An ethical imperative to cover what works?

By Lindsey Anderson

Turn on the TV or open a newspaper, and you’ll see endless stories about “the problem”—how many people died of Ebola, where the latest mass shooting occurred, which schools have the highest dropout rates.

Journalist David Bornstein wants news organizations to add a different focus to mix: solutions journalism.

Solutions journalism is based on the philosophy that watchdogs can scrutinize what works as well as what doesn’t work, that journalists should cover what appear to be solutions as rigorously and thoroughly as they cover failures and wrongdoing.

“Typically, the journalist’s response is to look at the worst performers and pounce on them,” Bornstein said. “We’re saying you can and also should be looking at the positive deviants.”

Bornstein, a columnist for The New York Times, and the author and blogger Courtney E. Martin launched the Solutions Journalism Network in 2013 to help journalists robustly cover ways in which people are trying to address problems, from police shootings to school discipline.

solutions journalism network copy

An explainer on the Solutions Journalism Network website outlines what solutions journalism isn’t: It’s not hero worship, think tank proposals, silver bullets or heartwarming stories about good deeds. It is reporting that uses the same in-depth digging as traditional investigations — relying on data, research, interviews with experts and personal stories — to examine seemingly effective approaches to structural issues, Bornstein said in an interview.

He pointed to the Seattle Times’ Education Lab, a partnership with the Solutions Journalism Network that examines “promising approaches to some of the most persistent challenges in public education,” according to the descriptor on the Times’ website.

One recent series, by Seattle Times reporter Cynthia Rowe, explored school discipline. Rowe found that black students received out-of-school suspensions at higher rates than their peers, and national studies show suspending students leads to lower graduation rates.

“This is outrageous and is clearly a problem,” Bernstein said. “I could write this story and people would get outraged.”

But Rowe found that some Seattle schools were swapping traditional suspensions for alternative discipline practices, including one high school trying restorative justice. Suspensions plummeted after the school implemented restorative justice, Rowe wrote, and the trend followed what other school districts in the country had experienced: When they implemented restorative justice, behavioral problems, office referrals and racial disparities dropped. Rowe witnessed the effect of one restorative justice session between a Seattle teacher and a teen, who had come to school reeking of marijuana. Rather than be suspended, the student signed a contract to lead three student discussions on drug use and read two college-level works and write a related essay, Rowe wrote.

Reporting like Rowe’s—that mixes data with powerful interviews to evaluate a positive deviant—takes away excuses for inaction on a challenging problem like discipline, Bornstein said. It also prompted reader engagement as subscribers looked forward to what Rowe would dig into next, he said.

This solutions journalism philosophy isn’t exactly new, experts said.

“The solutions journalism thing is really another name for approaching something that’s long been an issue and perhaps a shortcoming in journalism … and that’s follow-through,” University of Wisconsin-Madison Center for Journalism Ethics Director Robert Drechsel said.

Journalists often spend significant time on lengthy investigations into corruption, mistreatment, inequality and fatal failures, but whether because of small staffs, newsroom cuts, or the pressure to focus on breaking news, they rarely take the next step and explore how people are trying to address those systematic issues, Drechsel said.

“Journalists have an obligation to provide meaningful, useful, contextual information, and if a major component of that is missing, that’s a failure of some kind for journalists,” he said.

For Bornstein, news coverage of the Ebola outbreak was a particularly egregious example of the failures of problem-oriented reporting, with segments on how “Ebola was going to end the free world.” As soon as Ebola’s spread began to slow and confirmed Ebola cases decreased, news coverage ebbed, he said.

“I bet there are a hundred stories of people doing intelligent, courageous things that are part of why Ebola is no longer in the news,” he said.

Proper journalism should already include a focus on what works, as well as what doesn’t work, said American University journalism program Director John Watson, who has taught and researched media law and journalism ethics. The mandate of the First Amendment, he said, is to provide means to solve problems.

“That can’t be done just by focusing on what’s not working,” Watson said. “‘This is not working’ is just the beginning of what journalists do. … Solutions are next in line.”

News coverage should first identify problems, and then examine whether people are working to solve the problems and how effective their efforts are, all three men said. It is an ethical failure to not cover evidence-backed solutions, they said.

“It presents an image of the world, an idea of the world that’s out of sync with the truth,” Bornstein said. “It’s inaccurate.” Solutions journalism helps to “round out the story.”

“The biggest ethical concern for journalists is to be accurate, to be fair, to be balanced,” he continued. “So I would say that it’s incumbent on journalists to try as much as possible to present a faithful view of the world, so that the audience, the reader, the public can have the best information possible to be able to adequately appraise threats, understand problems, understand the context and also understand the question of what can be done, whether it’s being done and what needs to be done to address major problems.”

Bornstein said he thinks modern journalism has eroded the public’s confidence in society’s ability to successfully solve problems. There’s a sense of “learned helplessness” among readers who see only news coverage of problems and don’t see how to fix them, he said.

“It’s very possible, and I would say probable, for the field of journalism as a whole to undermine society’s awareness of and capacity to succeed in combating its most pressing problems, and that undermines journalism’s core mission,” he said. “It’s actually really bad for democracy.”

Yet even some of the supporters of solutions journalism caution against ethical pitfalls.

Both Watson and Drechsel noted that solutions journalism could easily cross the line into advocacy journalism if reporters fail to present different perspectives.

Journalists should write about and investigate what experts say are possible solutions and their evidence, but endorsing a single solution should be left to editorial boards and opinion pages, Watson said.

Solutions to any newsworthy problem are complex, he said. Take the high rate of gun violence in America: Solutions range from eliminating all guns to giving everyone a gun, Watson said.

“The major problem with emphasizing solutions journalism as a new and important and necessary adjunct to journalism is it assumes there are solutions that are known and accepted by everyone as the solution to the problem,” Watson said.

Instilling in journalists the belief that they can identify solutions is also treacherous, he said; journalists are more informed than the average person, but they don’t know everything.

“You’re introducing and instilling in them (journalists) the concept that they know what is true, they know what is right, they know what works,” he said. “We can’t get to the point to say ‘That’s a solution’ because we don’t know, and that’s really dangerous.”

“Journalists at best are ‘problem illuminators’ not problem solvers,” he continued. “The minute we begin to solve problems, we’re doomed. We’re just another voice in the crowd pointing fingers. But journalists should always illuminate the solution that others have offered, particularly the solution that appears to work.”

*          *           *

Editor’s Note—Lindsey Anderson on her choice of subject for her feature article: “I had learned about solutions journalism shortly before attending FASPE, and kept thinking about the philosophy during our discussions on the ethical pitfalls and failures in journalism. I couldn’t help but see journalists’ reluctance to cover what people are doing to address structural problems as another ethical misstep.”

Leave a Reply