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Reporting ‘the whole story’: 9 good questions with David Bornstein of Solutions Journalism Network

The Solutions Journalism Network works to support reporting that examines potential solutions to social problems, rather than just chronicling the problems themselves.

It just received a grant for $180,000 from the Knight Foundation to collaborate with the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation on giving reporters data about solutions to health problems.

We talked with co-founder David Bornstein about the mission and how to do this kind of reporting well.

1. What is the Solutions Journalism Network and what is the core idea behind it?

David Bornstein

David Bornstein

Co-founder of Solutions Journalism Network

DAVID BORNSTEIN: The Solutions Journalism Network is a new organization founded by veteran reporters to legitimize and spread the practice of “solutions journalism” — rigorous reporting about responses to social problems.

Our work is predicated on the idea that every problem in society produces a variety of responses. So: if journalists cover the problems, they should also cover the responses. That’s simply telling the whole story.

However, the reporting should be done with the same level of rigor and discernment and hard-headedness that journalists bring to traditional coverage. If done well, solutions journalism makes our reporting stronger and more complete. It injects valuable information into the public conversation, attracts readers and engages them deeply, and helps to de-polarize the public debate.

SJN currently has a staff of nine. Our main focus is spreading the practice of solutions journalism through online and in-person engagements and by developing projects with news organizations. We’re building a variety of tools to help journalists with the distinctive challenges of this kind of reporting (e.g., sourcing, using evidence and data to vet stories, and constructing stories driven by a compelling problem solving narrative). We’ve worked with two-dozen newsrooms so far — in partnerships that range from a single workshop to a year-long collaboration, as is the case with The Seattle Times’ Education Lab series.

If done well, solutions journalism makes our reporting stronger and more complete. It injects valuable information into the public conversation, attracts readers and engages them deeply, and helps to de-polarize the public debate.

We also run funds to help journalists working on solutions stories finance their reporting. We are developing courses for working journalists and will be developing a full J-school curriculum. As we grow, we hope to expand what is already shaping up to be a vibrant network of journalists and editors who see benefits in connecting with one another, exchanging ideas and experiences.

2. How is solutions journalism different from advocacy journalism, or promoting particular outcomes, one of the ideas that was controversial in the civic journalism movement in the 1990s?

BORNSTEIN: Solutions journalism is simply critical and clear-eyed reporting that investigates and explains existing credible responses to social problems. It is explicitly not about trying to promote ideas or pick winners or the best models for addressing problems.

We use the term “solutions journalism” to describe a reporting practice that examines where people are working toward solutions, focusing on the results that they are producing (based on the evidence available). This reporting explores not just what may be working, but how it appears to be working, or, alternatively, why it may be stumbling.

Solutions stories do not celebrate or glorify individuals or organizations. They do not resort to fluffy, uncritical coverage of organizations. They do not proclaim what “should” be done. And they do not exhort readers to take specific action – such as signing a petition or donating money.

Solutions journalism merely asks news professionals to apply the same selection criteria to the responses to those problems: Simply put, is this a good story? Then reporters go out and do the thoughtful and rigorous reporting that forms the foundation for any great journalism.

This means talking to sources who can speak to the validity of a potential solution and examining credible data and other evidence that answer the questions: What is going on here? Is the response working, or not? Specifically, what results is it producing and how do we know? How is it new and different? What are its limitations? When the evidence is inconclusive, or when an innovation is too new to assess with confidence, we say so.

3. You call this “The Whole Story.” What do you mean by that?

It’s like pointing out your children’s mistakes every morning and expecting that this will make them into better people. Children need examples … Society needs the same thing.

BORNSTEIN: We mean that doing journalism about responses to problems as well as problems [themselves] gives a more accurate picture of the world.

Every reporter can find problems to uncover – we’ll never run out. And we should do as many of these stories as we can. But there has been an explosion of decentralized social innovation in the last few decades — more problem-solving than ever before at the global level.

These changes are driven by deep historical forces — everything from the women’s movement to the spread of education to the information revolution. Many more people around the world are powerful — not just in a destructive way (as we have seen with terrorism and the dangers of technology), but in a constructive way, too. The latter story still remains something of a hidden history; it’s vastly underreported.

Why do we miss it? The feedback system known as journalism is based on the idea that the way to improve society is to show people where we’re going wrong. It’s like pointing out your children’s mistakes every morning and expecting that this will make them into better people. Children need examples. They need to know that different behavior is possible and wins notice. Society needs the same thing. Misdeeds often persist because people are ignorant of ways to address them more successfully.

Solving complex problems in a world of rapid change is rarely a matter of passing a law or spending more money or instituting more accountability. It would be nice if we could legislate away our problems. In reality, it takes new methods: better recipes, not just more cooking. So finding those ideas and exploring them in detail becomes essential. It is indeed the work of journalists to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. Traditional journalism shows us why. Solutions journalism shows us how.

4. Why did you need to create a separate organization for this? Is the idea that challenging for journalists?

Problems are harder to ignore. Problems scream; solutions whisper. So, without concerted efforts, journalists will miss lots of quiet stories that have the potential to inject new information.

