David Bornstein Talks Solutions Journalism

Posted February 27, 2017, By Lisa Hamilton

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Interviewee:

David Bornstein is a veteran journalist and published author. He is also a cofounder of the Solutions Journalism Network — a nonprofit dedicated to advancing solutions journalism, which is an emerging approach to news reporting that focuses on responses to social problems.

Unless you are aware of the potential solutions around the country, you really can't hold institutions to account.

–David Bornstein

Show Notes

Author David Bornstein is a co-founder of the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit dedicated to growing a style of news reporting that examines responses to social problems.

Casey’s Lisa Hamilton recently spoke to Bornstein about the rise of solutions journalism, how it can help hold institutions accountable and how it can enhance the work of media outlets across the country to lift up issues involving children and families.

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Lisa Hamilton: Welcome to CaseyCast, the Annie E. Casey Foundation podcast. CaseyCast is a monthly conversation focusing on how all of us can work together to build a brighter future for kids, families, and communities. I'm Lisa Hamilton Vice President of External Affairs at the foundation, and I'm so glad you've joined us for a hopefully inspiring and interesting conversation today.

The Casey Foundation focuses on giving kids what they need. Strong families, vibrant communities, and financial stability. In these efforts, the foundation is fortunate to work with innovators who develop, test and implement solutions to help kids thrive. Each month, we'll bring you an in-depth conversation with one of these experts, right here on CaseyCast.

In the United States, few institutions have the power to catalyze change like the media. Journalists help give voice to the voiceless, hold leaders accountable, and highlight when things are broken in our public systems and society. Journalists also have a unique opportunity to share solutions in creating change.

Today's guest, David Bornstein, works in newsrooms across the nation, to help the media focus on how individuals and governments respond to problems.

David is a writer and reporter, and the co-founder of the Solutions Journalism Network. In addition to running the network, he also authors the Fixes Column in The New York Times. It's my pleasure to welcome David to the podcast.

David Bornestein: Hey Lisa.

Hamilton: Well, I'd like to start with a pretty basic question. What is solutions journalism?

Bornstein: Very simple. It's a journalism practice that stresses the importance of reporting on responses to social problems. How people are responding to the problems and the results that they're getting, and trying to elevate what we can learn from those responses. It's not a hero worship or advocacy for particular ideas, it's really just looking at the creative activity in society that's in response to problems, and what's going on, and what the results are, and the insights that can be conveyed from those stories.

Hamilton: What led you to spearhead this movement for solutions-focused journalism? Why did it resonate so strongly with you?

Bornstein: Well, like a lot of journalists, I've been a reporter for 25 years. It struck me that the news really does cover predominantly problems and pathologies. It gives a very distorted view. Over the course of my career, I've come to focus more… I started very traditionally focusing on the normal reporting of issues of the day, which was mainly problems. Over the past 25 years, I've found that the stories that I found most powerful, had the most interesting ideas, were how people were trying to tackle these problems. You end up having a very distorted view of the world. It struck me that this is the real failing in journalism.

My colleagues and I have thought this for a while, but it's really the crisis in the news business today. The fact that journalism is going through this profound transformation that has created the opportunity to change it in a fundamental way.

Hamilton: We do see a competing narrative about what is going on in the country today. Sometimes, a sense of optimism and sometimes this narrative of decline. Based on what you are doing through solutions journalism, the solutions you're hearing about, does it give you a reason to feel hopeful?

Bornstein: There's always reasons for hope. We use a phrase, what we call “hope with teeth.” Which is a credible sense of hope. There's many ways of looking at what's going wrong in the country, and we hear about that every day. You can talk about the economic problems, the problems that relate to health, or violence, or the school system, or the politics, and in some cases, it's very troubling. Our politics is deeply troubling right now.

The interesting thing is I mean, the question is, how are we responding better to the problems across the country? How are communities trying to rebuild economic opportunity for groups that haven't had it or have had it, and lost it. How is the health system getting better? In what ways is it? Is it safer? Is it less safe than it used to be? What dimensions of education are on the rise, particularly around preschool and things like that? You find that there's a lot of reasons to be hopeful for certain areas, and at the same time, unless you are aware of the potential solutions around the country, you really can't hold institutions to account.

