Is News Negativity Driving Audiences Away?

With David Bornstein - Co-Founder of the Solutions Journalism Network

Episode description:

Journalism’s problems today are legion: collapsing business models, attacks from political partisans, divisions in the profession over basic questions like objectivity. But none of these is solvable until newsrooms address their troubled relationship with audiences: Too many people don’t believe journalists work in their interest. Many avoid news because they find it too pugilistic, too downbeat.

Today’s guest has spent the past decade and more addressing the all too real negativity bias in the news. He’s David Bornstein, co-founder with Tina Rosenberg of the Solutions Journalism network. Solutions Journalism diverts the news media’s relentless focus on conflict and turns a clear-eyed spotlight on people attempting to solve problems.

David and Eric discuss the difference between solutions journalism and local-hero feel-good reporting; we cover the generational change drawing young journalists away from news organizations and into personal branding; our profession’s addiction to covering politics like a horse race; and the role of solutions journalism in restoring trust in professional media.



Introduction to Solution Journalism

Origin Story of Solution Journalism

The Decline of the Fixes Column

Negativity Bias in Journalism

Changing Newsroom Approaches

Generational Change in Journalism

Building Journalists’ Brand and Reputation

Inspiring Action through Solutions Journalism

Complementarity of Solutions and Investigative Journalism

Finding the Right Proportion of Solutions Stories

Covering Elections with Solutions Journalism

Addressing Issues of Truth and Trust

Challenges of Diametrically Opposed Belief Systems

The Impact of Solutions Journalism

Conclusion: Evolving Journalism for a Better Future


This episode was produced by Sound Sapien 



Eric Schurenberg (00:01.526)
David Bordenstein, welcome to In Reality.

David (00:04.651)
Thank you, Eric. It’s a pleasure to be here.

Eric Schurenberg (00:06.874)
Well, it is nice to have you. Now I am gonna start with a question that you have answered 10,000 times, but Solution Journalism may not be familiar to everyone on this podcast. So what is Solution Journalism? And I think an important part of that question is also what isn’t it?

David (00:26.363)
Good question. So it’s really actually quite simple. Solutions journalism is rigorous reporting that looks at how people are trying to respond to or solve problems, looking at what’s working, what isn’t working, and what can we learn from their efforts. And what it isn’t is it’s not advocacy for any particular model. It’s not sort of picking winners and anointing solutions.

It’s not feel good news or sort of good news to try to give people a false sense of everything’s okay. Essentially, it’s interrogating efforts to solve problems in order to surface useful knowledge for society about what is evolving and what is adaptive and what is actually working and what isn’t. So you can make be more discerning so that communities have a better sense of what a better idea of what their options are for becoming the communities that they aspire to become.

Eric Schurenberg (01:30.178)
The origin story of solution journalism is a kind of solution journalism story in itself. It started by you and Tina Rosenberg and Courtney Martin in 2013. You and Tina both wrote the fixes column for the New York Times. Was there an epiphany when you and your partners realized that this style of reporting was bigger than the Times and needed to be spread to other organizations?

David (02:00.535)
Yeah, there were a couple of things that led to the creation of the Solutions Journalism Network. One of them was, it was a simple thing. We began to see the response to the columns was quite surprising, and it was surprising to us. It was also surprising to our editors. You know, we would cover, in many cases, difficult subjects, subjects like the foster care system or child trauma or deep poverty.

Um, and we would find examples of places that we would, we came to call positive deviance, places that were doing better than you suspected, better than the average, better than people even imagined. And we would report on those stories and say, here’s an, you know, most of the time when we hear about the foster care system or when we hear about child trauma, it’s, it’s a story about systems and institutions failing people and great suffering, and of course those things are true.

But there are examples of places that are doing better. And they’re showing promise in ways of reducing suffering. And so we would focus on those. And they might just be one city or one town or one institution or perhaps a dozen places. But in focusing on those examples, we were able to show possibilities for changing the systems. It didn’t reduce the accountability of the stories that critique the systems.

But it showed that there were other better, as I said before, better options. And one of the things that happened when we wrote these stories was that people liked them. Turns out that people like to have a sense of control and agency, it’s something that I think we’re probably wired for actually. And so we would get comments from our editors like we’ve never had a story on the foster care system to be number one on the most emailed list or number two on the most emailed list. Those were the metrics of the… that the Times was using to gauge how viral things were becoming. It was before social media was ascended. So one, we saw, wow, people, there’s actually a latent demand for stories that help people understand how to solve problems, which is sort of, kind of common sense, but that’s not the way people thought about it in journalism. And the second thing was, for me, was very personal was my, was a conversation I actually had with my father shortly.

