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BREAKING: The world has issues (OK, you knew that already). But while many media outlets tend to emphasize everything that’s going wrong, solutions journalism tries to analyze what’s going right — and determine whether it can be replicated. David Bornstein is co-founder of the Solutions Journalism Network (SJN), a New York-based nonprofit founded in 2013 that has collaborated with news organizations across the U.S. and overseas on solutions-oriented projects, while offering training and resources to journos who are interested in rigorous reporting on social problem solving. We spoke with Bornstein about SJN, the battle against “fake news” and looking on the bright side for 2018.
Q: Where does solutions journalism fit into the new media landscape?
A: My colleague Tina Rosenberg says that, in journalism, to look excessively cynical is a misdemeanor, to look naive is a felony. Over the past 25 years, I’ve met many journalists who have found stories about interesting ideas and social solutions that they didn’t feel comfortable writing about or found difficult to sell because of the bias in journalism toward problems and against potential solutions, along with the fear of appearing like an advocate. So that’s one of the reasons the Solutions Journalism Network exists: to change the mindset.
Q: Can you tell me where investigative journalism and solutions journalism overlap and where they diverge?
A: The investigative piece usually attempts to acquire information that people are trying to hide. In the solutions journalism technique, a reporter tries to understand how something is working. In a sense, they’re both like detectives trying to crack a case. But when you’re trying to understand what’s happening in a solutions story, you’re typically focusing on the “how to” questions in great detail. That’s what’s really useful to people working in NGOs, philanthropy or policy. The journalist can be an objective observer of the problem-solving process, drawing out insights people on the inside sometimes miss. Solutions journalism, in a sense, also rounds out the story — revealing possibilities alongside problems and threats.
Q: How do you measure success and outcomes for the Solutions Journalism Network?
A: This year, we’ve engaged with 140 news organizations. We just did a survey and found that 96 percent of those we’ve worked with have institutional support for solutions journalism, which means there’s buy-in at the senior editorial level and broadly in the newsroom. Our partners also use an impact tracking form that was developed by the Center For Investigative Reporting, which tracks different levels of impact that come from reporting, like: Did it lead to better community conversations, policy changes, actual implementation of new ideas? Some research indicates that solutions journalism plays better — in one analysis, solutions-oriented education stories in the Seattle Times got double the page views and 80 percent more time on page compared with other education stories. Other research indicates that it increases people’s sense of efficacy and belief that solutions exist. We’re now looking at ways of testing whether it can it be used to strengthen civic participation.
Q: Is it your hope that SJ can restore faith in journalism in this era where people seem to be so wary about “fake news”?
A: One of the questions is: What actually strengthens trust? We assume that trust in news is a function of accuracy, but the behavioral science suggests that people tend to trust institutions when they think they have their backs. There’s an old adage that goes, “I don’t care what you know until I know that you care.” So one question to ask is, “Do you think news organizations actually care about you?” And, if so, would you trust them more if you did? Traditional journalism traffics primarily in negative information — crime, incompetence, corruption. This watchdogging is essential, but it’s not enough because it doesn’t necessarily help communities respond. When you ask people what they care about, as we have done many times, they want to solve local problems. When you start producing journalism that shows them that they have options to do better, that typically will build up more trust over time. The next logical thing to test is whether it can also increase memberships and bring in more revenue for news organizations. If it can, then we may discover that the way to save journalism is to improve the news product: to make it genuinely helpful — a real source of intelligence — rather than something you often want to avoid.
Q: Are you hitting your goals for SJN?
A: We just finished our last three-year plan. Now we have another three-year plan, which runs from 2018 to 2020 and it’s really ambitious: We’re aiming to be working with at least 250 news organizations by then, in all 50 states. We’ll be seeking broader reach through our network, as well, with online tools and resources that are already reaching thousands of journalists. We’re also expanding our outreach to universities — 11 journalism schools have begun courses in solutions journalism, and a few dozen others are exploring it. We have also begun tracking solutions journalism from around the world — tagging and mapping these stories so that anyone who is interested in learning about social innovation — universities, philanthropists, institution leaders, policy makers — can search them for ideas and patterns to make strategic investments. It’s like having a “heat map” for real time social change. Our three-year budget is $15.2 million. Right now, we’re about a third of the way there in terms of raising the necessary funding to make it all happen.
Q: What would your pitch be to donors and where do their dollars go?
A: When you’re able to show with powerful reporting changes that are actually happening and how they’re happening, the ideas spread very quickly. Problems that people think are unavoidable become unacceptable when you can show what’s possible and cross-pollinate ideas and methods. Obviously, this isn’t a new insight. Most of the big foundations understand this, which is why they spend millions on their own communications arms. But we think it’s far more powerful if you can take an existing system — one that is already out there, that people are already using every day: the news — and repurpose it tell these kinds of stories systematically and at high quality. Maimonides wrote: "Hope is a belief in the plausibility of the possible as opposed to the necessity of the probable." Today so many people feel powerless and resentful. If we're going to build a better world, people need to see what’s possible every day. Alongside the threats and dangers, the corruption and violence, we need to see the care and the ingenuity that is all around us.
Want to see how solutions journalism works? Here are the 17 best stories from 2017 (via the Solutions Journalism Network).
Original contribution by Gabe Guarente, Content Manager at Giving Compass