Some years ago, journalist Tina Rosenberg pitched a story to an editor about the burden of AIDS and the high cost of drugs in Africa, and she got a familiar response: "It's too depressing." So she went looking for a new approach, and discovered that Brazil was successfully tackling similar problems. By framing the story through the lens of a solution, rather than solely a problem, Rosenberg was able to convince her editor... and write a more powerful piece. The experience led her to apply this strategy to numerous stories that might otherwise have been deemed "too depressing," and, in 2013, co-found the Solutions Journalism Network. Now, she trains newsrooms to incorporate solutions into all kinds of reporting, from poverty in Tennessee to sea level rise in Louisiana. She talks with Brooke about why journalists fear reporting on what works, how stories about responses to problems can prompt action, and how solutions journalism might help restore public trust in the media.
A Ride With Polly Jean by Jenny Scheinman
BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media. I’m Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I’m Brooke Gladstone. As Glenn Thrush observed, the journalistic landscape is strewn with scoops, both tasty and nutritious, and yet, they only seem to entrench division. So what to do?
One possible solution, says Tina Rosenberg, who co-writes the Fixes column for The New York Times, is for reporters to reframe the coverage of the nation's woes. She’s founder of the Solutions Journalism Network, an initiative that works with newsrooms to develop stories that present seemingly intractable problems in the context of what's being tried to fix them. She didn't start out with that idea. Initially, it was a strategy she used to get her pieces into print.
TINA ROSENBERG: I have always written about really depressing subjects. They’re what interests me. They don't always happen to be what interests readers, unfortunately.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Like what?
TINA ROSENBERG: Oh, human rights in Latin America, public health issues, torture, poverty, homelessness.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Bummers.
TINA ROSENBERG: So back in 2000, I wanted to write a story for the Sunday Magazine of The New York Times. I thought it was a great story. It was about the price of AIDS drugs in poor countries and the fact that in the countries where the AIDS burden was the highest prices, the prices of the drugs were the highest, which ensured basically nobody could get them. So what was a manageable chronic disease in rich countries was still a death sentence in most of the world.
The reason that was happening was that the pharmaceutical industry, with backing from the Clinton administration, was putting political pressure on countries not to make or buy generic drugs. So I wanted to do that story and my editor said, it's too depressing, we can’t inflict another 7,000-word story on our readers about how everybody's gonna die in Malawi.
So I went back and reframed the story. There was one country that was making generics, basically telling the Clinton administration and big Pharma, go away, we don't care what you do, we’re not giving in to that, and providing them for free to all its people. And that was Brazil. So the story became how was Brazil able to do this? And in the course of telling that story, I could say everything I wanted to say about how badly big Pharma and Washington were behaving. So it was still the investigative story but it was wrapped in a frame that made it much more powerful. It gave people a sense of hope that there was a way out. It made the accountability factor stronger because it took away the excuses of other places that weren’t doing this. And I realized that this was a great way to approach stories that my editors would dismiss as, oh, that’s too depressing.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, your editor was talking essentially about compassion fatigue. You can keep hammering people over the head but those emotions, strained and strained, will gradually die. So this was a way to combat that. But it isn’t just about telling positive stories, right?
TINA ROSENBERG: It’s not. And we resist the title “positive news” for “solutions journalism.” Actually, the word “solutions” is not exactly the word we should be using. I think we’re sort of stuck with the name now but we should be calling it “response to problems journalism” because –
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Oh yeah, that’s a lot catchier, Tina.
TINA ROSENBERG: [LAUGHS] Yeah. But, you know, it doesn’t have to be successful to be worth writing about. You can write solution stories about solutions that fail because it's interesting to learn from why something failed. You can write them about stories that are partially successful. And, in fact, there is no such thing as a completely successful solution. And if you try and cover it that way, you’ll have no credibility with your audience, so you have to cover what is not working about it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: If this was initially conceived, at least in part, to combat compassion fatigue or to increase reader engagement, do you have any indication that it worked?
TINA ROSENBERG: We do. Our first big project four years ago was with the Seattle Times. They were tired of reporting on how bad Seattle's public education system was, and they started a section called Education Lab, which, in addition to their regular education coverage, their reporters did a package of stories every month on something that works in public education-
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm.
TINA ROSENBERG: - sometimes from around Seattle, around the State of Washington but even farther afield. So the American Press Institute did a study of how education web stories were doing, and they found that time on page was 77% higher versus other education stories. Social shares were 230% higher.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Wow.
TINA ROSENBERG: Page views were 35% higher.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: That is really impressive and it does suggest that framing the stories in this particular way really does increase engagement. But do you have any examples of how your solutions journalism has actually had impact, something that, ah, seems more and more out of reach these days?