You can't say our cities should be doing better, or our schools should be doing better, because people always say… people always give you excuses. "Well, we're doing the best we can", and so forth or they blame the victim. Whatever gets them off the hook, but if you're able to show, "Well, wait a minute. There's another city, there's another school system, there's another hospital system that is out-performing you, and they're doing so with no more money than you have", it holds people accountable to a higher bar and it creates both a sense of inspiration that it's possible to do better, but at the same time it creates a sense of real hard pressure that you cannot expect less.

Hamilton: As you do this work, where do you see the source of these solutions coming from? We might imagine it would be the research community or public sector leaders. Who's coming up with these solutions?

Bornstein: It's really across the board. As journalists, we use many different kinds of sources to identify these stories. We get a lot from academic research and from groups that are in the business of marshalling evidence and data, to help you spot trends. There are organizations that are in the business of investing in solutions like foundations or places like policy shops that are in the business of evaluating them. They're all great sources of ideas.

Very often it's people in communities themselves saying, "Something important is happening in our community. Something important is happening in our school system, or our hospital system", or something like that. Like a good journalist should have a whole variety of sources ranging from high level people running institutions all the way down to people in the community who have their eyes on the ground. There's just a lot of activity. There's people creating organizations. What we call social entrepreneurs. There's new changes coming in the business sector in terms of better responses to a variety of issues. Especially environmental issues. Public policy changes are some times part of it, although sometime public policy doesn't need it. Sometimes, actually, it comes in at a later stage after something has been demonstrated effectively from a non-profit organization. Really there's many paths.

Hamilton: You've written extensively on social entrepreneurship. Can you say a little about how you think that work contributes to the kinds of solutions that you seek to lift up?

Bornstein: I think that there's a large spread in the world today, of what I call, the spread of agency. It's a major trend. Just because of higher levels of education, the internet, the exchange of information, the fact that money flows more quickly and the young people are able to hear about and organize themselves… Not necessarily young people, but anybody… you have a lot of these kind of self-appointed, freelance change agents who are out there saying, "I'm going to go change the world. I'm going to start an organization or I'm going to get together and start a group and advocate for something."

The field of social entrepreneurship has really taken off over the past 30 years because of these trends. It's injected a lot of creative energy and problem solving from news sources into the nonprofit sector particularly, but in some cases into the business sector and government. What I now realize is that it's really just one piece of a lot of adaptive changes that are happening in social change. I think the biggest thing that the social entrepreneurship movement has contributed, is just this idea that it's possible to have a career that is basically a career of impact. You don't have to decide to park your ideals when you get your job, because you need to make money to have a house, and to send your kids to college.

Hamilton: You described social entrepreneurs as sort of one source of the solution, but you also mentioned impacted communities themselves. As we started this podcast, one of the things I noted is we often hope that journalism will give voice to the voiceless. Wondering on the sort of other range of the origin of solutions, how you're finding folks who are in communities, coming up with solutions and how your work is giving them a different way to give voice to both the challenges and solutions they are developing.

Bornstein: Yeah, we're specifically working with news organizations. Some of them are quite big, but some of them are pretty small and they have a strong community focus. The question in these projects is to find ideas that are already within the community. In some cases, to find ideas that are coming from a community that's similar to your community, that could be helpful in solving a local problem or a happening.

You see people, for example in Minneapolis, in the Star Tribune, they're doing a series that's looking at how the Somali community is developing its own responses to the recruitment, sort of the radicalization of youth, which has been a problem in that community. That's been widely reported through a problem lens, because of and it's created a lot of tensions in parts of Minnesota. They're looking at the homegrown solutions within the community.

Similarly we have a project with a bunch of small news organizations in New Mexico and Colorado, and they're looking at what are the solutions that are coming from these small rural communities. These would be things like economic opportunity, environment, water management, dealing with drug use, and so forth. In some cases, what you find is, that people discover that their communities have hidden strengths and assets.

