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What if journalism is doing it wrong? What if reporting about the problems, ills and calamities of the world isn't the best way to actually solve them? What if, instead, it makes readers feel powerless and more inclined to ignore those challenges, distrust the world and retreat to their backyards instead of participating in the commons of civil discourse and action?
These are some of the questions advocates of solutions-based journalism are asking.
Solution-based journalism challenges reporters and editors to consider: "What is causing the problem and who is solving it?"
One of its strongest advocates is journalist, author and NYT columnist David Bornstein. Bornstein is one of founders of the Solutions Journalism Network. Last week he was also one of the speakers at a discussion hosted by the Centre for Social Innovation (CSI) in Toronto.
Solutions-based journalists like Bornstein argue that it isn't enough to throw a harsh spotlight on problems and point a finger at those responsible. Instead, they suggest that sometimes journalism should shift its attention and amplification to individuals, communities or institutions which have shown those same problems are surmountable. They call for a rigorous examination of those responses to problems.
This is especially important, they say, when everyone is exhausted by hearing what the challenge is (say, gun violence). In those cases what needs to be critically examined are concrete examples of solutions.
As Bornstein, the CSI crowd,"sometimes we should treat stories as 'howdunnits.'"
"Technology and increased levels of education have given more people worldwide capacity and agency for change," he recently told a crowd at the CSI in Toronto. "Journalism needs a frame to capture that, make sense of it and bring it home to people." He also said that his form of journalism engenders increased reader engagement, and so should be embraced by media outlets, if only for that reason.
Bornstein argues that this isn't a recipe for puff pieces, activism, advocacy journalism or hero worship. In fact, he's quick to call bullshit on those kinds of stories. He calls them "imposters." He told the crowd that solutions-based journalism makes the powers-that-be more accountable because it reveals that there are workable solutions at hand.
He suggests reporters should spend more time looking at what he calls "positive deviants," blips in trend data that suggest there are communities that don't have the problems others are struggling with. He said many solutions-based journalists are data nerds, mining stats for solutions and outliers.
Bornstein was introduced at the CSI by its communications architect Barnabe Geis. Geis wants start a Solutions Media Accelerator at CSI. He hopes it will encourage lean journalism startups to explore some of Bornstein's ideas. Geis is a Columbia journalism graduate who found his education left him disillusioned about the profession.
I like the idea of solutions-based journalism, a lot. It's something media outlets already do, though not as well or as frequently as Bornstein and Geis would like. But it is a dangerous, seductive weapon. It calls for objective work, that is careful, fair, balanced and nuanced. That's the craft and domain of seasoned journalists with years of experience and a deep understanding of the difference between unpacking solutions and advocating for them.
In the wrong hands, as Bornstein points out, it can yield fluff, PR and pandering claptrap. I would argue that some of those wrong hands belong to activists, organizers and advocates. That's exactly who fill the hallways of the CSI locations. And, it's worth noting that only a minority of those attending Bornstein's talk at CSI were journalists, based on a show of hands.
So while I applaud the goals of solutions-based journalism, I'm not convinced placing it in such proximity to dedicated folks who are, by nature, inclined to activism and advocacy is doing the movement any favours. That's especially true since a lot of jaded journalists view solutions-based journalism with the scepticism they apply to mission statements, trade junkets and Myers-Briggs testing.
I'm sure that Geis' intention is not to encourage activists to engage in solutions-based journalism, but cynical reporters may consider them strange bedfellows for the journalists in the accelerator. Or, as I more indelicately put it to Geis, "What happens when the journalists in the accelerator have to shit in their own nest?"
In other words, apart from the appearance of being bed mates, what would happen if one of the solutions offered by the CSI residents turned out to be ineffective or nonsense. Are CSI organizations off limits to the journalists, or can they tackle them head on, if need be? Geis was sanguine about the issue. I'm more jaded. And it's important, as Bornstein suggests to cast a critical eye, not just on the problem, but on a possible solution as well.
Listen to an audio version of this column, read by the author.
Wayne MacPhail has been a print and online journalist for 25 years, and is a long-time writer for rabble.ca on technology and the Internet.
Correction: An earlier version of this piece incorrectly noted David Bornstein as a blogger, not columnist.