On Wednesday, July 30, 2014 I attended a talk given by a reporter of that ol’ Gray Lady of the Newspaper Realm, the New York Times. At Center City co-working space Benjamin’s Desk, Tina Rosenberg spoke to a crowd of approximately 40 journalists, content creators and consultants about the “Solutions Journalism” movement she and David Bornstein push forward with their writing at the NYT’s Fixes Blog. Rosenberg and Bornstein, along with a healthy team of writerly minions, also run the website SolutionsJournalism.org.
Being new(ish) to creating journalisticky things (as opposed to existing as a mere consumer of said things), I’m intrigued and perplexed by the current trend of splintering journalism into separate categories. This past year I’ve been studying Investigative Journalism and Data Journalism through some MOOCs and books. And like the rest of journo-townsfolk, I’m fascinated by the onset of Explainer Journalism and Vox.com. Last night’s talk was on what Rosenberg calls Solutions Journalism –not entirely sure she didn’t coin the term – and it centered on the reporting of manifested attempts to solve specific societal issues. Solutions Journalism concerns itself with the “How” part of the 5Ws&H reporting on problem-solving. “It focuses on the work,” Rosenberg said.
I’d love to get back to basics and define “journalism” then tell you where “solutions journalism” fits. Alas, the first slide Ms. Rosenberg put up was a 3 question list, the first question being “What is journalism for?” The answers served up by the audience were varied, largely unsatisfactory, and hovered precariously around the nouveau concept of shareable content. A sign of the times, no? We are in an era, Folks, where a roomful of journalists can’t pin down the purpose of their own occupation.
The other two questions were “What is newsworthy?” and “How do journalists best serve our audience?” were also met with some befuddlement, but they set the stage for Rosenberg to answer them herself.
Rosenberg said a “reigning myth” of journalism is that it “uncovers problems and exposes what’s going on with the world.” But journalism should uncover the good, too. Journalism is supposed to be a mirror of all things, good and bad. Solutions Journalism is related to community journalism. Many journalistic investigations focus on problems, but hardly any articles shed light on how communities addressed those problems. Sharing the solutions could help other communities implement change. (Seems like it’s influenced by Explainer journalism too).
But we are to be wary of the activist slant, Rosenberg warns. Solutions Journalism is not activism. It is merely a reporting of the facts. The subject could be activists, but the journalist’s investigative eye is trained on the changes effected by those who are addressing the previously reported problem.
Ms. Rosenberg further defined Solutions Journalism with 10 questions an article should answer. No one solutions story covers all 10, but journos should try to hit as many as possible. Here are the 10 questions:
- Does the story explain the causes of a social problem?
- Does the story present an associated response to that problem?
- Does the story get into the problem-solving and how-to details?
- Is the problem-solving process central to the narrative?
- Does the story present evidence of results linked to the response?
- Does the story explain the limitations of the response?
- Does the story convey an insight or a teachable lesson?
- Does the story avoid reading like a puff-piece?
- Does the story draw on sources who have a ground-level understanding, not just 30,000 foot expertise?
- Does the story give greater attention to the response than to a leader/innovator/do-gooder?
Positive Psychology for Journalism
I asked Ms. Rosenberg if she was familiar with the pitfalls of the Positive Psychology movement, because Solutions Journalism seems to me like Positive Psychology for Journalism. Positive Psychology’s base theory is that the science of Psychology should not be confined to studying pathology. After all (Martin Seligman and his cronies surmise), we can’t help people reach their highest potential by studying humans at their lowest points. Positive Psychology is a branch of the behavioral science dedicated to studying what goes right. Unfortunately, Positive Psychology as a science has valid criticisms lodged against it, not the least of which being shoddy research and poor statistical methods with funding coming from dubious sources. Indeed, it seems as though the entire Positive Psychology discipline was conceived solely at the behest of corporate clients in hopes that fully-actualized, Myers-Briggs validated workers can be squeezed for a few extra drops of sweat.
Ms. Rosenberg was not familiar with the swirling controversy in my field of origin. I attempted to explain how poorly-interpreted statistics can bring down an entire branch of a science and how Solutions Journalism can be quite dangerous in the statistically-unaware reporter’s hands. Ms. Rosenberg agreed with another audience member who reminded us that any branch of journalism falls under the same peril. I didn’t get to expound on my main point, which was the more important reason I spoke up: Positive Psychology is the bitch of Corporate America; The promise of “feel-good” journalism is soon to be the bitch of the newspaper industry. Rosenberg herself admitted the NYT is hoping solutions journalism sells more papers (yet later admitted that the NYT isn’t doing too much to measure the engagement on her work. Just a matter of time, I’m sure). Solutions Journalism is poised to be the next Corporate bitch. You think sex sells? That’s so 20th century. Now? Sun sells. Spread a little sunshine on your reader’s morning toast and they’ll keep clicking back for more.
Ms. Rosenberg understandably didn’t offer reservations with the concept of solutions journalism. She did mention that many old school newsroomers (my term) and even the new kids don’t want to write up solutions stories because the inevitable positive undertone will portray a hard-scrabble journo as gullible. Being swindled by a source or a story is the worst felony in the journo world, Rosenberg admitted. Not many reporters are willing to risk it.
I’ll reserve full judgment until I really take a look at some examples of Solutions Journalism. But I can see the pitfalls could very easily mimic those in the Happiness Industry (the overly commercialized, money-making outgrowth of Positive Psychology). Solutions Journalism could be easily leveraged by mastheads to build up the backlinks and bring in the business. It could be so easily consumed the demand will go up, which will mean the quality of the work will plummet. Integrity would disappear. It’d become the laughing stock of journalism.
I’ll wait to jump on the bandwagon. I’ll watch and see how Solutions Journalism’s trajectory correlates with Positive Psychology. But if it does follow the same path, and if the pop psychology gurus are any indication, Rosenberg and Bornstein could be sitting on the edge of a sickeningly lucrative industry. Think: Buzzfeed for the literati. Distractify with distinction.
Come to think of it: I’m in.
Check out my STORIFY collection of tweets from the event, Solutions Journalism examples, a call for applications for a solutioner-in-residence and a link to a webinar presented by Rosenberg about Solutions Journalism.
For more reading on how 100% of the stats you hear reported are wrong, read Jordan Ellenberg’s How Not to be Wrong. For in depth critique of Positive Psychology, read work by Julie Norem and Barbara Ehrenreich. Also listen to this NPR story about the origins of Positive Psychology, its ties to religion and its iffy iffiness.
Photo Credit: Me, Christine Cavalier, PurpleCar All Rights Reserved 2014