Solutions Journalism Network focuses a lens on health issues

Journalism / Article

Tina Rosenberg is co-founder of Solutions Journalism Network, a recipient of a 2013 Knight grant and a winner of Knight News Challenge: Health. Rosenberg is also a winner of the Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction and the National Book Award.

The reigning myth of journalism is that we cover problems. It’s a journalist’s job to unearth what’s wrong with society. Once this information comes to light, someone will come along and fix it.  

That’s the idea anyway.

Does anyone think this is working?    

Sometimes it does; journalism uncovers a scandal too big to be ignored, and things change. But that’s rare. And the cost is high. Serious journalism’s relentless focus on problems contributes to civic apathy and disengagement. This makes it less likely that change will occur. 

People don’t change simply because someone points out their bad behavior—and neither do societies. People need to know that change is possible; they need to know that people who are just like them have accomplished change. And they need to know how it was done.

So do societies.  

Going by the values of journalism itself, a single-minded focus on the world’s problems is worse than counterproductive; it’s false. Journalists should cover serious problems—even more than we do now—but that’s not the whole story. Every problem has people attempting to solve it. Some fail, some succeed a bit, and some succeed a lot. What they are doing, how it’s going, and what we can learn from it, that’s a story journalists seldom tell. But we should.    

A little over a year ago, David Bornstein, Courtney Martin and I started the Solutions Journalism Network. David and I co-write the New York Times Fixes column, and Courtney is an award-winning writer and a regular Fixes contributor. Our mission is to legitimize and spread the practice of solutions journalism—reporting on responses to problems with the same rigor we use for traditional reporting.

When we began, we assumed that many reporters would believe this was dangerous ground. In our profession, excessive cynicism is a misdemeanor, but excessive gullibility is a felony.  The worst thing you can do in journalism is to write that something is working—and be wrong.    

It need not be dangerous ground—if done right.

Here’s what we mean by solutions journalism:

  • It’s not good news, happy news or heartwarming news. Solutions journalism can have stellar humans as characters, but it’s really about the work:  What are these characters doing that other people haven’t done, and what effects is that producing? 
  • It’s not PR. With solutions journalism, reporters address solutions with the same rigor they apply to problems. 
  • It’s not journalists telling the world what should happen. It’s not proposing theoretical solutions. It’s reporting on existing responses to problems.  
  • It’s not the last three paragraphs of a more traditional story. Good solutions journalism looks at the response deeply enough for society to learn valuable information about what works and what doesn’t.

We’ve now worked with several dozen newsrooms, conducting workshops and helping them get started with solutions journalism projects. Our flagship work is with the Seattle Times, which is doing a series on solutions in education, but we’ve also worked with newsrooms to develop stories on fighting crime, responding to climate change and other issues. We also help finance solutions-oriented reporting and are developing courses in solutions journalism.

The failure of the business model in legacy journalism has opened newsrooms to new ideas like ours. Editors know they need to do something different.  Everyone recognizes the bigger impact these stories have. And they find it useful to write about solutions as a way to sharpen their reporting; after all, if someone just like you is having success addressing a problem, what’s your excuse?

Readers engage with these stories.  It empowers them to see how other people are solving problems. Solutions stories also change the debate, making it less polarized, more civil and constructive.

Changing behavior has turned out to be our primary challenge. Newsrooms need new practices to facilitate, encourage and reward solutions journalism. Reporters need a systematic way to find solutions stories (if they have to just stumble on them, they probably won’t). These practices have to be embedded in muscle memory. And reporters need a way to look at solutions journalism that makes them feel completely comfortable.

This is what we’re trying to do with our Knight News Challenge project.  The project revolves around using health databases to find positive deviants.  

When a reporter gets hold of a database, the usual reflex is to look for the negative deviant—the worst actor—and pounce. But she should also look for the positive deviant—the best actor.  

Health journalists from our partner news organizations (we have a few, but are still recruiting) will choose serious health problems. We’ll help them break problems down into small pieces. Then, the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation in Seattle will act as a data concierge.  The institute not only runs the world’s largest health database, the Global Burden of Disease study, it knows what’s in all kinds of health databases. Researchers there will comb those databases to help the reporter find the positive deviant—the city or county that’s having the most success with that problem. That’s not necessarily a story, by the way; it takes some reporting to find out if it is. If it is a story, we’ll provide travel money.     

For example: A health reporter wants to write about the problem of preterm births in her city. One aspect of this is the tremendous disparity between white and African-American mothers.  (College-educated African-American mothers have higher rates of premature birth than high-school dropout whites.) The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation can help the reporter find the place that has the smallest—or no—gap. It’s up to the reporter to find out how this was done. 

“Local news” is usually defined as what’s happening in our coverage area. We want to redefine it to include what’s happening that’s of interest and value to our coverage area. How other cities are successfully responding to shared problems—what could be a more important or compelling story?