Eric Schurenberg (03:57.89)

David (04:24.391)
after my mother had died and she had Alzheimer’s and he had suffered quite a bit taking care of her. And after she died, he lived, my father lives in, lived in Montreal, Canada and I was living in New York at the time. And so I’d call him at the end of the day at 11 o’clock. I could always catch him because he liked to watch TV late at night. And one night I called him and I said, Hey dad, how you feeling? And he said, um, his voice was very, very heavy. And he said…

Dave, I’m convinced that humans are worse than animals. And this was very strong language. And I said, are you watching CNN, Dad? As a joke, I mean, not really as a joke, but sort of, he was. And he was just watching the news. And he was seeing yet another story of something awful in our world that is what makes up the diet of what we give people, the information diet. And I.

I got off the phone, you know, and I told him, I said, that’s, that’s not reality. That’s a very, very skewed view of reality. Just remember that it’s like, it’s like you’re looking at the human body, but let’s say you’re not oncologist. You’re only looking for something bad. And, um, anyways, I got off the phone and that stuck with me. And then I remember, you know, just Tina and I were talking and, and we said, you know, there’s more places that should be doing this solutions journalism. People are, are not getting the whole story. Um, and that became our tagline, the whole story.

It was not trying to change, you know, trying to undermine other stories that are also true, but to say we need to really balance out the story. We need to tell people how people are, you know, causing problems or neglecting problems, but also people how people are responding to problems. And if you see the whole story, you have a very different idea of the country, you have a very different idea of your neighbors, and you have an opportunity to engage with the world with some what we call hope with teeth, which is very important.

Eric Schurenberg (06:22.79)
Whatever happened to the fixes column?

David (06:25.503)
So we stopped it after I think it was 11 years. The solutions journalism network had grown and we were running an organization and we had a large staff at that point and we really had to decide what to focus on.

Eric Schurenberg (06:39.938)
Okay, talking about Solution Journalism Network, I’m struck by the fact that it needed to be brought into life at all. And one would assume that things are in journalism the way they are for a few reasons. And one of them is the negativity bias that all of us have as human beings. So starting with an audience, I, for example, am hyper alert to threats to me and my family, like all human beings for obvious reasons. And so stories about crime in my neighborhood or disease or hostile foreign countries or dangerous migrants are gonna get my immediate attention. I have… limited time and infinite choice of news, why will I click on a solutions journalism headline rather than something that might be scarier or more negative?

David (07:46.091)
So that’s, you know, we have the race to the bottom of the brainstem, which is being amplified by social media. And what you’re describing now is really journalism evolved out of gossip. Well, some theorists have argued that. And gossip, 90% of gossip is negative. It’s about, you know, the bad actions of other human beings and a lot of it is protective. Like don’t, you know… don’t go hunting with this person or don’t go into a business deal with this person kind of thing. And I think journalism was, you know, very, you know, and the sort of the animating, the animating motto of journalism for much of the 20th century for many journalists was sunlight is the best disinfectant. You know, we use the light of exposure to kill the germs, the sort of the bad apples of society. And I think that is always important. You always need to be warning people about threats.

In a way, it’s like going to a doctor. It’s the first half to the doctor’s appointment. You have to make people aware of the thing that’s growing that could be dangerous to their life or the infection. So it’s kind of a diagnostic protective threat assessment kind of information feedback system. Now, when your institutions, if you think about the 20th century or the 19th century, when journalism began, but let’s focus on the 20th century,

The premise of journalism, or what you’re describing, focusing on what’s going wrong, is that the institutions are basically sound and healthy and working. And we just need to keep them clean and healthy. It’s essentially an optimization approach. Let’s make sure our government is not corrupt. Let’s make sure our hospitals are doing the right thing. Let’s make sure our schools are actually educating the kids and so forth.

So the journalism of the 20th century was designed to do that, and it fit in with catching bad apples and, you know, rooting out wrongdoing and malfeasance. And that if you fast forward to where we are today into the 21st century, the basic assumption by many people, and certainly many young people is that the institutions are totally broken. They’re completely unable to contend with the challenges of our time, whether it’s global warming, whether it’s what is happening with democracy, whether it’s privacy, and God knows what’s gonna happen with artificial intelligence. We need to construct and recreate the institutions, all of the institutions. And so the idea that journalism is just gonna keep the existing ones clean and healthy kind of makes no sense.