TINA ROSENBERG: Let’s stick with Seattle. For example, they did a series on school discipline and one of the results that came directly out of that was the Seattle school board put a halt to suspensions for elementary school students for a year. They did a story on a school in a low-income neighborhood that adopted an international baccalaureate program and graduation rates and college-going rates soared. But that school had been set to close. The city saved the school. They did stories on truancy and then the state legislature passed a bill requiring all Washington school districts and juvenile courts to establish community truancy boards as a way to keep students in school and out of court.
It makes sense that there's impact because if you can show that a problem isn't inevitable because someone is doing a better job, then that problem is no longer inevitable. Then it becomes inexcusable.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I've noticed that a lot of the stories that you cite on the website solutionsjournalism.org begin someplace far away and talk about a solution, you know, Vietnam, for instance.
TINA ROSENBERG: Yeah. WWNO, which is New Orleans’ public radio station, they were doing a series on how New Orleans was dealing with rising water levels, and they found that there were places in Vietnam which had exactly the same problem. In fact, it was the most comparable place, and they were dealing with it. So we helped them get to Vietnam by providing travel money and do a series of stories about that.
But, I mean, obviously, the economics of the news business mean that traveling for stories is very often not possible, and you do not have to travel for a solutions story. The vast majority of the Ed Lab stories, for example, which is the Seattle Times series on public education, are found in what works inside the city of Seattle. And this year, the Chattanooga Times Free Press was a Pulitzer finalist for a solutions series that we worked with them on called “The Poverty Puzzle” on people inside Chattanooga who were working to reduce poverty and increase social mobility. It was all local and none of them [LAUGHS] were succeeding.
I mean, some of them were having some success but it's a really difficult problem, and the series showed that in all its glory. It was very, very successful, not only as great journalism but it really changed the relationship of the city and the newspaper. The author of the series said people no longer perceived her as looking for what's wrong only and doing gotcha journalism, but they perceived her, oh, you care about our city.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It’s interesting. It seems very intuitive in a way. Why is it important to even name this “solutions journalism”?
TINA ROSENBERG: Well, we didn’t invent the practice but we put a name on it. We put together a system for doing it, teaching methods. It’s very important, I think, to show journalists how they can do this with professional safety.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What do you mean?
TINA ROSENBERG: The most fearless investigative reporters, reporters who will hold the most powerful people to account, are terrified to do a solutions story because they don't want to be seen as coming off like an advocate or doing PR. Within our profession, if you do a story about a problem and it turns out that you're wrong, you've committed a journalistic misdemeanor. But if you do a story about something that's working and it turns out you're wrong, that's a journalistic felony. And so, it’s really important to provide techniques for how journalists can do this.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So tell me how you’re doing it.
TINA ROSENBERG: For example, when you're out reporting, one question you should ask your sources is, who's doing a better job on this? That can often open up possible solutions stories. When you're writing a story, you have to be very careful to include the limits of what you're covering, put it in context in the sense of this is one of several solutions and how it compares to others, more successful or less successful. You’re really writing about the idea, and the particular program you're focusing on is just the narrative lens you're using. You're not really writing about that program.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: One reason why we were excited to talk to you about this is because the ether is so full of shiny objects that great reporters are running after, often risking what's going on in the rest of the world, the bigger picture. It seems to me that your approach, solutions journalism, isn't just a possible route to a solution to any number of problems that we face but it also offers a possible route to a solution to the problem of journalism in the third millennium.
TINA ROSENBERG: We think so. If we had started this 20 years ago, nobody would have paid us the slightest attention. But because of the economic crisis in journalism, journalists started listening to us because they're interested in trying something new.
Now, journalism has an existential crisis to go with the economic crisis, and part of that is how do we restore trust in journalism? And we think this is one way of doing it, of showing people that you aren't just searching for the pathologies and what's wrong, but also looking for what people are doing to try and solve those problems.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Tina, thank you very much.
TINA ROSENBERG: It’s a pleasure to be here, thank you.
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BROOKE GLADSTONE: Tina Rosenberg co-writes the Fixes column for The New York Times and is the cofounder of the Solutions Journalism Network.
BOB GARFIELD: That's it for this week’s show. On the Media is produced by Meara Sharma, Alana Casanova-Burgess, Jesse Brenneman and Micah Loewinger. We had more help from Sara Qari, Leah Feder and Kate Bakhtiyarova. And our show was edited – by Brooke. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineers this week were Sam Bair and Terence Bernardo.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Katya Rogers is our executive producer. Jim Schacter is WNYC’s vice-president for news. Bassist composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. On the Media is a production of WNYC Studios. I’m Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I’m Bob Garfield.