It turns out, through looking at the reporting of some of the other news organizations… this happens to be a collaborative reporting project… they're able to find that there are interesting models that could be applicable to their community, but they're a 100 miles away.

We find quite a lot. We've seen Milwaukee look at Houston's policing system for mental health. We've seen how Cleveland has looked at the way Rochester reduced lead paint exposure for children. This idea, we've seen how Seattle papers looked at how schools in Chicago have done parent engagement to give parents more of a say in the running of the public schools. This idea of hearing about ideas from another part of the country, that might be 5 or 10 years ahead of you on a particular issue, so that you don't have to start without a blueprint.

Hamilton: That's great. It sounds like an interesting approach to scale. In some sense, non-profits are always trying to figure out how to take solutions to scale, and here's a really important way that journalism can help to do that. It's great to hear that you're seeing that cross-pollinization happen.

Bornstein: It's exciting, because there's this study that was done by the Institute of Medicine about 15 years ago… more than that, 2001… where they said they found that it took 17 years on average, for evidence from randomized control trials about better processes in medicine, to reach half of medical practice. The curve of adaptation, or the curve of innovation, is pretty slow. How do you speed that up? How do you make sure that good ideas, wherever they are, get into the water supply and can be given a fair hearing in other communities? I think the news media. There's obviously trade journals, there's conferences, there's all sorts of ways to do that, but I think the news media can play a very powerful role there as well.

Hamilton: That's great. I don't think there's a challenge any more difficult for our country to deal with than the issue of racial inequity. I'm wondering if you have written about, or heard of solutions to help communities grapple with this persistent challenge?

Bornstein: Yeah, I would say there's a lot of the stories that our news partners have looked at, have touched on that, but from many different angles. You have a whole dimension of reporting, looking at how we can help children grow up and be health. This might be making sure that the preschool programs are really working with children who are getting the best kindergarten preparation sort of thing. At the education-level, there's making sure that the on-ramps to opportunity are strong from day one. Even going back to parenting programs and so forth.

Then we could look at issues like, "what really creates economic mobility later on?" There's a lot of interesting programs that are looking at, for example, making sure that the community college systems really work to give people a leg up. I don't know if this is an exact statistic, but something like half of the students in our college system, start their college in the community college system. I might be overstating that, but it's a lot. Oftentimes, we've had lots and lots of data that shows that persistence is very low. Largely students end up having to take courses that they don't get credit for, and it costs them money, and they get very discouraged with this remediation. A lot of people are really trying to improve that system, so that really is an on-ramp to higher education, or to a better job prospects and so forth. That's one example.

Then there's a lot of examples of how communities are creating new economic opportunities, that are sort of under the radar. There was a pretty great article that James Fallos did in the Atlantic recently, where he flew around the country in a plane. He found example after example after example of city that was reconstituting it's economic livelihood in some way or another. Those kinds of stories are really great, and we have people who are looking to report on those stories as well, among our news partners. Those kinds of things.

There's an organization, for example, called Welcoming America, which does this… very well for immigrant groups where they actually create welcoming committees, or they show cities how to create welcoming committees. The basic issue is that diversity is hard. If you actually mean to intentionally create bridges so that people can learn that their fellow-citizens are… that they can learn who they really are, rather than getting these stereotypes or these caricatures that the media portrays them through this lens of pathology.

Hamilton: That's great. Well, it's great to hear that their journalists are taking up this challenge seriously. Not just of what solutions work, but how do you describe communities, how do you build bridges to other communities is really fantastic to hear. I'm curious how the journalism community has received this notion of solutions journalism. How are news organizations and journalists taking this up?

Bornstein: We've grown a lot. It's been sort of… I have to say, the response has been far more enthusiastic than we expected. We though we would get a lot of the sense of this, and we would have a couple of partners, but every year it's just grown much faster. We thought we probably have about 40 news organizations that have come to us over the transom in just in the last couple of months.

