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Can speculative journalism be useful for understanding reality?

Fictional and speculative stories could help audiences imagine the impacts of some of today’s global issues

REUTERS/Eloisa Lopez

By Sahar Amer | Jan 17, 2020

Around the start of 2018, speculative journalism boosted in popularity; an article writing style which uses fictionalized storytelling to engage readers in the possible outcomes of global and societal issues. 

For some readers, statistics and data news stories are difficult to comprehend, and fail to offer readers a comprehensive understanding of current situations. Where solutions journalism provides evidence based responses to social problems, speculative journalism can help audiences picture the future surrounding more wider global issues like the climate crisis. 

The current effects of climate change on countries in the Global North are significantly less drastic than compared to hotter countries in South Asia, Africa or Central America. Even though it’s broadly considered to be one of today’s most pressing concerns, those living in countries less affected (mainly in the west) may not be able to imagine future realities of climate change’s probable ramifications using mainstream modes of storytelling. 

Speculation stories have the potential to engage readers and build brand loyalty through offering more creative approaches to data research stories. 

Approaches to speculative journalism

There has been some dispute in recent years about whether speculative journalism is a legitimate form of reporting as it has been said to blur the lines between truth and fake news. However, publishers have been experimenting with speculative journalism through opinion pieces and fictionalised stories. 

High Country News, a non-profit media publisher covering issues relating to the Western United States, dedicated their August 2019 issue to speculative journalism. All situated in the year 2068, the stories cover possible scenarios from the misuse of flies to get rid of human waste to the hunting down of climate criminals

Not completely out of the ordinary, the writers consulted researchers and specialists on the credibility of each story and also used the 2017/2018 Fourth National Climate Assessment report to influence the narratives in order to add some factual weight. 

Brian Calvert, Editor-in-chief of High Country News, said: 

“There is a place for journalism to be more imaginative and for storytellers to use the tools of scientific inquiry and journalistic methodology to write other kinds of stories.”

The New Yorker also used a similar style in their Pulitzer Prize-winning article, The Really Big One, which speculates what could happen if an earthquake hit the coastal Northwest in the US. 

Other publishers like The Guardian (Russia collusion inquiry faces a big 2018 – but will Trump let Mueller finish the job?), The New York Times (Republicans’ 2018 Resolution: Bipartisanship. Will It Last?) and The Washington Post (How Breitbart might change, or not, without Steve Bannon) use more subtle approaches to speculative journalism where they gauge immediate possibilities of political or cultural issues through opinion pieces.

Takeaways

“If journalists want their audiences to be able to differentiate solidly reported news content from work that is more speculative, thinly sourced, or backed by rumor or innuendo, then they must create their journalism in ways that make it easier for anyone to recognize those qualities.”

— Tom Rosenstiel, Executive Director, American Press Institute 

Speculative journalism offers a creative approach to grasping heavy statistics and helps readers picture other possible futures. The use of speculative journalism could be a powerful tool towards facilitating understanding of complex issues but those stories need to be identifiable as speculative by the audience. This could build up readers skills to identify the difference between opinion pieces to fact pieces which in turn will create trust and loyalty, and may create more critical and informed audiences. 

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