David (10:35.551)
for people who see that our job is to recreate and reinvent and reimagine institutions because the world is so unequal. There’s such great inequality, wealth inequality, because the whole business environment that we’ve created is destroying ecosystems and endangering life on the planet. We can’t just kind of like tweak along the way. And so the reason why people are interested in solutions journalism and especially young people, because our network is made up of thousands of journalists. Many of them are a lot younger than I am…
And they see this as absolutely necessary. And the audiences that click on these stories, and they do get better engagement than similar stories very often, not always. But that’s one of the surprising things of solutions journalism is that people are avoiding the current news environment. News avoidance is on the rise because people overwhelmingly say it’s too negative. It makes me feel powerless. It makes me feel hopeless. And I don’t like to feel that way. So I’m not even paying attention to the news…

…friends of mine are not even reading the news who have been news junkies for years. But I do want to have a sense of what we can do about it, which is to say I’d like to have a sense of control, sense of hopefulness and real ideas that I could, you know, engage with that would help me, you know, work alongside others to make a contribution, which is genuinely what makes people happiest. And that’s not just me saying that, that’s based on a lot of research.

Eric Schurenberg (12:03.463)
I look at the success of major journalism institutions like Fox and CNN, which have basically gone all in on polarization and on a negativity bias. Your father’s experience watching CNN late at night is instructive, I think. What do they see that… that you don’t or vice versa, what do you see that they are not seeing? And how do you get kind of institutionalized newsrooms to change their approach?

David (12:43.975)
It’s very hard to change existing institutions. We actually, we work with thousands of journalists and we have many news organizations. We don’t actually know exactly around the world, but we track in our database, 2000 news organizations that are doing solutions journalism where we found good examples of it. But having said that, the change really comes from individual leaders. And what Fox and CNN are good at and what Fox is especially good at is monetizing people’s hurt, their anger, sometimes resentment, sometimes a sense of unfairness in the country. They’re able to take these feelings, which are true feelings that people have, their legitimate feelings, and turn that into this kind of machine that prints money, basically. And that’s very, very attractive to Amanda Ripley, a wonderful journalist who’s covered polarization, uses the phrase conflict entrepreneurs, people who are able to build business models out of human conflict and intractable conflict. That’s not going to go away. Conflict is with us. There’s always going to be people who exploit it to become politicians, to become more powerful business people, to exploit that in order to turn that into green bucks. And even, you know, pretty good news organizations that most of the time are trying to do a good job are very, very aware that this kind of story, the outrage machine kind of story is something that they can often count on for clicks. So in the case of these big businesses that are built on perpetuating that, and I think the business models that have grown out of it, it’s very hard for those organizations to change at a core level because they’re so oriented around their needs.

What is happening though is that these news organizations that are cropping up around the world, new institutions and changes that are happening from within news organizations are often being led by younger journalists and editors who really, really are dissatisfied with the status quo. And additionally, there is this phenomenon of news avoidance, which the Reuters Institute has been tracking for a number of years that is on the rise, which is to say people are making a decision. Do I pay attention to the news or do I pay attention to my mental health and take care of myself? And more and more people are saying, I just can’t, you know, follow the news the way I used to, you know, it’s, it’s making me sick. Um, and so eventually, you know, you know, you can, you can have a very successful company selling extremely unhealthy food.

David (15:41.643)
for a long time, but at some point, that business model is gonna break down. I don’t know why though.

Eric Schurenberg (15:48.094)
Yes, yes. I get the, I understand totally what you’re talking about is a matter of fact, just as an aside, my organization, the Alliance for Trust in Media, is at the very beginning stages of a research project into news avoidance with our partner, the Texas Tribune. And the research director of the Alliance is the leader of that news avoidance study at Reuters, Ben Tov.

David (16:16.287)
I’m eager to hear what you discover and what, because there’s many nuances within news avoidance and that I think that’s very, yeah. Yeah.

