Solutions Journalism for social justice

In the old days, journalists were expected to impassively report on problems like dysfunctional bureaucracies, failing schools and overcrowded jails, explaining the crises and even assigning blame but rarely exploring how things could be done differently or better.

These days, journalists increasingly see their role as not only exposing injustice and ineptitude but also illuminating a path to possible solutions.

Some journalism organizations and publications have taken on the role of actually crafting, proposing or supporting specific policies, often through umbrella or sister non-profit or policy institutions. Other journalists don’t explicitly push for or design a specific proposal, but rather provide in-depth coverage and analysis of solutions that have worked – holding them up as models and inspiration for others.

This is the approach of the Solutions Journalism Network, as co-founder David Bornstein explained at an international gathering called the Opportunity Collaboration in October (where I was able to represent the Social Justice News Nexus thanks to a Boehm Media Fellowship).

Bornstein described taking a “forensic” and “who-dun-it,” detective-style approach to stories about topics like education policy or urban planning that might on the surface seem dry, convoluted or inaccessible to the average reader. The idea is to give extensive details and explanation about solutions that worked – anything from the details of a math curriculum that engages both low and high achievers to the specifics of how California businesses are adapting to the state’s endless drought to how Cincinnati is improving relationships between citizens and police. This approach can fly in the face of traditional journalistic structure, where a reporter would typically avoid getting into the weeds and sum things up in broad strokes, if they described such “solutions” at all.

But Bornstein said audience surveys and analytics have shown that when such wonky or otherwise complicated successes are conveyed with the right structure and great storytelling, readers or listeners love it. On the most basic level the approach is formulaic, he explained, using the same bare bones structure as TV shows or best-selling novels that end each episode or chapter with a cliff-hanger. But within that structure there is much potential for creativity and showcasing excellent reporting and writing.

After announcing a surprising and positive achievement or development, the reporter gets the audience wondering how this came about and then they proceed to answer that question.

The media is notorious for eschewing “positive” stories, adhering instead to the mantra “if it bleeds, it leads.” Solutions journalism in some ways shifts this paradigm, featuring successes, but meaningful solutions journalism is done in the context of a larger problem and usually involves a difficult journey and remaining challenges – not a puff piece.

So how does solutions journalism fit in with social justice journalism? The most prominent social justice journalism pieces over the years have usually focused on exposing great injustices – like massacres of villagers, pollution by mining companies, neglect in nursing homes, brutality by police. But it makes sense that journalism that truly aims to promote social justice would not only shed light on injustice but also further the search for a better way.

It seems an obvious answer to the ongoing debate in Chicago and other cities over coverage of violence in hard-hit neighborhoods. Residents feel stigmatized and pigeonholed when all the coverage of their neighborhood is about crime, yet “positive” stories published in a vacuum without deep analysis or larger context are often disregarded.

So can the Social Justice News Nexus adopt a solutions-based approach as Fellows report on mental health care deserts and the mental health situation in the Cook County Jail? If such systems are deeply flawed and in crisis, far from being “solved,” it isn’t an obvious candidate for this type of solutions journalism.

But there may be small, individual solutions already playing out in Chicago that can provide a roadmap for larger change. And Chicagoans can even look to other cities, counties or states for inspiration, much as U.S. policymakers have looked to other countries in scaling back the war on drugs.

Bornstein said that, “today everywhere is local journalism,” pointing to a story that Linda Shaw did for The Seattle Times featuring Chicago’s Logan Square Neighborhood Association as a model example of the power of parents in schools.

There is clearly no one or easy solution to the various and related mental health care crises in Chicago, but we hope SJNN can not only probe the problems but help move us closer to solutions.

-Kari Lydersen