Can ‘solutions journalism’ change the world?
In January 2001, the Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times’ journalist Tina Rosenberg published a story in the Times’ Sunday magazine that she says had the most impact of anything she’s ever written in her life. “It’s going to be on my gravestone that I wrote this story,” she joked.
The 8,000-word piece began when Rosenberg became interested in writing on countries suffering from widespread AIDS epidemics and little access to treatment. But it was the way she chose to frame the story, focusing on a place where the problem was actually being addressed, that would prove crucial.
“I could’ve gone to one of dozens of different countries where people we’re not getting AIDS treatment, but I decided instead that a more powerful way of telling the story was to go to the one country where people were getting AIDS treatment, and that was Brazil,” said Rosenberg, speaking to a room full of health reporters Thursday.
The ensuing article, “Look at Brazil,” told the step-by-step story of how the country was effectively combating its AIDS crisis through treatment via cheaper generic versions of extremely expensive drug therapies (pharmaceutical companies had vociferously opposed Brazil’s actions). So influential was the article that it played an important role in the creation of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria a few months later, according to Rosenberg.
The story is a particularly successful example of what Rosenberg calls “solutions journalism,” a way of framing certain stories that attempts to move beyond merely documenting various social ills.
“Traditionally in journalism what we do is we lay out a problem, and we lay it out in convincing detail, and the idea, which is unstated, is that then someone will come in from Mars and solve this problem,” Rosenberg said. “Now, we know how well that works, which in most cases is not very well.”
Not that solutions journalism is disinterested in such problems.
“What solutions journalism does that is different is that it still talks about the problem but it either does so through the frame of an attempt to solve it or it includes that as a featured part of the reporting,” Rosenberg said.
Some of the biggest hits in contemporary journalism can be seen as particular successful instances of solutions journalism, according to Rosenberg. She points to bestsellers such as Michael Lewis’ “The Big Short” and “Moneyball.”
“His books are largely solutions journalism stories,” she says.
Other examples include Atul Gawande’s “The Checklist Manifesto,” and Paul Tough’s “Whatever It Takes” on the Harlem Children’s Zone.
As this elite short-list might suggest, solutions journalism is an altogether different beast from that squishier, more sentimental category known as good-news stories. And Rosenberg is adamant about distinguishing what her solutions-approach from the good-news beat, which typically focuses on a charismatic personality, the kindness of strangers or some heartwarming anecdote.
“I want to say very clearly that that’s not what we’re doing,” she said. “What we’re talking about is something that’s very rigorous, that’s data driven, that may have people in it but it’s not built around personality. It’s built around a system, and it looks in depth at what this system is doing that’s different from other systems. It’s less about the five W’s and more about the H -- how.”
When done well, with rigor and data backing them up, such stories can often have far greater impact than other forms of journalism, argued Rosenberg.
“Solutions journalism stories are often much more influential than traditional stories,” asserted Rosenberg. Because they A) provide evidence that something can work; B) They make your problem story stronger, because it shows that it is not simply just an act of God keeping the problem from being solved, there’s something else going on, because over here somebody is solving the problem. So it throws the problem into starker relief.”
What then makes for an especially compelling piece of solutions journalism? Mysteries, for one.
“Solutions journalism can often be set up like a mystery story,” Rosenberg said.
By setting up the problem at the outset and then taking readers step-by-step through how the puzzle is being solved, you can create compulsively readable narratives.
“They’re really page turners,” she said.
Or as Lee Child, author of the “Jack Reacher” mystery-thriller series, wrote in a blog post for the New York Times on creating suspense: “Readers are human, and humans seem programmed to wait for answers to questions they witness being asked.”
Rosenberg encourages reporters to use their data-sleuthing skills in seeking leads on possible solutions stories. But rather than just sniffing for problems or hints of dysfunction in the numbers, she says to look for where the data indicates people are actually succeeding.
“My first point is to look for positive deviance; don’t just look for negative deviance,” she said. “And then when you see positive deviance, take a look at what we can learn from it.”
Rosenberg and her New York Times’ colleague David Bornstein believe so strongly in this approach that they’ve just launched the Solutions Journalism Network, a website which aims to provide tools, resources and funding for journalists tackling such work (reporters will be able to pitch story ideas and receive funding). The pair is traveling to newsrooms across the country to champion the framework.
“We don’t anticipate than anyone will have a ‘solutions journalism unit,’ like one has an investigative unit,” Rosenberg said. “We think of this as an approach that every journalist should consider using -- it’s obviously not right in a lot of standard beat stories. But on some of the most important larger stories you can integrate a solutions angle successfully and rigorously.”
When Bornstein, with whom Rosenberg started and writes the Times’ “Fixes” blog, wrote a solutions-style story about a particularly successful foster care program in Tennessee, the article made it onto the paper’s most-emailed list, an impressive feat for such a difficult topic.
“These stories we believe can drive reader engagement,” Rosenberg said. That includes one of the most coveted demographics: “Young people really like solutions stories.”
That may be because younger readers are particularly drawn to stories that don’t just detail the world’s brokenness but explore particularly promising ways of fixing it.
“Solutions journalism stories tend to be more influential because they give people who want to take action a specific way to take action,” Rosenberg said. “The problem with a lot of journalism is it gets people very mad and then leaves them hanging -- you don’t know what to do with that anger.”
Image by Ramunas Geciauskas via Flickr