Eric Schurenberg (16:22.27)
That’s certainly true, certainly true. There’s a lot to learn there. But back to you and solutions journalism, I am struck by the generational change that you referred to among journalists who are interested in pursuing this kind of story. For me, getting into journalism was all about the romance and social mission, if you will, of speaking truth to power. And I think about…

Hollywood’s portrayal of journalists as heroes in all the president’s men or spotlight or she said Social Solutions journalism doesn’t have that kind of crusading edge necessarily How do you convince journalists that a solution journalism stories kind of in their? In their private interest of building their own brand and reputation

David (17:13.855)
Hmm. It’s a good question. I mean, we see solutions journalism and, and there’s many examples of it as primarily, and this is maybe counterintuitive, but primarily an accountability mechanism. You know, and, but the question is how, how does it, how do you really actually hold people accountable? So one, one way of doing it is by exposing their wrongdoing and showing, you know, like, like all the president’s men, you know, the corruption at the rot, rot at the top in that case, and forcing someone to resign, someone as high as the president. So that’s one way to sort of fix the system. And that goes back to the thing I was saying before, that’s getting rid of the bad apples. Okay. Another way to hold people accountable is to show them, this is your school. The graduation rate of your school is only 58%, you know, which is pretty bad.

Look at the school across the river that has a very similar demographic and their graduation rate is was 58% but is now 85% you know so now we’re gonna hold you accountable to a benchmark of performance that is achievable with the resources you have And we’re gonna put these things side by side and we’re gonna ask the public to say what do you think about these two schools? So we create pressure you create pressure on people for improving their performance. But not just by pointing out what’s wrong with their institution, because if you just focus on what’s not going right, or you just focus on the corruption or the incompetence, you end up creating fatalism. What happens eventually is that people say nothing works. Nothing can ever be fixed. And then people withdraw. People say, why should I pay my taxes? None of these things work anyways. So.

Eric Schurenberg (19:01.002)

David (19:12.191)
For the journalists who have that sense of the crusading spirit, who want to actually force change in society, and I think that’s a very important motivating force for journalists, you need to be able to show people not just what underperformance looks like, but what is achievable. And in fact, when you show that we have better options and better possibilities, and you not only intensify the pressure, because you show that the poor performance is illegitimate. People can’t hide behind their excuses and say, well, we don’t have enough money or, you know, blame the victims or all of the things. When you talk to public officials or people running institutions that are really doing a lousy job, they always have excuses for why they’re doing a lousy job. I mean, that’s, and, you know, how do you know if those excuses are true or not? Maybe it is true that they don’t have enough money to graduate all the kids. But if you’re able to show the positive deviance, the people in the system, just like them who are getting better results with the foster care kids, who are doing a better job in schools where there are a lot of kids have trauma or haven’t been well prepared. You bring pressure to bear. You also create something that’s quite wonderful. You create FOMO, you know, fear of missing out. The audience that’s reading that story is reading about another place, another company, another government agent, another sort of local government that’s doing something smarter and better than they’re getting.

People don’t like to get second or third best services. They’re like, why am I waiting in line when those people over there are going right through? And so it’s a fantastic way to create pressure and it doesn’t contribute to fatalism, as I said. It contributes to, I would say, a sort of energetic outrage, but with a method, but with a sense that there are, we have better ideas that we could pursue. And that, we need to draw out people’s energy…

…as well as their anger or their outrage. If you don’t do both, and also people need to have better ideas to try out, they need to have tools to work with. And so solutions journalism fits all those buckets. And that’s why, that’s why just the final thing is there, there is some research at the university of Oregon as well, that where they focused on the complementarity, complementarity of solutions journalism and investigative journalism, and it turns out.

Eric Schurenberg (21:23.475)

David (21:36.991)
They strengthen one another.

Eric Schurenberg (21:40.251)
Mm hmm. Which leads to the question that I was inspired to ask by the hypothetical story you just told. Maybe it actually wasn’t hypothetical. Maybe you’re thinking of a particular story about two schools in the same neighborhood. Are you, or was that a hypothesis of how solutions journalism might inspire action?

David (22:00.651)
We used to, actually the direct comparison we used to make in early parts of our training was we found that there were two Good Samaritan hospitals. They were both named Good Samaritan hospitals and they had very different cesarean rates. I don’t remember the exact numbers, but one was much, much higher than you should have at a hospital. And this is an example I used to give and the other one was lower than you would expect. The average was in between. And we would ask journalists, which one is the story? And most of the time they said, oh, the one with the very high cesarean rate because that’s unconscionable and they’re doing it too often and they should really, someone should expose it. And we said, well, what about the other hospital? Like, how are they doing fewer cesareans? Like, how are they doing it? What’s the protocols that they’re using?