BORNSTEIN: Most journalists grasp the basic idea quickly. But typically there are barriers that prevent them from putting it into practice: There is a natural reflex in journalism to focus on problems, corruption and scandal.

Part of this has to do with the way journalists see their default role, as watchdogs. The famous phrase by Louis Brandeis — “sunlight is said to be the best disinfectant” — captures the animating drive behind much journalism. If you think your role is to “disinfect” society, you get very good at hunting for germs (but you miss a lot of antibodies).

Also, problems are harder to ignore. Problems scream; solutions whisper. So, without concerted efforts, journalists will miss lots of quiet stories that have the potential to inject new information into the conversation about how to address problems. That’s why we feel that it’s useful to have a framework that explains why solutions journalism is not only legitimate, but necessary — if we want the news to be accurate and comprehensive.

The role of the Solutions Journalism Network is to help advance this framework and make it attractive for journalists to engage in this practice regularly. Our job is to accelerate learning about the practice and disseminate tools that make it doable at high quality on a daily basis and on deadline.

The Solutions Journalism Network supports this practice change in three ways. First, we’re creating a curriculum that codifies solutions journalism in ways that are easily accessible: What is it, and how do you do it?

Second, we’re creating opportunities for journalists to demonstrate what good solutions stories looks like. That’s the point of our partnerships with newsrooms and our story funds: We’re building a critical mass of stories that represent the solutions approach as practiced by talented journalists. We’re also learning how audiences engage with those stories, and how that engagement can drive impact.

With those demonstration cases as a foundation, we’re building a community of reporters and editors who get the solutions approach, want to learn more, and are interested in collaborating with each other. We expect that this network will continually improve the solutions approach and maintain high standards.

But we don’t think that the SJN will have to exist forever. We imagine that it will take 10 years for solutions journalism to become a standard practice. At that point, we will retire.

5. Who has done this well?

BORNSTEIN: Every time we speak with journalists about this idea, someone ends up saying: “But, you’re just talking about covering the news!” Exactly!

This is simply good journalism focused on a category of stories that are under-reported. When everybody already knows about a problem, covering the responses to it is, in the classic sense, more newsworthy than more problem-oriented coverage.

Some people are doing solutions journalism regularly. One of the most famous practitioners is Michael Lewis. Moneyball and The Big Short both examine problems — the inequities money produces in baseball and, er, the crash of the world economy — through a focus on the outliers who succeeded while others failed. (Would you have read Moneyball if it had been about a broke loser?)

Many of Atul Gawande’s medical stories for the New Yorker are solutions journalism. For example, The Hot Spotters shows how Camden, N.J., improved the health of its residents and saved money by focusing on a handful of emergency room frequent flyers.

What makes their stories so compelling to read is that they go deep into the problem solving challenges — i.e., how these changes were effected. Those detective-like stories are page turners if done well.

But mere mortals like us do great solutions journalism, too: Meg Kissinger of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel has done several major series looking at Milwaukee’s dreadful treatment of people with mental illness. As part of her series, she looks for places that do a better job. For example, as part of her series Chronic Crisis, she went to Houston to look at a program that’s widely considered a model.

The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reported on Houston's mental health system as a possible solution model.

The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reported on Houston’s mental health system as a possible solution model.

Keegan Kyle is an investigative reporter for the Orange County Register. He did a great story exposing Santa Ana’s revolving door for women arrested for prostitution, a system that eats up a huge amount of police resources while making little dent in prostitution. He made the story much stronger by showing that a few miles away in Anaheim, police moved away from Santa Ana’s approach to one yielding better results — it targets pimps, while providing prostitutes with social services instead of a night in jail. Kyle’s story is very careful, exploring the data and its limitations, and the shortcomings of Anaheim’s program as well as its successes.

These are examples that we had nothing to do with. One series that is a product of our collaboration is the Seattle Times’ Education Lab. The first story that ran in the series looked at a turnaround of a school — and how the gains were made.

6. What are the stumbling blocks you have seen when you’ve worked with people?

Reporting on the responses to problems often involves going to different sources and examining new sorts of evidence in ways that journalists aren’t accustomed to.

BORNSTEIN: We’ve already touched on some of the hurdles: journalists’ historical bias toward stories that focus on corruption and scandal, and their very reasonable fear that they’ll be perceived as advocates for the responses they describe. And journalists often conflate solutions journalism with “good news” reporting — which is not rigorous, can come off as feel-good puff, and tends to be balkanized in “Living” sections or at the end of news broadcasts. This sort of coverage gets no respect within journalism (and it shouldn’t).

There’s also a fear of the unknown. Reporting on the responses to problems often involves going to different sources and examining new sorts of evidence in ways that journalists aren’t accustomed to. Some worry about getting it wrong, and about being branded naive or gullible if a solution they’ve identified turns out not to work.

Most often, we come against resistance to investing the sort of time and resources it takes to do high-quality solutions reporting. This resistance seems to operate mostly at the department editor level, but it’s reinforced up an down the newsroom hierarchy: journalists believe that solutions stories lack tension and gravitas, and that they therefore can’t compete for audience traffic.

