A new take on news

~a column by Colleen O’Brien

The free press part of the first amendment to the Constitution is there so that the government won’t be able to control the news and that the press itself will ferret out the wrongs done by government (and business) for the rest of us. This presupposes a press that is not itself full of evil doings as it informs us, plus the daily deluge they’ve discovered that is remorseless in its sadness, horror and cynicism.

In major news outlets, these categories lead: controversial news (politics), bad news (category 5 hurricanes), sickening news (famine, torture), corruption news (corporate, governmental).

If we watch, read or listen to enough of it, we expect the sky to fall at any minute.
The gloomy news elicits two reactions: 1. Read all I can so I know what’s going on no matter how it affects me. 2. Read nothing so I can maintain a somewhat happy life, however ignorant.

If you read every day in the newspaper that there has been a murder, or murders, in your city, you will know that crime is rampant because you keep reading about it. If you then read a report from the government that crime is down 10 percent in a decade, you won’t believe it.

The news outlet could be telling the whole story along with the immediate story.

And they’re beginning to. There is a journalistic push-back that might be fixing this difficulty in present day news outlets.

In Denmark, a concept called “constructive journalism” was introduced to a worldwide convention in 2017: The Global Constructive Journalism Conference* brought together “reporters, editors, media executives, scientists and politicians to discuss the role of the news media in modern day democracies.” * The idea is to alter somewhat the negative perception of the world and report on actual reality.

In New York City in 2013, a couple of reporters started a similar kind of news idea, what they call “solutions journalism,” meaning they would report on people and institutions that were figuring out solutions to problems reported in most media. The more bad news about poverty, education, climate change and all the other horrible things we hear every day send most of us into bewilderment, depression or ignoring all news all the time, so these reporters would utilize the same rigorous investigative integrity supposedly brought to the reporting of the old-fashioned news in the hope of telling the whole story. It would report on, not proselytize.

By 2017, these new-idea reporters, calling themselves Solutions Journalism Network, reported teaching the new news tactic in at least 180 newsrooms around the country.
Its first newsroom was The Seattle Times, and the subject was various solutions to classroom problems. This series is now in its second year.

SJN in various newsroom around the country is now reporting on solutions to such problems as financial equality for women; the effects of climate change reporting on our psyches; social and emotional learning (rather than merely intellectual learning).
Solutions journalism is not happy stories told at the end of the broadcast or on the Life pages of a newspaper. Those are incidents, stories of happy endings – the dog finds its way home after a year; the baby in the runaway stroller is stopped at the cliff. Etcetera.

Solution stories investigate people working on solving problems. Big problems, like really figuring out how to house the homeless, get the poor into jobs, teach all our children in our schools.

News that informs us about working toward solutions fills us with hope and an urge to engage, to help those who are coming up with ideas. The SNJ folks call it “empowerment – a productive emotion.”

The University of Texas studying regular “problem” news and “solution” news — as well as both in the same article – discovered that solution stories got them more readership and groups more volunteers.

This piece of research may boost Solutions Journalism Network workshops and webinars where they teach reporters, newsrooms, editors and educators how to teach others the principles of solutions journalism; as well as how to find the groups and individuals working on solutions to big problems; and then how to write the solution stories without falling into the traps of public relations fluff or advocating for the groups they’re writing about.

SJN believes that the role of traditional journalism is to expose problems, but that now it needs to do more — examine on-going and new solutions to those problems, with the same degree of rigor. To them, attempts at solutions are an important part of what is happening in the world, and accurate coverage of society must include those ideas to be able to provide the whole story.

Across the globe are institutions, usually non-profit, that work on world problems. A few to look up: Aspen Institute, Ideas42, #WeaveThePeople.

It’s all refreshing, a positive antidote to the 24/7 news cycle.

*Jutland Station, an online publication in Denmark created by students at the Erasmus Mundus Master’s programme ‘Journalism, Media and Globalization’ at Aarhus University
≠ October 26-27, 2019, second convention, Aarhus University, Denmark

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