Because if you know too few, it can be dangerous, right? So maybe it’s an unsafe hospital, maybe they’re not doing enough cesareans. But until you look at it and you make the comparison, you don’t know anything. Once you make the comparison, you realize they’re doing different things. They’re screening the mothers differently. Perhaps they’re dealing with a different population or whatever, but you begin to tease out how the system works and really how the system can be improved or frankly, how the system can be…

Eric Schurenberg (23:00.183)

David (23:25.939)
can stay in a sort of static mode and not change. But one of the stories that had the biggest impact on me as a personally, because it was such a moving story was, so there’s a lot of, it’s now increasingly diagnosed across the United States. There are a lot of people in the country, a lot of children who have what have been called high A scores. And that’s a measure of childhood trauma.

Eric Schurenberg (23:30.037)

David (23:53.299)
ACE stands for adverse childhood experiences. And it’s a terminology that was developed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about 20, 25 years ago, in order to be able to understand a set of educational, social and health outcomes that were often connected to traumatic early childhood experiences. Well, it turns out when you are running…

early childhood programs like head start programs. If you have children who have high A scores, it can be very difficult for the teachers. And there was even some research that came out a number of years ago that showed that children in preschool settings were being expelled at 13 times the rate of high school students. So just like this, I’ll just say that statistic again.

Preschool expulsions was the phrase like even just hearing that phrase like expelling a four-year-old From a preschool program a head start program and what’s what was going on in that? Well, it turns out the behavior problems were too difficult for Headstart instructors to manage and they would just say we just can’t handle Jimmy kind of thing so I Read a lot about this problem and I thought this is really a canary in the coal mine of our society like if you don’t get this right, you know and

Eric Schurenberg (24:51.517)
Wow. Yeah.

David (25:17.423)
I started asking people, is anyone doing better against this problem? And I was pointed to an organization that worked in Missouri and Kansas that was called at the time Head Start Trauma Smart. And they had developed a methodology to teach the teachers how to engage with children that was based on evidence-based practices. And I can go into the details of it, but it involved a tuning to the children, validating their emotions and helping them learn how to calm themselves when their bodies felt as The children would describe it. My body is hot and it turned out it was really effective and What effective admit was the children were able to learn how to self-regulate themselves. They were sleeping better Grandparents said they’re not wetting the bed as much which is a very important thing for child But more important they were able to sit in circle time. They made friends, they were able to learn their ABCs and like all the things that you that teachers know are absolutely essential if a kid is going to be on a trajectory to success when they go into kindergarten. So I wrote this story and it was the number one on in the New York Times for on Facebook for a week. It was the number one most emailed story for quite a number of days.
It was one of the top stories I think of the year – so much feedback from that story. And actually the people that I wrote about, I’ve stayed in touch with over the years. And they said it led to hundreds of replications around the United States of people who had the same problem, including into large school systems of large cities. They started looking at these trauma informed modalities, which are now becoming much more integrated into many school systems and must be. So for me, that was very gratifying because

Here’s a method. Here’s a problem that is widely shared, a terrible problem. So I probably come, it causes tremendous suffering and there are better ways of doing it. And just, I felt like, you know, journalists are often compared to watchdogs, but I felt like here I was being more like a bee. Like I’m a cross pollinator here is what I was really doing, you know? And that’s a powerful model too, right?

Eric Schurenberg (27:36.798)
Yeah, yeah, all right. Earlier you had said that there was research that suggested that solutions stories were complimentary to investigative stories. Is there a kind of right proportion for a newsroom to aim for?

David (27:57.851)
I would say that’s such a good question, Eric. And I would say that the question, I don’t know if there’s a right proportion. That is sort of a general sort of rule of thumb like a mathematical thing. But if you begin with the question, instead of just jumping and doing a story, if you sort of pull back and say, okay, what is the information missing from our community’s understanding?

that’s preventing our community from solving this problem or from being the community that we aspire to become. What’s missing? And so in some cases, you’ll look at the problem and depending on what it is, you’ll say, there’s a really serious problem that we don’t even know about it. We are not even talking about it. Okay, that’s a big problem. Like if you haven’t gotten the diagnosis, you can’t start dealing with the health problem. Okay, so a lot of journalism is like…

…making people aware of something or some or helping people become aware of the urgency of a problem that they may be aware of but they don’t really understand how serious it is. That’s a big part of journalism. But for many things, and I would say in many cases global warming is a good example, people have a lot of awareness. They’ve heard a thousand times about the problems. They have very low sense of agency, of efficacy, and in fact they’re paralyzed.

