Module JG330

Preventive Journalism

Module author

William (Bill) Minutaglio

The University of Texas at Austin

Learning objectives

After studying this module, you will be able to:

  • Define preventive journalism and explain this journalistic genre and its aims;
  • Explain how preventive journalism works;
  • Give an overview of the historic development of the genre, including key persons who established this genre;
  • Reflect this genre critically.
Study point 1
Reading extract Preventive Journalism


Why Open School of Journalism believes that preventive journalism is important zu know

Preventive journalism is a form of journalism that seeks to get ahead of breaking stories and propose solutions that work towards social justice. 

Investigative journalism, preventive journalism and peace journalism 

Preventive journalism is a derivative of investigative journalism. That said, there are some important differences between the two disciplines. The chief aim of preventive journalism is informing society, governments and other agencies that wield social capital about impending problems before those problems mushroom into full-blown crises. 

The term "preventive journalism" has been around for nearly two generations and stems from the journalistic work of New York Daily News writer Michael O'Neill. O'Neill thought that journalism could go beyond reporting stories by alerting society about hidden drivers of change and uncovering the catalysts of crises around the world before those crises came to a head. 

In the same way that preventive journalism is an outcropping of investigative journalism, preventive journalism and peace journalism share some important characteristics. Peace journalism is an intentionally biased form of journalism that seeks to derail violence and allow human rights to flourish. 

In short, peace journalism looks for non-violent solutions to preexisting conflicts whereas preventive journalism looks to inform the public about impending conflicts in order to avoid those conflicts altogether. 

Aims of preventive journalism 

Preventive journalism goes one step further than investigative journalism and calls upon editors and journalists alike to be more vigilant. Preventive journalism is a discipline that makes special demands of editors and journalists, such as composing follow-up stories reporting on the effectiveness of proposed solutions. 

Preventive journalism deals with volatile situations that are on the verge of igniting. Examples might include the civil war in Syria pre-2011 or a particularly fraught time before Israel-Palestinian tensions come to a head. For these reasons, preventive journalism is not vague or speculative in nature. In fact, preventive journalism deals with volatile situations that society and government agencies need to be immediately alerted to. 

In Michael O'Neill's "Roar of the Crowd," O'Neill talked about elevating public awareness in such a way that disasters could be prevented rather than gawked at on television. Preventive journalism is therefore somewhat broad in scope; it looks for human rights' abuses, leaders, policies or intransigent government structures that threaten democracy or could result in catastrophes like civil wars and breakdowns in diplomacy. 

Responsibilities of a preventive journalist 

Preventive journalists take a more behind-the-scenes role to effectively act as change agents instead of passive reporters of disasters and political crises. There's more responsibility placed on preventive journalists to alert the public and governments of potential conflicts before those conflicts erupt. 

In other words, preventive journalists report on an impending story before it becomes a full-scale disaster whereas traditional journalism and the news media focus on the disaster itself. 

Preventive journalism could, under the right circumstances, affect more positive change and sidestep more human rights' abuses than traditional journalism. By alerting the public about sweatshops in East Asia, for example, preventive journalists could help spread awareness about third-world poverty, prevent other companies from following suit, and change geopolitical trade for the better. 

Due to the fact that preventive journalists report on, say, net neutrality issues before the world wide web is chopped into corporate pieces, preventive journalists are sometimes the unsung heroes of journalism. Raising public discourse about a potential disaster is somewhat less romantic and exciting than reporting on a full-blow crisis in full blaze, yet the results preventive journalists bring about could be momentous. 

Preventive journalists have a higher calling and perhaps bear more responsibility and praise for a sidestepped disaster. Targeting pivotal geopolitical issues and ensuring those situations don't devolve into full-blown disasters could be far more challenging than simply hopping on the bandwagon and reporting on an already-broken story or international disaster. 

Preventive journalism, indeed, poses an ongoing challenge to journalists around the world. It's incumbent upon preventive journalists to pinpoint those issues that are most threatening yet still at the point at which action could forestall a disaster. 

Drawing Western attention towards Russia's annexation of Ukraine, for instance, was a pivotal moment in the history of preventive journalism. The ongoing challenge for preventive journalism would now be to ensure Ukraine holds fairer and more representative elections and that human rights' abuses are kept at a minimum. 

At their best, preventive journalists do a service to society by raising the public discourse around impending problems before those problems create larger crises.