Mending, Not Just Rending: The Case for ‘Solutions Journalism’

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It’s a phrase my educator wife has often used, “Catch a kid doing the right thing,” and lift that up. Amplifying the positive, catching kids in the act of doing good or great things, is a not-so-easy but terribly important alternative to “giving all the attention to the screw-ups” and dwelling on the negative.

And it’s a phrase used by journalist David Bornstein about his effort to encourage journalism that isn’t only or always about what is going wrong, what he calls “deficit journalism.”

Bornstein is the co-founder of the Solutions Journalism Network. The idea is to not only report on the problems, “the deficits,” but also on solutions, progress, learnings that can be applied elsewhere.

Here’s Bornstein: “Particularly when it comes to communities that have experienced poverty historically or communities of color in the United States especially, you have narratives that have been deficit-framed for as long as we’ve had journalism.”

I notice something in our local paper here in Wallowa County, “The Chieftain.” Lots of stories on good being done and on people succeeding. You could get discouraged here, noting the decline of small towns and rural economies and the many problems that divide people. But the “Chieftain” is reliable in highlighting community efforts that are positive, particularly the achievements and contributions of the County’s young people. You could accuse it of “boosterism,” but hell, we all need boosters, don’t we?

Bornstein doesn’t ask for journalism that denies or overlooks our problems. But he does want to encourage journalism that also highlights solutions. “Solutions Journalism Network, a group Bernstein has co-founded, works with news organizations to produce rigorous reporting on responses to social problems. The goal is to ‘rebalance the news’ to provide people a sense of investment and communities with the information they need to participate in a healthy democracy.”

The impact of a steady stream of “deficit reporting” is to encourage cynicism (“everybody’s a crook”) and despair (“there’s nothing you can do”). Sharing news about things that are working seems pretty basic.

Also made me think of Jack Gilbert’s wonderful poem, “A Brief for the Defense.” Gilbert, like Bernstein, notes the manifold ways the world is a disaster. But to focus on all that only and relentlessly is, well, demonic. We must risk delight,” writes Gilbert, and even more tellingly: “To make injustice the only measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.”

So I think Bornstein’s cause — for journalism to report on effective responses to social problems — a good and worthy one. Moreover, Gilbert is right, to focus only on the rending and not on the mending has spiritual implications and consequences. It is “to praise the Devil.”

So, friends, let us “risk delight” and at least occasionally “catch the world doing the right thing.”

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Tony is a writer, teacher, speaker and ordained minister (United Church of Christ). He served as Senior Minister of Seattle’s Plymouth Congregational Church for fourteen years. His newest book is Useful Wisdom: Letters to Young (and not so young) Ministers. He divides his time between Seattle and a cabin in Wallowa County of northeastern Oregon. If you’d like to know more or receive his regular blogs in your email, go to his site listed above to sign-up.

2 COMMENTS

  1. One of the examples of solutions journalism is the Seattle Times, which washes some corporate money such as Microsoft’s through the Solutions Journalism Foundation. The articles thus funded can have an annoyingly positive thrust that is at odds with detached journalism. And I also worry that as the Times goes increasingly down this “nonprofit” path, it cuts back other areas not subject to this kind of funding. For instance, where is the Times King County reporter? Port of Seattle? University of Washington?

  2. Great observation – which can be applied to other industries. Not just journalism.

    It would be great to see Amazon take the premise behind this article to heart.

    When it provides it’s warehouse workers with performance feedback:
    1) Why not emphasize statistics on good performance? Why overwhelm workers with a constant flow of nit-picky criticisms?
    2) Why not develop an overall performance evaluation card which balances good and bad performance over time?
    3) Are daily reports used to evaluate the ability of line managers improve warehouse processes?
    4) Are daily reports used to evaluate the barriers that a line manager’s manager does or doesn’t put in the way of process improvements?

    See “Amazon Disciplined Workers 13,000 Times in One Year at a Single Warehouse” (https://gizmodo.com/amazon-warehouse-union-prime-day-1849168135). Talk about dystopian. And utterly inhuman.

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