David (29:21.799)
Or they don’t, they don’t, they don’t, you know, a global warming has been presented by journalists as being both apocalyptic and unsolvable. Now, if you give people those two frames, people are gonna adapt by saying, thank you very much. I’m gonna go watch Netflix and eat ice cream. You know, there’s not a way for people to engage with that. So, so I would say, you know,

Once you’ve asked the question, what’s missing? If what’s missing is we understand the problem, we understand it’s a serious problem, we just don’t know what our options are, that’s when you say, you come in there and say, okay, let’s go do some research and let’s look at, you know, there’s 3,200, something like that, counties in the United States. A lot of them are dealing with some dimension of global warming or youth mental health crisis, or a variety of things that run through the whole population. Just statistically, I used to be a,

David (30:18.811)
I come from a statistics background. I will tell you, there are always a small percentage of actors who are doing better than everyone else. That’s called variation under the curve. And if 2% of those counties are doing something much smarter, you’ve got 60 stories. Those are the ones that will help you break through and understand what are your options, where is the efficacy. Question for journalists is how do I find these stories? And what if I don’t have a travel budget? Because a lot of places don’t have a travel budget.

And, you know, who, how do I get the data or the evidence that they’re trustworthy, that what they’re saying is actually really doing better than I think, how do I know for sure if I’m going to do a story about this? And those are all the kinds of very practical workflow challenges that we deal with, or we help news organizations deal with. That’s the reason that our network exists is to try to help people in the actual production of solutions journalism so that it doesn’t, so that is high quality.

David (31:18.772)
And the friction of creating these stories is not so intense.

Eric Schurenberg (31:24.118)
Some of the research into news avoidance suggests that what causes people to avoid news is the coverage of politics. And this year, obviously, there is a major presidential election as well as many elections around the world. In the journalism industry, there’s a lot of breastfeeding. I’m sure you’re aware of it, about how we have traditionally covered elections, focusing on the horse race who’s winning and losing rather than on the stakes of the election, what it means to the reader or the audience if one candidate wins versus the other. Neither of those approaches seems particularly oriented to solutions. How would solutions journalism cover the elections? What’s the approach to that?

David (32:17.415)
Yeah, well, we have a big democracy project and it’s called Advancing Democracy. And it involves a number of features, but, and I encourage people if they’re interested in checking it out, you know, the Advancing Democracy Initiative, which is run by a number of news organizations that we’re partnering with. The basic premise is instead of covering politics through the horse race,

David (32:47.539)
I mean, these people who are running for office, they’re running for office presumably because they’re trying to tell you that they’re gonna make the community better, right? They’re gonna help you. That’s why you’re supposed to vote for them. So instead of the traditional horse race coverage, what is happening through this network is people are, journalists are interviewing people in the community to say what are the most pressing issues for you in this upcoming election? And people will talk about the economy, the environment the mental health of our teens. You know, will we have a small town in 10 years or will all the young people leave and you know, we won’t have a real rural future here. And then rather than, you know, just going to the politicians and ask, you know, and sort of listening to their speeches and quoting what they say, they go and they say, these are the issues in our community. We’ve done a bunch of solutions journalism to look at different options.

What is your stance towards these issues? You know, which ones of these would you pursue? Which ones of these would you not pursue and why? What, you know, and so what they’re doing is they’re forcing elected officials to be accountable to the public on the terms that the public sets with some knowledge that there are actually options and there are policy choices. Now have these, have the people running for office, have they even familiarized themselves with these public, with these policy choices?

Eric Schurenberg (33:49.449)
What is your stance on these issues?

David (34:15.967)
Do they have staff members that even looked at them? Have they thought about it? Can they speak intelligently about what is a good mental health program for youth? Because if you haven’t even done your homework on that, that’s telling. So not having anything to say to that issue is just as important as having a strong position on that. And so you’re moving it away from this kind of like the sound bite that’s gonna dominate the coverage, which the social media outrage machine is so good at amplifying, and you’re moving it back to what people really care about. If you speak to any business person who has started in companies, they always talk about what’s the customer pain. You need to identify the customer pain and then try to figure out a way to address it. So in America, the customer pain is very real.

There’s a lot of people suffering in a lot of different ways from dislocation and you hear about it all the time. So the journalists can actually help the community and this goes to trust because people do not trust you because they think, just because they think you’re accurate. People trust you because they think you have my back. You know, it’s like that phrase, I don’t care what you know until I know that you care.

So in order to show people, if you are a news organization and you say, you should trust us, we want you to trust us, we have your backs. You can’t do it if you just point out the problems all the time and you just are a stenographer for a politician. You have to do your work, find out what people care about, help them understand what their options are, and then help keep the pressure to bear on public officials and other people in order to represent the interests of the public. So that’s the way we think of covering democracy and it’s once again it’s not just during election times. You can do this all the time. I’m going to stop here.

