools and tips for journalism: In the Bonn Institute article series "Psychology for Journalists", we show how journalism can benefit from psychological research and findings.

Illustration eines Wesens mit versch. Symbolen

Have you ever wondered how the human psyche works? How perception, thinking and judgment processes affect approaches to journalistic work? And how, in turn, media reports shape people's feelings, thoughts and behaviour? Especially in today's times of crises and war, it is important and helpful to explore these questions. That's exactly what we are doing in the Bonn Institute's new online article series "Psychology for Journalists: Practical knowledge, tools and tips for everyday".

Our aim is to apply relevant psychological findings to journalism. We elaborate on selected basic knowledge from social, cognitive and community psychology and convey it in an understandable way using concrete examples from journalistic practice. Each article provides you with practical tools and tips for all aspects of everyday professional life, from planning and conducting research to formulating better interview questions and moderating debates, all the way up to publication.

Societies need journalists to provide reliable information and the framework for a shared reality. Media professionals shape not only their audiences' knowledge of the world but also their decisions. They can encourage and enable democratic participation, but they can also unintentionally contribute to news avoidance, polarisation and distorted views depending on the selection and design of topics, use of language and visual material, and perspectives presented, or even depending on the focus: Is the spotlight on problems or solutions?

Journalists themselves are also subject to cognitive biases. They, too, are part of the social fabric they report on. Being aware of this and dealing with it responsibly on the job can help one get even closer to the "best obtainable version of the truth" (Carl Bernstein).

Human information processing, impression formation and judgement, basic needs or social dynamics in communities and conflict situations: Psychology in its many forms and aims is a valuable resource for journalism. In our twelve-part article series, which we will publish in German and English on the Bonn Institute website over the coming months, we look for answers to the following questions, among others:

  • What attracts attention? How do people seek, weigh and evaluate information? 
  • What factors shape the way people attribute responsibility, draw conclusions, form judgements and change their attitudes?
  • What makes people feel personally involved and relevant? What motivates them to become active in a cause and participate in discussions or other democratic processes?
  • What contributes to a sense of community? Which factors and motives foster discriminatory, polarising perceptions of "us" versus "them", and how can constructive dialogue be promoted in societies?

The scientific findings and concrete recommendations for journalistic day-to-day work that we present in the series are intended to encourage media professionals to reflect more intensely on their daily activities and try out new approaches – both of which are essential groundwork for the further meaningful development of journalism.

Bonn and Lisbon, January 2023, Peter Lindner (project coordinator and editor), Margarida Alpuim and Katja Ehrenberg (authors)

About the authors

Margarida Alpuim is a Portuguese psychologist and journalist. She completed her master's in Community Psychology at the University of Miami, where she focused on issues of collective well-being. As a journalist, Margarida wants to explore more constructive ways to tell stories that consider both the audience and media professionals. Margarida currently works from Lisbon on innovative projects that unite psychology and journalism.

Katja Ehrenberg holds a PhD in psychology and is professor at Fresenius University of Applied Sciences in Cologne. For almost 25 years, she has conducted research, taught and published on topics of social, communication, organisational and health psychology. As a freelance systemic consultant, she advises teams and individuals and enjoys applying social science findings to the various challenges of everyday human (work)life.

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