AUDIO
December 16, 2016

Podcast: Turning ‘Solutions Journalism’ Into a Force for Doing Good

Mike Siegel, Seattle Times
Jessica Stephens (right), vice principal at Durfee High School in Fall River, Mass., congratulates student Liz Rodriguez on recent accomplishments. Ms. Stephens's success in counseling the school's freshmen was spotlighted in The Seattle Times' Education Lab series co-funded by the Solutions Journalism Network.

A steady diet of news about violence, corruption, and incompetence leaves people depressed, feeling helpless, and seeking to assign blame for society’s ills. "Solutions journalism" can be an antidote — a way of looking at "who is trying to solve problems, and what results they’re getting," says Tina Rosenberg, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, member of The New York Times editorial board, and a regular contributor to the paper’s online "Fixes" column.

As she discusses in this edition of the Business of Giving, Ms. Rosenberg is also co-founder of the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit that encourages reporters to reconceive traditional beats. The idea is to cover not just what’s going wrong but to tell stories about people working to get it right, and succeeding.

Her organization has developed systems to train reporters to tackle the most divisive and polarizing community issues with a "solutions angle." In one of its first projects, it partnered with The Seattle Times to develop a monthly Education Lab section featuring stories on what’s working in public schools, not just locally but across Washington state and even the nation.

In this interview, Ms. Rosenberg talks about how solutions journalism can empower audiences to take steps toward improving local circumstances and details how her organization seeks to promote the form with downloadable reporting tools and a searchable "story tracker" database with more than 1,500 solution-focused articles. She also discusses her most recent book, Join the Club, about how positive peer pressure can move the needle on big social and public-health issues.

Listen to the full conversation below, and/or scroll down to read a transcript provided by the Business of Giving.

Denver: In a world that can appear quite dark as we obsess about a range of societal problems in a never-ending sea of bad news, it is like a cylinder of light moving across that sea to speak with someone who is consumed withsolutions… and what’s working. My next guest is dedicated to just that through her New York Times column “Fixes,”  her highly acclaimed bookJoin the Club, and most recently as a co-founder of the Solutions Journalism Network. She is Pulitzer Prize-winning author and New York Times columnist, Tina Rosenberg. Good evening, Tina, and welcome to The Business of Giving!

Tina: Thank you, Denver. Nice to be here.

 Denver: “Solutions journalism” is a term that may not be familiar to a lot of our listeners. How would you describe it for them?

Tina: Well, we would say that solutions journalism is expanding what journalists think of as our beat. Traditionally, journalists imagine that our job is to cover what’s wrong with the world. Our model of how we think of change is: we uncover stuff that’s wrong, and then someone comes in and solves the problem. So, we don’t feel that’s been working very well. Solutions journalism is a way of also looking at who is trying to solve problems, and what results they’re getting. The key is that this coverage has to be done not as fluff, or as advocacy, or as PR, but with equal rigor–the same rigor that we use when we cover the problems themselves.

Denver: Is this a new concept, Tina?  Or, is this just a new term… with the rigor that you just talked about for this kind of reporting?

Tina: I don’t think either of those are new. This has been around. Many journalists have been doing solutions-focused stories for a long time. I think what’s new is that our organization has put a name on it, has created a teachable system for doing it, has made it into something that people can think about in a category of its own. For example, a reporter, when you start working on a new subject, you can ask yourself, “Can I possibly use a solutions angle on this?” And that’s not something that would’ve occurred before.

Denver: Right. You know, I think most everybody would agree that we are simply overwhelmed by this never-ending stream of bad news, and I think sometimes things seem worse than they actually are because we’re getting this bad news from every corner of the world now. What is the impact of all this bad news on people’s psyche and how they view the world?

Tina: There’s a lot of research on that, and in many ways, it’s not good. First of all, it depresses civic participation. It makes you want to go back to bed and pull the covers over your head and just withdraw from public life because you feel like it’s hopeless. Nothing can be done. So, it’s bad for our democracy and for our civil society. It’s bad for our individual psyches. We know that a steady diet of news about violence and corruption and incompetence does create in people: depression, apathy, learned helplessness, stress, all kinds of things.  And it’s really bad for the news business. We are selling a product that people find painful to consume. I think anyone would tell you that that’s not a good business model.

