Social Innovation and the Future of Journalism
Evolving past fear-based coverage to stories of solutions
There’s a fixture at my local pub, let’s call him Joe, who possesses an almost encyclopedic knowledge of the latest and greatest tragedies. Last month’s shooting in the area? Don’t get him started. He’ll tell you the number of shots fired, how many police cruisers arrived on the scene, and that so far there have been no arrests. Did you hear about the most recent terror threat? Yesterday’s awful car crash? Trump’s tweets? Synthetic marijuana?
Joe’s monologues — conversations with him tend to be one-sided — usually just scratch the surface. Listening to him deliver a eulogy for the humanity drowned in his pint feels like sitting in front of misery’s conveyor belt. Pour me another. The world is wretched. We’re truly screwed.
Joe comes from a long line of tragedy gossipers. His ancestors told of many a calamity, and at one point in time you would’ve wanted to pay attention to their every word. Tens of thousands of years ago they would have told you about a nearby lion attack, the threat of intertribal conflict, or an untrustworthy clan member. The information was directly relevant to your wellbeing and survival, and would inform your decision of where to hunt, whether to move or prepare for battle, and who to trust.
Our brains have been hardwired by evolution to pay attention to threats. In its crudest form, the brain analyzes data and determines whether we should fight or flee. In other words, the part of the brain central to the processing of emotions, the amygdala, is constantly on the lookout for anything ominous. In some ways the media has become the extension of the caveman stories of gore and lore, only today, instead of being limited to our direct surroundings, that input is coming at us from every corner of the world.
Thanks to the 24-hour news cycle and social media we’re bombarded with the latest to fear, to be saddened by, or to be angry about. We’re saddled with information that’s disconnected, oversimplified and difficult to act on — and if we cannot act on these emotions, we will find it difficult to be relieved of them.
The impact that media can have on our mental health has been studied and written about, as has why we’re drawn to depressing stories in the first place. A media obsessed with covering negative news can be subtly traumatizing, perhaps cultivating a society that is more fearful, detached, anxious, paranoid, angry, insular and even vengeful. All this at a time when the world is arguably getting better: we are more tolerant, less violent, less unequal, and less poor. For the first time, we have the wherewithal and technological capacity to find solutions to the daunting challenges we face.
The social innovation movement — people working across sectors to solve social, environmental, cultural and economic problems— has grown exponentially around the world in recent years with new university programs, incubators, accelerators, labs, funding pools, tools and practitioners. This growth reflects an unprecedented awareness of the issues and an increasing resolve to solve them. But reports on how these challenges are being tackled, and whether the responses are succeeding or failing, are too often missing from the mainstream media.
“The choices we make are determined by the information we are given. These are fundamental to how we shape a better world together,” UN director general Michael Møller recently said when he called for the media to take a more “constructive” and “solutions-focused” approach. “I’d like to see the media engage in solutions-driven journalism which not only reports problems but explores potential solutions to those problems as well.”
Solutions Journalism reports on the responses to social and environmental problems, and empowers people with a more holistic understanding of complex issues and a greater sense of agency. Covering successful as well as failed responses to problems fundamentally shifts the discussion from all that is wrong to what is being done about it.
As the Solutions Journalism Network notes, “it’s just good journalism,” because it represents the whole story: the problems and the responses. Research (like this and this) shows that “solutions stories” (see examples at the end of this piece) are more likely to be shared on social media “partly because they can make listeners feel powerful, less likely to tune out, and less apathetic or cynical about the problem.” As Møller points out, “interestingly, there is growing evidence that it makes a lot of commercial sense as well.”
This isn’t to say that the media shouldn’t cover the world’s problems. Nor should every story be a solutions story. The journalists who work tirelessly to serve as witnesses, to expose corruption, and to confront humanity at its worst are heroes in my book. But our story is about so much more than death, greed and destruction. Our resourcefulness and our ability to collaborate have kept us alive and fueled our progress. We have arrived at a point where, far from having to choose between fight or flight, we can instead opt to empathize, grapple with complexity, and cooperate to solve problems. Why is this part of our story so rarely reflected to us on our screens? It needs to be.