Eric Schurenberg (36:20.654)
I totally subscribe to what you just said about trust, that it is a question of convincing audiences that you are actually acting in their interest and have their interest at heart. But the question of truth, which isn’t the total question behind trust, but it is important that you get to the truth. That is sort of table stakes for journalists and something that we’re all focused on.

Part of the question in this country around coverage of news, as well as trust in journalism, circles around issues of truth. So you can have a political identity built around ideas like that the 2020 election was stolen or that there’s something fishy about COVID-19 care or that immigration is an existential problem, are at odds with the facts and there are issues on the other side about accusations say of racism and homophobia. Dealing with those challenges, something every newsroom faces, what is Solutions Journalism answer to the kind of the belief systems in audiences that are so diametrically opposed?

David (37:46.803)
Yeah, great question. So after 2016, I think we started in 2017, we started working with the journalist, as I mentioned before, Amanda Ripley, who has written a lot about polarization and has written a fantastic book called High Conflict, which I highly recommend. One of the best books on really understanding what drives polarization and also what you can do to answer your question, to help create a sort of a shared… shared sense of meaning.

Eric Schurenberg (38:18.35)
David, let me interrupt just for a second to say that Amanda Ripley has been a guest on In Reality, and I agree with your evaluation of her. She’s a great, great journalist and a real contributor. But sorry, back to you.

David (38:32.711)
Yeah, so you know Amanda’s work well, and we worked with her early on, and she wrote an essay for us, which we commissioned, called Complicating the Narratives. And the basic idea was, what could journalists understand, or what should they understand, from people who are experts at conflict, in terms of being able to tell stories that bring people together? And one of the things that she came up with was the sense that…

Journalists don’t listen very well. Conflict mediators listen very, very well. And not only do they listen to people in different ways and ask different kinds of questions, but they also give people proof that they really understand the things that they’re saying. Not just that they understand the sound bites and they’ve quoted them, because if you’ve ever had journalism done to you, and I’ve had it done to me because…

As an author, I’ve written a number of books and I’ve been the subject of stories many, many times of people as the subject is the author who was quoted in the interview or whatever. And it’s a very, it can be a very unpleasant experience. It’s a very jarring experience because you consistently feel like they didn’t really understand what I said. They didn’t really take the time, really get my meaning. They quoted me. Yes, maybe that piece of language that came out of my mouth was correct in terms of a tape recorder captured, but it didn’t really capture the meaning and the gist, and it didn’t get to the truth of what I was trying to convey. People have this experience all the time and people feel that they are looked down upon by journalists, especially conservatives in America. They feel that their voices are, um, are, um, you know, that they’re, that they’re covered in ways that are deeply unflattering on a regular basis.

David (40:26.671)
Um, and so the approach in complicating the narratives and we have a fellowship program where we train journalists, um, and, uh, and are helping to spread this is basically listening more deeply, listening to people using some of the techniques that Amanda has talked about, uh, called looping and asking the kinds of questions that help people bring more curiosity to the people on the other side, cause it turns out that.

When we imagine, when a liberal person imagines a conservative, they think that this person, like, if you say, how much does this person care about racism, they’re way off in terms of estimating that they think it’s much, much less than it really is. And if you ask a typical conservative about a liberal and say, how much does this person care about patriotism? They’re also way off. We have these, these caricatures of the other side.

And so whatjournalists can do by listening more deeply to people and really understanding the truth is to be able to build a shared sense of Understanding of one another it’s only when people actually Believe that they’re being listened to and genuinely heard that they will listen to you Then you can start talking about the facts then you can start saying well You know the COVID vaccine is you can start getting into the details global warming is real and blah But you can’t get there until you are in some sort of relational trust environment. And so the process of journalism, how we listen, how we give people proof that we’ve listened, and how we give people proof that they matter and that what they’re saying is that we respect them. Not necessarily, we don’t agree with their ideas, we don’t necessarily respect their ideas, but we respect them as human beings. That is something that journalism must do a lot better if we were going to deal with polarization through the news.

Eric Schurenberg (42:28.091)
A lot of the stories that I’ve encountered in solutions journalism on the website and some of the things that you’ve used as examples in this conversation seem like a drop in the bucket that they are that to use your example about the counties that are below the curve.

They’re, by definition, a minority of the trend. And there’s a sense that these initiatives by exceptional groups are encouraging, but they’re overmatched by systemic problems. Does working as you have on solutions journalism leave you more optimistic about the future or less?