Denver: Yes. Do you think that this sea of bad news had any impact on this last election we just had?

Tina: I do. People are wondering:  Why was it that a lot of what President-elect Trump said during the election that was demonstrably false got so much traction? For example, his statements that many American cities are hell holes, that crime is at record highs, that immigrants are streaming across the border from Mexico and committing rapes and murders, that unemployment is at  record highs. None of those things are true. In fact, almost all of them are the reverse of true. Crime is at near-record lows. Immigrants commit fewer crimes than native-born American citizens. But one reason that people believe it is:  that’s what the news has been telling them.

If you look at the top stories of the year, in 2015, of the 10 top stories of the year, six of them were about some sort of catastrophe or disaster. People read about government incompetence and corruption; they read about terrible problems, but that’s only half the reality. Journalism doesn’t reflect the other half, which is that people are trying to solve these problems, and some of those responses are successful!

Denver: It is quite discouraging that you get a sense, after looking at the news, that absolutely nothing is working.  And as you say, that is not the case.

Tina: Exactly.

Denver: Well, how difficult is it to get an editor to support solutions journalism?  Let’s say a reporter has done a really good story about a serious problem in the community, but now they have to find a comparable situation where an intervention appears to have been very effective. These all take time, and time is money. Is it a challenge to get editors on board?

Tina: It has been less of a challenge than we expected. When we started the Solutions Journalism Network, we thought we would have a lot of pushback against the idea, that a lot of established journalists would really reject it saying, “This isn’t real journalism. This is fluff. This is advocacy.” And we haven’t found that. A lot of journalists are afraid to do this kind of work because they don’t feel comfortable doing it with journalistic safety. Inside our profession, the worst thing you can do is seem gullible. So, it’s a little bit ironic because it’s certainly not the way the outside world sees it. But if you do a story saying there’s a problem, and it turns out you’re wrong, that’s a journalistic misdemeanor. If you do a story saying something is working and it turns out you’re wrong, that’s a journalistic felony inside the profession. That’s the thing that everybody is afraid of.

Denver: Yes. That’s a good distinction.

Tina: So, if we can show people that they can do these kinds of stories without that risk, that they can do them with journalistic comfort… and a feeling of safety… and to high standards, we have found that newsrooms, in fact, are very receptive to it.  And we’ve had very little pushback against the idea. But the problem, as you said, is time, Denver. All newsrooms now are managing scarcity. We’re trying to do four times as much reporting with one-fourth the staff we used to have, and these stories are enterprise stories. They take time to do, and that’s been the big issue.

Denver: Yes. I think the other fear that you have that you alluded to is that they not appear soft by talking about solutions because these are not puppy dog stories. These are really systemic solution type of stories, and it’s quite distinctive.

Tina: If done right, they will not appear soft. But you have to do things like: be careful to talk about what’s not working about the solution. You have to be careful in your language. For example, don’t use the word “solution.” In some ways, we are a very badly-named organization. You should talk about “This is a response to a problem. Here’s what’s happening on the ground. Here’s the evidence of what’s working and not working about it.” You’re not celebrating that response; you’re covering it. And that’s a big difference.

Denver: It sure is. Well, one of your first forays, Tina, into solutions journalism was about 15 years or so ago when you did a piece on Brazil’s response to the AIDS crisis for the New York Times Magazine. Tell us about that.

Tina: That was the piece that really made me realize the utility of the solutions approach. I had been working for the Times Magazine, and I pitched my editor on a story about the price of AIDS drugs in poor countries… and the fact that in countries where the AIDS burden was the highest, there were no generic  drugs.  So the prices were so high, nobody could take them. What essentially was a manageable, chronic disease at that point in wealthy countries was still a death sentence in poor countries. I thought this was a very important story, and especially important was the reason why this was occurring: which was collusion between the pharmaceutical industry and the Clinton administration to put political pressure on countries that wanted to make or buy generic drugs. Countries that wanted to do this were put on trade watch lists. They were told: “ You don’t respect intellectual property,” and their trades suffered as a result. So countries weren’t doing it; they weren’t making generics.

