Last month, the nonprofit Solutions Journalism Network published a list of local newsrooms and other media outlets that have integrated the practice of solutions-oriented reporting into their coverage. The post was a turning point of sorts; when SJN was founded in 2013, the term “solutions journalism” wasn’t exactly common parlance, says co-founder and CEO David Bornstein. In Bornstein’s view, it’s not enough to simply lay out the facts of a problem: Society will only move forward if we’re exposed to what is working in communities — and work together to elevate those solutions.
Bornstein launched SJN to spread the practice of approaching news stories through the lens of problem-solving. Besides an ever-growing database of published solutions stories, the organization trains journalists and provides a place for them to connect. NationSwell spoke with Bornstein, who’s been covering social innovation for two decades and co-authors The New York Times’s “Fixes” column, on what solutions journalism is and why it matters.
NationSwell: Since you founded SJN in 2013, how has the organization evolved, and how has the field of solutions journalism evolved in general?
Bornstein: There’s been so much change. I would say our original mission was to legitimize and spread the practice of solutions journalism, which we define as rigorous reporting that looks at solutions to social problems. It’s fairly legitimized now that there are more and more news organizations regularly integrating solutions journalism into what they do — and not just as an add-on, but integrated into their core work. There’s certainly still a long way to go. But there’s much more adoption than there was even two or three years ago. And much more acceptance that journalism has to help people understand the nature of problems, and what their options are to try to respond to those problems.
NationSwell: Negative news still dominates most headlines. Why do you think that is, and what impact does that negativity have on audiences?
Bornstein: Most news is reacting to something that is problematic, and it still seems to be job one in journalism to identify problems and where society is falling short, whether through scandal, malfeasance, corruption or negligence. As we used to say, the problems scream and the solutions whisper.
If there is a shooting or a fire or an explosion, these kinds of flash-point events demand coverage. Even if a politician says something inflammatory, it demands coverage. A solutions story is often something that is quietly working in the background to improve high school graduation rates, or to reduce the levels of addiction in a county — things like that. These are not always things that are clamoring for attention. They’re not screaming the way the problems do. It takes more of an intentional effort to discover these stories and more research, usually. They don’t land on your desk; they don’t appear on the police scanner. That’s why you need to build in the editorial habit to look for [solutions] stories, because if you don’t, you will continuously miss them.
NationSwell: How do you keep solutions stories from veering into the territory of advocacy? For example, you can say that in the U.S., gun violence is a problem. Most solutions stories would probably highlight organizations that are working to reduce gun violence (editor’s note: NationSwell has published several). But the reaction we see from some gun-rights supporters is to accuse us of trying to suppress the second amendment. How do you balance those two things?
Bornstein: I would say the main thing is to report on lots of different ways communities are reducing violence, [whether] by making it harder for certain types of people to get guns, or by policing approaches that use epidemiological tactics to try to anticipate where and when gun violence is going to occur, and head it off at the pass. The point is not to advocate for any one approach, but to look at all the options, and to associate options with the evidence.
Journalists should not be in the business of picking winners, but we should be in the business of furnishing as many options as possible, so people can deliberate with all the information they need. Every community should be aware of the full range of options that are available to solve the problems that are most pressing.
“If journalists don’t give people news that strengthens their ability to be effective and compassionate citizens, people won’t consume it very much.”
NationSwell: How can solutions-oriented reporting engage and impact people in a way that traditional reporting does not?
Bornstein: News avoidance is on the rise, because it’s very difficult to turn on the TV or look at your screen and see 50 stories that are all really stressful and depressing about the economy, about climate change, about the rise of polarization, or about populism or bigotry or violence. People will eventually stop engaging, which is what researchers are finding.
The simplest thing journalists can do is to tell the whole story. When you’re covering society, do you only cover the pathology? Or do you also look at responses and efforts to solve problems, which are quite abundant in most areas? We’ve rarely come across issues that you can’t report through a solutions lens. And when you do that, people might say, “Oh, wow, we have a really big problem with gun violence in our country. And look, there’s also about 300 different things that communities are trying to do to reduce gun violence.” You could get fatalistic and say, “Well, none of that seems to make a difference to Congress.” Or you can say, “But boy, there are a lot of communities that actually are safer today than they were five years ago, so let’s look at what happened there.” So you can give people information that enables them to engage and have a sense of control, efficacy, and curiosity.
Because people really do want to build a better world. It’s a very strong human impulse to have control over your life and over your community, and, in a way, be able to shape things with your aspirations. If journalists don’t give people news that strengthens their ability to be effective and compassionate citizens, people won’t consume it very much.
NationSwell: As local newsrooms shrink, are you worried about the sustainability of solutions journalism?
Bornstein: No, I’m actually worried if local newsrooms don’t start providing their communities with news they really value and are willing to pay for, those local newsrooms may go out of business. I think the number one thing news organizations have to do today to become more economically viable is to change the product, you know?
In survey after survey, when people are asked, “How does the news land on you?” they say, “It makes me feel depressed, it makes me feel powerless, and I don’t know if I can trust it.” Which are the top three reasons that the Reuters Institute has said people are avoiding the news. So basically you have a product called news that in its normal consumption makes people feel depressed and powerless. And then the news organizations’ response is to say, “And gosh, you won’t even pay for it.”
But if the product, over time, gives people information that helps them to be more powerful and creative as citizens, they will buy it. Just like people pay a ton of money to go to college, and a ton of money sometimes to go to conferences. People pay for knowledge when that knowledge is really useful to them. Question is: Why won’t people pay for the news? They’re not considering it useful knowledge at some level where they would pay for it.
NationSwell: A lot of people, as you alluded to, don’t trust the media because they think it’s biased. Why do you think that sentiment persists, and how does solutions journalism fit into that bigger picture?
Bornstein: Well, there are a lot of biases in media, and the bias we always look at is political bias, whether it’s a liberal or conservative newsroom. But the main bias in journalism is the bias that says a problem is newsworthy, and a response to a problem is not.
When we go around the country and speak to reporters in small towns, we say, “What do you think of the national news about your community? Is it accurate?” And they’ll say, “It’s usually pretty accurate, but it’s also not really fully true.” Especially if you go to the South, people say, “The national news always makes us look like a bunch of dumb yokels. You come to Alabama to cover us when Alabama can be made fun of.” And so you can look through newspapers for the last 20 years to see how many stories about things happening in Alabama in the national press look at the creativity, the agency, and the problem-solving acumen of the people in that state. And you will probably come up pretty empty-handed.
NationSwell: We’re obviously living through a time of profound division and partisanship. Do you think solutions journalism has the potential to bring people together for a common cause?
Bornstein: First of all, people have to learn how to talk to each other. We commissioned an article last year called “Complicating the Narratives,” which really looked at how journalists, or anybody, can listen and interview differently in order to develop a deeper understanding of people with whom they disagree. Those are skills that many people lack, including many journalists who end up, through the course of normal interviewing and reporting, pushing people into their corners.
But the lens of solutions journalism is an interesting one. If you look at a problem — like a school’s low graduation rate, or how to care for children who’ve experienced trauma — and you lay out 10 different responses to that problem, you’ll find that most of the time, the ideas and models put forward are not that ideologically divisive. If something is working people are like, “Yeah, that makes sense.”
It’s really the national-level frames on federal policy that are extraordinarily divisive, and we keep the focus on them all the time. When we shift the focus to local problem-solving, it’s amazing how much more trust and agreement and common ground people can find. By focusing on local-level problem-solving and the solutions that really do make a difference in people’s lives, journalism will rebuild trust. And it will reduce polarization: as a matter of fact, I know that to be true. I’ve seen it.