David (43:25.723)
It can’t help but be more, you know, and I would also make a difference between hopefulness and optimism. I mean, I think optimism is more of a predictive thing, like what you think is actually going to happen, whereas hopefulness is more of a kind of, um, orientation of the heart. And we have a, there’s a phrase that we’ve often used. Um, you know, it’s, it’s actually a quote from, from Maimonides and it, it is

Hope is a belief in the plausibility of the possible as opposed to the necessity of the probable. So hope is a belief in the plausibility of the possible as opposed to the necessity of the probable. So I can’t say and no one can say, I mean the statistics on, as I mentioned I come from a statistics background, the probabilities for many things don’t look good. But there are plausible possibilities for many, many things.

And actually many more than people realize. And it’s surprising how quickly good ideas can grow. Like this child trauma story that I mentioned, there are trauma-informed schools, healthcare settings, early childhood settings, even entire communities now that didn’t exist 20 years ago. So the move towards, we are getting wiser about understanding human body and somatics and how people actually work, you know, behavioral psychology, behavioral economics, all these things have really come up very quickly to give us a better understanding of human, human nature. And that gives us more control. So ideas can spread very quickly. And I think that what we have seen, and there are examples of, you know, I mean, one of the things I think, probably for your question, one of the most important frontiers in solutions journalism, and I would say in democracy, and this gets to the whole polarization is how does journalism cover the government? Right?

Because you can… Well, there’s a lot of solutions journalism being produced. We have a database with almost 16,000 stories in it. And that’s just a tip of the iceberg. But not that much of it is about government. And it’s an interesting thing. Journalists are very reluctant to say anything good about government. And that’s because, you know, you go back to like the Vietnam War, the Pentagon Papers, Watergate.

David (45:52.031)
You know, this was the big shift that journalism went through into hyper cynicism post those eras was to constantly be looking for the spin whenever anyone from government is talking and not really get into the substance. So we have an election coming up this year and we have many, many people in this country who have no clue what is actually in the Inflation Reduction Act. Is this doing anything for global warming?

They don’t really understand. I mean, one of the largest infrastructure, bills of all time is something that never gets talked about in the news. I mean, I think that there’s probably more coverage of the dresses worn at the Golden Globes than what’s in the Inflation Reduction Act. And now many, many people are gonna be choosing their president and their leaders this year based on, does the government help me? Is the government doing anything good for my community?

And yet they don’t have the data about government effectiveness to make that decision because the journalists are not giving it to them because the journalists are not actually reporting on, here’s our government, here’s where it’s really been effective, here’s where it’s been ineffective, here’s where the verdict is out. These are some of the core areas that they’re trying to improve on. This is why it matters to our community. These are the kinds of stories that could potentially help not only with polarization, but with an understanding of what happens when we actually completely neglect the government. There was a very good book by Michael Lewis that came out a few years ago called The Fifth Risk, where he basically says what happens to these government agencies, and it was written in the year after Trump was elected, when in fact nobody’s running them.

When there’s not a priorities, when there’s not a belief that government does anything important. And one of the agencies he focused on was the Department of Energy, which most Americans don’t realize, which we’ve had people even saying they want to eliminate, but most Americans don’t realize that the Department of Energy has a $30 billion budget, $15 billion of the Department of Energy of its budget, half of it, protects Americans from radiation. This is important.

We don’t want to just not have anyone running this agency, which is basically what happened after that election. Because we had a group of people who really thought the government doesn’t do anything important. And most Americans, or many Americans would subscribe to that. They’d say the government doesn’t do anything important. Why should I pay my tax dollars? And who’s supposed to tell them about government effectiveness, about what the Department of Energy does? Why this is really important to your health and well-being? Well, that’s journalists. And frankly, in that area…

That’s one of the most important areas, I think, to if we’re going to save this democracy, we have to start covering the government through the lens of, you know, solutions journalism when there are really good ideas and when there’s actual innovation and good accountability to journalism when the government is not is not doing its work.

Eric Schurenberg (49:08.822)
David, I think that is a great place to leave it. And a very hopeful and practical look at how journalism can evolve to do the important work that is not just uncovering malfeasance, but also giving people the real story, the whole story, to use your phrase, about how the government works. David, thank you so much for your time. This was a great conversation.

David (49:37.971)
Well, thank you, Eric. Thanks for having me. Appreciate it.

Created & produced by: Podcast Partners / Published: Feb 1 2024

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