Investigating what’s going right

Journalists are looking beyond problems to pinpoint solutions

David Bornstein was a fresh-faced reporter when he boarded a flight to Bangladesh in 1992. He had seen news stories about the poverty and hunger faced by the Bangladeshi people. He imagined powerless villagers, their homes ravaged by cyclones, and American Marines in helicopters, throwing bags of rice to hungry citizens.

Bornstein was surprised by what captured his imagination when he got there: not the scale or depth of tragedy in Bangladesh, but a tale of innovation. The Grameen Bank, a microfinance organization, had hired 12,000 people to visit impoverished communities across the country and offer collateral-free loans to citizens. “I was just fascinated by the question: How? How did they build this (organization)? Why build this? How does it work?

“It defied my expectations about what’s possible,” Bornstein says. “I thought, why don’t we ever hear about this stuff?”

Bornstein’s curiosity took the shape of a story. The story turned into a five-year journey through the developing world, speaking to global innovators about social entrepreneurship. The journey transformed into Bornstein’s book,The Price of a Dream: The Story of the Grameen Bank.

Bornstein has made a career of investigating what’s going right: he’s an author, a columnist for the New York TimesFixes” column and co-founder of the Solutions Journalism Network. The Network is a resource for journalists and organizations to learn about solutions reporting and establish partnerships. It defines solutions journalism as “rigorous and compelling reporting about responses to social problems.”

Solutions stories, by nature, pinpoint issues in areas like education, civic planning or crime. Often, they compare what’s working in one situation to what could be done in another. If the bus always runs late in Halifax, a solutions story might hone in on how Vancouver mastered its bus scheduling.

This approach wasn’t new when the Solutions Journalism Network defined it in 2013, but labelling the model was. Bornstein’s network preceded the appearance of a small number of solutions-focused media start-ups across North America in the next two years.

Alfred Hermida, award winning journalist, author and director of journalism at the University of British Columbia, teaches a solutions-focused course. He says that today, news that covers the “who, what, when and where” of an event can be found anywhere.

Hermida teaches students to look through a critical but solutions-focused lens. “What sets you apart (as a journalist) is actually being able to provide context, background and analysis,”
he says. “This is where solutions reporting comes in.”

Is it good journalism?

Of course it’s good journalism, says Ivor Shapiro, chair of the Ryerson School of Journalism in Toronto. “Is (the story) independent, is it accurate, are you telling it in a way that a large group of people can know this information?

“Ok,” he says. “Then it’s journalism.”

It’s not that clear-cut for everyone. The question of whether a solutions approach is journalism or activism is one that Michelle Hoar, co-founder of the Vancouver-based Tyee Solutions Society, answers often: “We definitely do not see it as activism.”

Hoar says solutions stories are never “puff,” adding, “(they) take the solution as seriously as the problem and try to understand what could be possible.”

Is drawing attention to solutions a reporter’s job? Katie Hyslop, a reporter for The Tyee Solutions Society says, “That sounds more like the old journalism mantra. With a lot of sites out there now, the lines between the journalist as the observer and the journalist as the doer … are becoming more blurry.”

Roy Peter Clark, professor at Florida-based journalism school, the Poynter Institute, and author of books including Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer, says it’s okay for journalists to advocate for certain things. “How about voting? How about paying attention to policy debates and arguments? How about acting like a citizen?”

Shapiro echoes the claim. “If your curiosity and interest … drives you to feel like the public needs more information, then the public needs to know the arguments in favour of alternatives.”

“(Those ideas) are actually well-recognized manifestations of journalism that go back 200 years or more,” Shapiro says. “So do I think it’s the journalist’s role to offer solutions? Yes.”

More and more media organizations are finding ways to present solutions-focused stories. Today’s practitioners range from daily newspapers to solutions-specific organizations to guerilla news sites.

Collaborating to boost Halifax’s economy

Ray Ivany has made it clear Nova Scotia needs a radical attitude adjustment to boost its feeble economy. President and vice-chancellor of Acadia University and vice-chair of Nova Scotia Businesses Inc., Ivany spearheaded the Nova Scotia Commission on Building Our New Economy (often referred to as the Ivany Report) in February of 2015. The commission’s message was, “It’s now or never.”

It was an urgent call for economic action. But nine months after the report, it wasn’t clear whether Nova Scotia had made strides, says Bob Howse, editor-in-chief of the Chronicle Herald. “We were concerned that some momentum would be lost.”

To jumpstart change, in November 2015 the Chronicle Herald launched “Now Nova Scotia,” a project to examine the province’s “challenges and opportunities.” Howse hopes the solutions-focused series will spur audience engagement, and eventually action.

Solutions-driven reporting is an important way to solidify the goals shared by the Chronicle Herald and its readers, Howse says. “(Reporting on how to fix things) is what gives your newspaper some rootedness in the community.”

Vancouver’s growing public discourse

When Vancouver’s transit system faced a referendum on new funding measures in July 2015, most media organizations reported on the “for” or “against” sides of the debate. A hole gaped in the public conversation, says Erin Millar, co-founder of Discourse Media, a journalism organization dedicated to long-term, solutions-focused projects.

Cue the “Moving Forward” project. Millar and her small team conducted the independent investigation to provide Vancouverites with the information they needed to cast informed votes. The six-week project broke down the referendum questions and included infographic visualizations of costs and impacts.

“Most of us have no background in transportation planning,” the project brief said. “But we’re stuck with this responsibility, so we better do our best to understand the issues.”