It’s an understandable calculus — why give a reporter two weeks to pursue a serious solutions story when a traditional bad-news investigative piece seems like it would get a lot more attention?

But we’re seeing that audiences engage energetically with stories that incorporate a solutions perspective; Claudia Rowe, the Seattle Times reporter who wrote the first major article in the paper’s Education Lab series, says reader response exceeded anything she had experienced in her 23-year career. We’re working on more formal metrics that we hope will prove the point.

7. How has social media, and the context of the audience also being contributors and editors to the news they consume, affected what you are doing?

BORNSTEIN: Social media and, more broadly, audience engagement, is a huge part of this.

One of the premises of solutions journalism is that problems often persist because people are ignorant of things they could do to address them more successfully. When people feel their institutions are beyond repair and their fellow citizens are untrustworthy, they are less likely to think about engaging in the public sphere. They may come to resign themselves to the status quo and focus on areas where they can assert control. That weakens democracy.

By exposing people to what works — and demystifying the how’s and why’s — solutions journalism can alter their sense of what’s possible, fostering a more productive public discourse and catalytic citizenship. By the same token, better informed and more engaged citizens help to drive better journalism.

The Seattle Times, for example, has hired a full-time engagement editor to focus exclusively on its Education Lab project. This editor is charged with making the journalistic content accessible through multiple channels — and with inviting diverse education constituents to explore, discuss, and engage. The resulting conversations — in online chats, “questions of the day,” Google Hangouts and live community-based events — allow citizens to take ownership of the solutions they’ve read about. We hope that they’ll harvest insights that are relevant, and that those ideas will spark local innovation and policy change.

The Times’ education reporters are hosting many of those discussions. They’re exposed to networks they otherwise wouldn’t explore; they get immediate feedback on what’s most urgent for a broad range of education constituents; and they come away with fresh perspective and ideas that can inform future articles. It’s a very virtuous circle.

8. What worries you about what you are trying to do?

BORNSTEIN: Our main concern is that people will get the idea, but the behavior won’t change. That it will be too hard to change the habits in newsrooms.

We also worry that people will misunderstand what we’re saying and dismiss the idea before they’ve given it a hearing. For example, some folks imagine that we are trying to advance a new movement in journalism — like civic journalism — and immediately they say, “That didn’t work — or that won’t work.” Our focus is narrower. We are simply talking about a practice — an additional tool.

We worry that the idea will not be taken seriously because people confuse solutions journalism with what we call the “Imposters,” fluffy, good news, feel-good stories. We hear things like: “Oh, we already do that. We have our ‘Make the world better’ segment every Thursday and during the holiday season…” The biggest threat to this idea is not that people will ignore it, but that people will do it badly, falling into the traps of the “imposters” — which will undercut its credibility and potential impact.

Mostly, we worry that editors will be reluctant to give solutions journalism a fair shake on the belief that it’s not exciting journalism, won’t advance their careers, or won’t draw much public attention.

9. What’s the relationship between solutions journalism and other practices in journalism?

BORNSTEIN: Solutions journalism is a tool, not a movement. It’s not like civic journalism, citizen journalism or public journalism. Instead, it falls squarely within standard journalistic practices: reporting on something that is happening and the associated effects. This is what journalists do every day.

Sometimes the most powerful way to frame an investigation is through a solutions lens.

Solutions journalism can be integrated into beat reporting. If you are covering education or health, you’ll be reporting on problems all the time; now, you’ll be actively looking for responses that are newsworthy, too.

However, it’s not a tool that works in all situations. It does take time to understand whether a response is worth the public’s attention, whether the evidence is credible, and most important, how it is actually achieving its results. Because of the time investment, the best solutions stories will often run as feature stories, not breaking news.

Solutions journalism is most useful when a problem is already well known — so reporting on a response to the problem is fresh for readers and offers society useful knowledge. It’s most useful when that problem is widely shared — which makes the experience of others meaningful for us.

Many people assume that solutions journalism is the opposite of investigative journalism. That’s not the case. By shining a spotlight on something that is working better, the journalist can sharpen or add teeth to an investigative piece — taking away excuses and making poor performance less acceptable.

And sometimes you go into a story thinking, hmm, interesting solution, and you discover it doesn’t work. Now you have an opportunity to investigate why not. Or you find a good idea and discover that there are ignoble forces at work trying to keep it from spreading. That’s an important story. Or, you go into a story thinking that people are screwing up badly, and you discover that it’s not that cut and dry. Maybe you discover explanations for the failure — not incompetence, but institutional shackles. That’s important context.

And sometimes the most powerful way to frame an investigation is through a solutions lens. For example, my colleague Tina Rosenberg wrote a highly influential story in 2001 in the New York Times Magazine that looked at how Brazil was providing AIDS medications to anyone who needed them. By looking at a solution, the story exposed the barriers the pharmaceutical industry and its backers in Washington were putting in Brazil’s way as it sought to make generic drugs, and showed how Brazil overcame them.

That investigation could have been set in one of 70-some countries that wasn’t giving people medicines. But it was much more powerful set in Brazil. It took away the excuses — no country could claim anymore that it couldn’t be done. And it had a tremendous impact.

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