I pitched this story to my editor, and he said, “No.” He said, “It’s too depressing. We can’t inflict another 7,000-word article on all our readers about how everybody is going to die in Malawi.” So, I thought about it, and I re-pitched it – same story, same investigation of bad behavior, but this time with a different frame. There was one country that was making generics and providing them for free to everyone who needed them– and that was Brazil. So the story became “What was the pressure Brazil had to fend off?  How did they manage to do it?” And in the course of telling that, I could say everything else I wanted to.

This was a far more successful approach, first of all because the editor said “yes.” It got in the paper. But also it was fresh. It was true that people knew everybody was going to die in Malawi, but they didn’t know that you didn’t have to die!  And people weren’t dying in Brazil. It was much more empowering to readers. People didn’t feel depressed after reading it. They felt empowered. We got a tremendous amount of response to it. This is before social media existed, but it’s the kind of piece that would have been very widely shared.  And it had a lot of impact because it took away the excuses of countries that weren’t doing this. It showed that the bar didn’t have to be so low. It was possible to do this better. That seemed like an approach I use now all the time.

Denver: Well, talking about re-pitching the story, many advocates of solutions journalism maintain that reframing issues in this way can be less polarizing and actually can be a catalyst for people to engage in an issue in a more thoughtful and constructive way. Talk a little bit more about that.  

Tina: Sure. One place we’ve seen this is in Seattle. Our first partner at the Solutions Journalism Network was the Seattle Times, a very highly respected newspaper. They had written story after story about the many deficiencies of Seattle’s public education system, and they got tired of doing that. So, we helped them start a section called “Education Lab,” which is now in its fourth year. That lab runs a package of stories every month on something that’s working in public education. Usually, they base it in a school in Seattle, but also from around the state of Washington.  And sometimes they go elsewhere to other parts of the United States.

Anyone who’s familiar with the issue of education knows that discussions on this issue very quickly degenerate into shouting matches about who’s to blame for the mess. Is it charter schools, or is it the teacher’s union? This is a very polarized issue… to the point where it’s very difficult to talk about it. But taking a focus of “Here’s something that works; can we adopt it, or can we spread it?” changes the discussion. It is much more forward-looking, more future-oriented, more constructive and less:  “Let’s just dissect the mess we’re in now and see who’s to blame.” That, I think, is something that solutions journalism can contribute. It takes the focus off: “Why are things so disastrous?” and puts it on:  “What’s working to improve it, and can we use that?”

Denver: Now, that’s a great point. You know, I’d be curious if business journalism is different because it does seem that they’re always selling solutions.  They have their fair share of positive news– everything from Fortune talking about the best companies to work for, or Harvard Business Review talking about how to innovate faster and cheaper and better. Is there a different kind of reporting with business news than there is with general news?

Tina: I think business… you’re right… is in a different category.  And sports I would put in the same category– where people are interested in success in those fields. You don’t see a magazine called “Fast Bankruptcy.” The problem though with business and sports reporting on solutions is that it’s often fluffy. It’s often PR. It’s often not very serious. I mean real solutions journalism looks at what separates success from failure. What happened here that made the difference? And, can that be replicated?  And that you occasionally see in news, but not very often.

Denver: Now that we know what solutions journalism is give us a little bit more about what this Solutions Journalism Network is all about.

Tina: Sure. SJN is an organization that’s three-and-a-half years old now. We are in the business of legitimizing and spreading this idea, and we do that in various ways. One way we do it is our work with newsrooms. We have several dozen newsroom partners across the United States. We go into their newsroom and do a workshop about what  solutions journalism is, and how they can use it, and then work with a small group of reporters and editors on a particular project. It’s very often a solution series, or they want to add solution stories to an investigative project. So, that’s one thing we’re doing.  

We also have a hub, a network that anyone can join for free… people who are interested in this idea, and that gives you access to a bunch of tools. We have a downloadable tool kit that was downloaded in 116 countries in its first year of use;  that was pretty exciting.

Denver: Very impressive.

Tina: We have toolkits on how to do solutions journalism on different issues. We have one for editors. We’re working on one about doing audience engagement around solutions journalism. One thing I’m very excited about is our Story Tracker. We have a database that contains, at the moment, 1,500 solution stories. We have a lot more, but we haven’t quite caught up with tagging them. They’re tagged and searchable in different ways. This is a great tool for journalists, and also for students and other people who are interested in looking at coverage of what’s going on in fields that they’re interested in.

