David Bornstein co-authors the "Fixes" column in the New York Times, a column focused on solutions journalism. In his 2012 TED talk above, Bornstein explains why he has pursued solutions in his investigative journalism rather than simply focusing on the problem.
Bornstein argues that consistently negative feedback alienates journalism's desired audience. How many of us, he wonders, have stopped watching the nightly news because it feels like such an unrelenting parade of misery? He has a point. Yet quick fluff hero stories — a firefighter saving a kitten from a tree — are also not the answer. He posits that serious journalism can investigate solutions as easily as it can problems, and argues that news producers need to devote equal resources to this alternative approach.
I really like this perspective, as it charts an important middle ground between gloom and fluff, and I think journalism students would benefit from watching this video and talking about the balance of their own articles.
When writing about problems at school, are they also looking at what is working and how people are brainstorming possible solutions to the problem? If drug use at parties is a problem, they should report it honestly and fully. However, a solutions journalism approach would suggest they might also look into how organizations, adults or teenagers themselves are trying to address this problem.
Critics of solutions journalism fear this approach could cross the line between journalism and advocacy, and this is a valid concern. Student reporters must still go into their investigation of problems with an open mind, and they shouldn't take a stance on the best way to solve the problem. After all, part of the issue, journalist Jonathan Stay argues, is agreeing on the problems in the first place.
"You can’t just sit down and make a list like 'unemployment, education, crime, homelessness, global warming…' and get to reporting," Stay writes. "People are going to disagree not only about priorities, but about how to best to understand a problem, and even about whether or not certain things are problems. Dealing in solutions also tends to move the journalist from informer to advocate, which is tricky territory."
But thinking about stories from this perspective — or at least considering it as a valid approach — is a good way to motivate reporters and readers alike. Consider an article one of my students wrote about the recent rise of hate crimes. Although she didn't even know about the concept of solutions journalism when she wrote this piece, the angle she took — the way Muslims and Jews are coming together to support one another — is clearly a solutions approach.
"In my initial research, all I kept seeing was negativity," she wrote in an email when asked to reflect on her angle. "There were many of articles about the increasingly terrible hate crimes, but limited stories on what people were doing about them. When the news constantly evokes feelings of hopelessness, people stop reading it. I then decided to take on an angle of positivity, one in which there was community and action instead of a list of atrocities."
"The better people feel after reading the news, the more people's trust in the media will be restored," she added, "which is imperative to the functioning of our society."
We don't want our journalists to become advocates for causes, but we do want them to tell the whole story. The solutions, the people who help, are part of that story.
“And though she be but little, she is fierce!” -A Midsummer Night’s Dream