I think the response has been generally very positive. There are some people who, we still have to convince and we say, "This is serious journalism. We're not talking about fluffy hero stories or PR or anything that journalists should legitimately be concerned about. We're talking about rigorous reporting." We have to keep on making it clear that just reporting on the response does not mean that you're a bad journalist or that you've fallen into advocacy. You can do this very well, and in fact, if you don't do it, you're almost by definition giving people a very biased view of the world. One that's excessively cynical and is likely to lead them to tune out, or disengage from public life more likely than it's going to lead them to reengage in public life.

In some ways, the argument that we make to journalists is that, you are actually creating an idea of the world, a fiction of the world, that is both demonstrably false, excessively negative, and is leading people to actually it's undercutting democracy. It's causing people to want to tune out, and to focus more on private things than on public things. To be excessively fearful to in voting ways that they might not vote if they actually know what the country was really like.

Hamilton: How does network go about supporting journalists and news organizations to do this work?

Bornstein: We go into news organizations only if we're invited. The editor and chief, the editor, the reporters have to want. We do it initially an orientation where we say, "This is what Solutions Journalism is." We explain the basic idea of it, the approach. What's different about these stories? How do you find them? How do you report them? How do you make sure that you don't over-claim or fall into some of the trap? Then we work with them over sometimes a period of months, even sometimes up to a year, as they develop longer term projects that are usually around their editorial goals.

Then over time, we kind of try to help them build it into their muscle memory so that, after a project is completed, they kind of get this. It's now something that they want to do on a repeat basis. We've seen that in most cases, that… we call it an engagement continuum, that most of the time when organizations are done working with us after the initial sort of engagement which might be several months as I said or longer… they typically have kind of gotten this as a new habit and they're thinking about how to apply it to other kinds of stories.

Then we move on to another newsroom. What we do is we've created this online network. We call it The Hub. Where journalists can sign up, and it's kind of staying the conversation and connect with other journalists or editors who are doing this. We have about 2,200 people who have signed up since May. More than 400 of them are editors. Then we populate that website with all sorts of tools. Editor tool kits, tool kits that you cover education. We have 1,500 stories that are all cataloged from new organizations around the world so you can see, this is the kind of journalism that others are doing. If you're interested in prison, you type in prison on our story tracker, you'll probably get 80 or 90 stories that look at how American communities… mainly American communities… are responding to the need today, to reform the prison system, the justice system.

It's both a great way to learn, hear ideas from what other journalists are doing, get ideas for your own reporting. Find out about research. Then, over time, we plan on adding more and more tools to help journalists do this work.

Hamilton: Interesting. Well, it's great to hear that people are responding positively and for you to have that many people join your hub so quickly, certainly indicates there's a demand for this approach. I'm wondering, what does success look like for you? How do you imagine the media will be different in the future if we focus more on solutions?

Bornstein: Once people begin to get a view of reality that's more what we call "the whole story", that's more comprehensive, and more faithful to reality, people will begin to see that, in fact, this view of the country that you get, this distorted image, really it's like a photoshopped image of a landscape where people have arbitrarily taken out 90% of the trees. It's not what we're looking at and we call America when you watch CNN or almost any news organization, is really a very biased and distorted image.

Once people begin getting the whole story, and they see how much creative problem solving is out there, I think it's going to affect people in a lot of ways. It will make our policy better. It will probably leave more people into careers where they want to join up with the creative ideas that they see happening, because people genuinely love solving problems. I think it will probably lead people to vote and participate in ways that are more in line with their optimism and their yearning to build a better society, and less in line with their fears and their anxieties.

Hamilton: I think that's certainly an exciting vision for what, not just journalism looks like in the future, but what our country looks like in the future. Thank you so much for what you are doing to promote this new approach to journalism, and we look forward to seeing how the future of Solutions Journalism unfolds. Thank you so much for being with us today.

Bornestein: Thanks for the opportunity, Lisa.

Hamilton: Great, and I want to thank our listeners for joining as well. If you enjoyed today's conversation, rate our podcast on iTunes to help others find us. To learn more about podcast and find notes for today's show, visit us online at www.aecf.org/podcast and follow the Casey Foundation on Twitter @aecfnews. Until next time, I wish all of America's kids, and all of you, a bright future.