Denver: And you’re non-profit organization, correct?

Tina: We are.

Denver: How’s the funding model working?

Tina: We raise our money largely from foundations, and it’s going pretty well.

Denver: Well, sticking with the idea of finding solutions and what’s working, let’s move on to your most  recent book Join the Club, which addresses the impact that peer pressure can have in shaping our behavior, especially among young people and teenagers. But the connotation that surrounds the phrase “peer pressure” is usually a pretty negative one. Can peer pressure be used to also model good behavior and healthy habits?

Tina: Absolutely. In fact, it’s just as strong that way. The issue is we recognize it as peer pressure when it’s negative, but we don’t recognize it as peer pressure when it’s positive. Like if your kids have fallen in with the bad crowd, and they’re into bad behavior, we’re very clear that peer pressure is responsible for that. But if they’re great kids, and they’re doing everything they’re supposed to do, that’s great parenting.

Denver: Good parenting. No question about it. It’s all me.

Tina: That’s right. But in fact, who your children choose to hang out with is just as important in pushing them towards good behavior.  And the same is true for adults. Peer pressure is stronger for teenagers in part because the teenage brain is still very plastic, and judgment is the last thing to develop– which any parent of a teenager knows–but also because teens are still trying on different peer groups. As adults, we generally know which one we want, and we’ve settled into it, and so the influence is less visible. But peer pressure is very powerful for adults in many ways…in personal health behaviors, in dealing with things like addictions.  But also, in the book, I look at various examples where it’s helped people to learn calculus, helped people to form microcredit groups, and even helped to overthrow a dictator.

Denver: Well, let’s talk about how we traditionally try to change behavior, and if I can, let’s stick with the field of public health. What we generally do is we provide information, and then what we do is let people know how bad this behavior is, and how prevalent it has become. And then we’re going to scare them a little bit and let them know that there’ll be some pretty serious consequences if they don’t adopt a healthier lifestyle. Why doesn’t this work?

Tina: It’s funny because you’ve exactly described the normal model of trying to get people to change their health behaviors, and every single step you’ve described is wrong. Every single step you’ve described is actually counterproductive. The first one is providing people with information. Information is great, but information and motivation are two completely different things. It’s very often the case that we know everything we need to know about how dangerous something is, and yet we still do it. Does anybody have any questions that smoking is bad for you? In fact, teenagers overestimate the dangers of smoking. They think it’s even worse than it is. But in fact, that is an attraction for teenagers because teens smoke to rebel. So telling people information doesn’t solve the problem.

Scaring them can also be counterproductive because especially when we’re talking about really important personal behaviors that are” life or death,”  the more fearful people become, the more they retreat into a cocoon and say, “I deny that. That does not have any effect on me.”

Denver: Interesting.

Tina: And there have been really chilling studies. For example, in South Africa, if you ask teens in South Africa to identify behaviors that put them at risk for catching HIV, they can do that when it’s other people they’re talking about. But if you ask teens who have HIV whether those behaviors are risky for them, they say, “No.” Our overwhelming need to feel safety by retreating into denial kicks in. So fear can be counterproductive. What were the other things that you mentioned?

Prevalence normalizes bad behavior. If you tell people “Everybody is doing this. Binge drinking is really, really widespread on college campuses,” you’re telling people “Your peers are binge drinkers.” Your peers will think this is OK.

Denver: Well, you cited a great example from Northern Illinois University– how they tried that, and how it didn’t work, and how they changedthe approach. Tell us about that.

Tina: That’s right. They were trying to reduce binge drinking.  So, they tried a couple of typical campaigns. One of them saying how widespread it was and how dangerous it was, and those didn’t work. But in the course of doing surveys to find out how widespread it was, they found something really interesting– which was that people grossly overestimated how much their peers drank. They asked people “How much do you think people drink?” And then they ask you: “ How much doyou drink?”  The two answers were very, very different. So, they decided that kids were responding to peer pressure about drinking– which, of course, everybody knows we do–but that peer pressure was coming from their imagination. It wasn’t real binge drinking. It was their view of how much people were binge drinking, and that was incorrect.