In an age of quick-hit reporting it seems there’s often too little time to invest in a strong narrative. But if journalism aspires to create change rather than titillate, to observe with purpose rather than engage in voyeurism, then story must be part of designing for impact. Millennials, for one, want to be entertained, even when it comes to news. It’s why VICE has done so well in that demographic with its trademark style of irreverent, host-driven narrative journalism.
But even beyond that particular demographic, it’s why the number one show on CNN, Parts Unknown, features a celebrity chef, Anthony Bourdain (whom Fast Company dubbed “the future of cable news”). What Bourdain excels at is connecting with people at a human level. His ability to challenge cultural assumptions and to let citizens tell their own stories rather than relying on “experts”, results in intimate portraits more revealing of complex realities than the sound bites and sensationalism of many newscasts.
For years the talk has been about an industry in ruins. From giving content away for free, to dwindling ad revenues, to corporatism, media’s sins are plentiful. But this does not signal the demise of journalism but rather an opportunity for it to reinvent itself. In fact, it may be entering a renaissance.
Some of the best journalism has yet to be experienced — and I say experienced because it may be read but it may also be lived vicariously through virtual reality headsets. More voices will be heard, and people will engage with, and even participate in, the reporting process as never before. Instead of teaching inverted pyramids, J-Schools may become more like labs for experimentation and innovation in factual storytelling. Established media will think more like startups by building, testing, learning, iterating and scaling. Accelerators like next media accelerator and Matter will incubate promising media startups like News Deeply. Journalists will become entrepreneurs, leveraging tools like crowdfunding to launch groundbreaking initiatives with new business models like De Correspondent (check out the work of their Progress Reporter, Rutger Bregman). The public will help fund the journalism they want like Canadaland, and journalism will become more collaborative (as it did when 370 investigative reporters from 76 nations poured through the Panama Papers). Emerging platforms like Blendle (think iTunes or Netflix for journalism) may change how we consume news.
The future of journalism will be decentralized, collaborative, ambitious, compelling, entrepreneurial and constructive. It will better reflect our world: one often bursting at the seams with horror, but also held together by our resilience and resolution. It will move and engage us. It will show to us that we can all be a part of the solution.
I’m exploring the creation of the Solutions Media Accelerator for storytellers and startups at the Centre for Social Innovation. The Accelerator aims to support the success of solutions journalists and promising media startups with workspace, training, mentorship, events and connections, and serve as a lab for the media and the public to envision and experiment with the future of journalism. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Recent Examples of Solutions Journalism
The Irrationality of Alcoholics Anonymous, Gabrielle Glaser, The Atlantic: Looks at how Finland is tackling alcohol abuse differently and why it’s succeeding. It has been shared over 148,000 times on Facebook.
Walking Together for Health and Spirit, David Bornstein, The New York Times: A story on the growth of GirlTrek’s movement and its impact on the health of black women, inspiring tens of thousands to change their lives and communities by walking.
Power Struggle, Discourse Media: A nine-month collaborative investigation into energy poverty solutions around the world.
How Toronto is learning from Cleveland’s return to prosperity, Sara Mojtehedzadeh, The Toronto Star: A look at how Cleveland managed to come back from economic and social despair.
Chasing Heroin, Marcela Gaviria, PBS Frontline: A searing, two-hour documentary placing America’s heroin crisis in a fresh and provocative light, and exploring what happens when addiction is treated like a public health issue, not a crime.
In School Discipline, Intervention May Work Better than Punishment, Claudia Rowe, The Seattle Times: Examines alternatives to school suspensions. The article and its related events organized by the Times led to Seattle’s school board declaring a moratorium on suspensions.