Before she founded Discourse in 2013, Millar wrote for Maclean’s and freelanced internationally. “It was a wonderful life,” she says, though she felt blocked from “contributing to change.”

Creating Discourse Media allowed Millar and co-founder Christine McLaren to make a difference by generating public engagement: “What (journalists) really can do,” she says, “is think about providing access to sophisticated information that people need … to understand an issue.”

CBC’s integrated solutions model

“Solutions journalism is not a term that I’m familiar with,” says Nancy Waugh, executive producer of News and Current Affairs at CBC Halifax.

But later she remembers a 2013 national project that was, in fact, a series of solutions-focused investigations. Waugh’s Halifax team spearheaded a multimedia project called “Road to Nowhere,” which explored ways to fix a problematic traffic interchange.

Built in 1969, the Cogswell Interchange sprang up at a time when cities catered to the car, Waugh explains. By 2013, she says, it was ugly and in the way. “It was a prime opportunity to say, ‘(The city appears) to be ready to tear down this thing and redo this mistake they made in the past. So what would it look like?’”

The CBC doesn’t explicitly practice solutions journalism, but Jennifer McGuire, editor-in-chief of CBC News, says scrutinizing fixes to problems is a part of the CBC’s public service mandate: “Journalists have an obligation to be neutral and not play in advocacy,” McGuire says. “That doesn’t mean you can’t tell stories that actually (explore) solutions.”

The CBC will always cover daily news first, says Waugh. “But … as a public broadcaster, you’re serving the people who are paying for the thing,” she says. “That, just by its nature, means you’re trying to make something better.”

Solutions reporting is ‘smart business’ for the Huffington Post

Arianna Huffington, co-founder, president, and editor-in-chief of the Huffington Post, is one of the newest adopters of the solutions model. In May 2015, Huffington and her team launched “What’s Working,” an editorial initiative aimed at inspiring “copycat solutions.”

In a blog post, Huffington wrote that if life is portrayed in a disproportionately negative light, people experience “growing cynicism, resignation, pessimism and ultimately despair about the possibility of problems ever being solved.”

She added, “When we do give people the complete picture, their response shows how hungry they are for it.”

That hunger is measured in high volumes of likes and shares on stories that make audiences feel positive. Huffington says solutions journalism is a smart business choice for the publication, which is the largest social publisher on Facebook.

Journalists are equally hungry for balanced stories, says Joseph Erbentraut, a member of the crew of six reporters who spearheaded “What’s Working.” As editor of the Huffington Post’s Chicago branch for two years, Erbentraut felt “burned out” by the local news beat. In the spring of 2015, he joined “What’s Working.”

Erbentraut says a shift towards solutions thinking is taking place at all levels of the international organization: “We’re trying not to duplicate what everyone else is doing,” he says.

Solutions just a click away

And then there’s Ryot News. The American media organization stomps through experimental territory, producing guerrilla-style video, text and virtual reality content from across the globe. Each story offers a link to a quick action that the audience can take to help resolve the problem at the centre of the piece.

Ryot wouldn’t claim to be objective: it doesn’t want to be.

“We’ve seen through the distrust of news … that there’s supposed to be some objectivity, and then it always turns out that it wasn’t … as simple as it seemed,” says Gabriel Lifton-Zoline, from Ryot’s editorial and creative team. “We’re big fans of the notion that we can be up front about … where we’re not objective, without losing the ability to effectively communicate reality.”

When the Ebola virus swept through West Africa in 2014, Liberian aid worker Garmai Sumo developed an initiative to help feed, house and educate more than 2,000 children orphaned by the outbreak. David Darg, one of Ryot’s co-founders, made a film about the project. But a documentary, he believed, wasn’t enough. The site launched a fundraiser to raise US$54,000 for 171 orphans.

What’s more important than being objective in stories like these, Lifton-Zoline says, is “how you choose to say … ‘if you’ve been affected by this work, this is a way you can participate in it.’”

The attitude applies to all news, he says: “Whether it’s the Paris attacks or a devastating storm, there is something you can do, even if it’s sitting at home thousands of miles away.” 

So is it working?

“The (solutions) story (is) not always going to be the big traffic driver,” says HuffPo’s Joseph Erbentraut.

But that doesn’t mean it’s not working. It means media organizations are being challenged to redefine what “working” means.

“We try to look at each story and see who’s talking about (it). Is it pushing the dialogue further on an issue?” Erbentraut says. “(Those things) can be hard to quantify.”

Discourse Media co-founder Erin Millar agrees that the most important outcomes can be the most elusive. With Discourse, Millar and her team measure their work against traditional metrics like mass audience, clicks and time spent on stories, though she says this data provides limited insight.

Alfred Hermida, director of journalism at UBC, says using mass media metrics to understand solutions reporting could be useless. Hermida says “reach” analysis is more relevant. Rather than just looking at “how big the audience was,” he says, media organizations need to ask “are (we) reaching the people who … care about this issue and want to be involved?”

Discourse tries to do just that. With each story Millar and her team write, they ask “Where have these ideas been picked up?”

Ryot News’ Gabriel Lifton-Zoline says media organizations may never be able to nail down the deep ways stories impact their audiences, but that’s okay. “We’ll never be able to measure if (audiences) go volunteer at a homeless shelter, or if they give people five dollars on the street,” he says.

“The empowerment is personal. It’s their choice, but I think showing that there are options in the way to conduct yourself in the world is what we get excited about, even if it’s not measured.”