So, they decided just to tell people how much their peers were drinking. They put up posters around campus and took out ads in the school newspaper — this was again before social media – saying: “Most students on campus drink moderately.” and giving the actual statistics. And that worked! Binge drinking dropped tremendously over the next couple of years and continued to drop. And that was because they showed people that actually, what your peer group endorses isn’t binge drinking; it’s drinking moderately.

Denver: We want to be towards the norm, there’s no question about that. And I think one of the more encouraging stories that has occurred in the last few years has been the reduction in teen smoking. And it was really the change in approach that you’ve alluded to, starting in Florida, that got it on the right track. Tell us how that all went down.

Tina: Sure. Well, this happened in Florida at the time of the big lawsuit. Remember, just about the turn of the millennium, there was a lawsuit filed by state attorneys general against tobacco companies to recover money that the state had lost by treating smokers… spending on smoker’s healthcare. Before that lawsuit happened in a combined way, a couple of states had sued, and Florida was one of them. They won this pot of money, and they were going to dedicate it to preventing teen smoking. At the time, teen smoking was incredibly high. More than 36% of high school seniors smoked. It seems unimaginable now that that was the case, but it was, and nobody knew what to do about it.

So they had tried the usual public health strategies– telling teenagers how dangerous smoking is, et cetera. But Florida got smart. They hired an ad agency that had no public health experience but did know how to market to teens because they were experienced at marketing products – clothes and soft drinks, et cetera. And this agency, which was called Crispin Porter & Bogusky, sat down and said, “Why is it that a teen starts to smoke?” For a teenager, a cigarette is not a delivery system for nicotine. It’s delivery system for rebellion. It’s a way of telling the adult world:  “You can’t tell me what to do!” And that’s why telling people that smoking is dangerous is counterproductive. It makes teens want to smoke more.

The other thing that was coming out of the lawsuit was not just money, but also documents. There were documents that had been released about how the tobacco companies were lying about their efforts to market to teens. They were denying that they did it, but in fact they did do it, and these documents that were coming out showed that.

Denver: Yes, covering up everything for many years.

Tina: That’s right. So, the new strategy used that as a way to say: “Here’s somebody you can rebel against that’s even less cool than your parents.” And so they made these TV ads– which teens made themselves– saying to tobacco companies, “Hey, you can’t manipulate us. You can’t enslave us. You can’t tell us what to do. We’re not going to smoke.” And they started clubs around the state of Florida called SWAT – Students Working Against Tobacco. SWAT was the name of a SWAT team… a big TV show at the time. They held things like “die-ins,” and they made prank phone calls. It was teen stuff. And that was very successful.

Over the next two years, teen smoking dropped at a faster rate than it had ever dropped in history.  Then this approach was adopted nationally into something called “The Truth Campaign.” It was staffed by all the Florida people, and it worked nationally. And now, teen smoking has dropped from 36% to, I think, the mid-single digits. I think we’re around 6% or 7% now.

Denver: That’s unbelievable. It really is. It really moved the dial. Well, it is so nice to talk to somebody who is working on solutions for a change. If listeners, Tina, want to get a taste of solutions journalism– stories that suggest solutions to some of society’s most vexing problems, where they can go to get a little sample of it?

Tina: Well, I would suggest going to the Story Tracker;  the website is storytracker.solutionsjournalism.org. I think you have to sign up for the hub first, but that’s free, and it takes five minutes. You can search for solution stories on any subject, in any place, by any journalist, on any platform. So, you can find stories that are of interest to you. Also look at the New York Times “Fixes” column, which has now been around for six years. Every week, we write about a response to a problem, and that’s at nytimes.com/fixes.

Denver: I have to tell you: everybody who reads that feels better at the end of the article than they did at the beginning. Well, Tina Rosenberg, Co-Founder of the Solutions Journalism Network, I want to thank you so much for being on the program. Also, by the way, is there a website for Join the Club?

Tina: There is. It’s jointheclub.org. It’s not kept that updated, I have to admit. So, probably better to go to solutionsjournalism.org.

Denver: Thanks so much, Tina. It was a real pleasure to have you on the show.

Tina: Pleasure to be here. Thank you.