Confronting the Narrative of Brokenness

How the news could reduce polarization and repair our social fabric

Keith H. Hammonds, Solutions Journalism Network

The United States is battling the narrative of its own brokenness. Most of the news we get emphasizes dysfunction and conflict and underplays strengths and commonalities. The reality, of course, is that our nation is broken in many ways. But the media’s persistent preoccupation with problems and seemingly incurable pathologies overstates the challenges. It contributes to widespread feelings of resentment, fatalism, and fear, helping to polarize us and focusing conversation on who’s to blame rather than on how we might move forward. It amplifies the divides not just between right and left, but between small towns and big cities; between “us” and “them”; between here and everywhere else. It undermines basic trust and confidence in democracy itself.

This imbalance is a function of the political and cultural moment — but it’s also anchored in the crisis facing journalism itself. Newsrooms have responded to the implosion of their business model largely by producing more of what they believe their dwindling audiences want: stories that seize on fear, sensationalism, and outrage. This sort of coverage has, in turn, further undermined the public’s appetite for and trust in journalism — first, because it’s painful to absorb negative news all the time; but more importantly, because that coverage fails both to reflect people’s reality and to serve their needs.

Residents of Choteau, MT at a forum hosted by the local weekly newspaper.

Five years ago, the Solutions Journalism Network set out to confront this phenomenon. We work to spread rigorous reporting on the responses to social problems — helping to show how people far and wide are building a better world. We believe it’s more important than ever today for people to see beyond the stereotypes, to discover stories about creative problem solving happening in their own communities and in others. Not only can these stories help to rebuild respect and repair our social fabric, but they are a highly effective way to provide communities with both the self-efficacy and the knowledge they need to respond effectively to today’s challenges, whether that means improving public health or education, attacking structural inequalities, reforming the justice system, reconstituting the promise of social mobility, or safeguarding the environment.

In that time, we’ve worked with over 200 news organizations across the U.S., and more than 10,000 individual journalists have been exposed to the principles and mechanics of solutions reporting via workshops, online curricula, and webinars. We think the demand for this sort of reporting is growing along with supply: So far this year, we’ve seen over 300,000 click-throughs on stories featured in our Solutions Story Tracker, a searchable archive of 5,000-plus stories — and that doesn’t count (because we can’t) the millions who consume solutions-focused news directly from their favorite news outlets.

The approach has won traction more quickly and with a lot less resistance than we had imagined. Most editors, producers, and reporters see that it’s really just about doing good journalism — applying established investigative and explanatory reporting techniques to problems and corresponding responses in ways that present a more complete, more faithful representation of society. When we point out that solutions stories keep readers on the page for 10% to 25% longer than comparable problem-focused stories, light bulbs click on. Then we point to powerful shifts in public conversation, and to changes in policy. Solutions journalism actually can help move the needle in society. Following the Minneapolis Star Tribune’s solutions-focused series in 2016 on terrorist recruitment of young Somali men, for example, the U.S. Attorney expanded outreach efforts with the Somali community, and the state legislature approved new funding for youth programs.

This dynamic, we think, is anchored in getting journalists to look beyond conflict to possibilities. The signature question of solutions reporting is not, “Do you agree with so-and-so?” but “Who’s doing it better?” The Star Tribune’s investigation examined the causes of terrorist recruitment — but it also produced stories like, “What Maryland’s test lab can teach Minnesota about thwarting radical recruiters,” and “How Denmark is trying to subvert the call to terror.” When reporters pursue that line of questioning, they ask people to bring their imagination, not just to defend their positions. In this way, the solutions approach can create common ground for practical discussion across differences.

Melody Martinsen, editor of the Choteau Acantha, a weekly newspaper serving Choteau, MT and surrounding Teton county, maps out solutions to community challenges.

That was one of the key findings from a study conducted by the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University, published in the Columbia Journalism Review. Researchers explored how journalists and community members could reduce polarization and “bridge the divides of party and demographics” in two counties in Kentucky. Via focus groups, diaries, and interviews, they asked people to describe how they decided which news to trust, which to share with others — and how their news consumption affected their interactions with neighbors who had different political views.

Their central recommendation for fostering “a more inclusive political dialogue” was to “explore local issues and local angles on national issues with a solutions journalism approach.” Researchers recommended collaborating with news outlets “that residents are already reading, watching, or listening to” and providing “opportunities for community engagement and participatory journalism.”

Here’s an example of how that can play out. A year ago, in partnership with the LOR Foundation and High Country News, we put together a collaborative network of 12 news organizations in western Montana to report on responses to the challenges facing rural communities. In a series of surveys and focus groups that informed the project, just one in five people told us that their local news sources consistently provided value. We also saw an acute disconnect between the issues people said were important and what their local news outlets actually covered.

Solutions stories don’t diminish the seriousness of the underlying problems — but they do provide a pathway to more inclusive and constructive discourse about what happens next.

In its initial effort, the collaborative took on an issue that the research had consistently surfaced as demanding more coverage — economic development. The Choteau Acantha, a weekly paper in Teton County, east of the Rocky Mountains, focused on efforts to reverse chronic population decline, especially the drain of younger people who often moved to urban areas for jobs. And in February, it hosted a community forum to talk about the solutions the stories had surfaced from other towns in the region. Suggestions that emerged from that discussion were folded into a formal community assessment, and participants were urged to join an ongoing planning process to address the problem. This fall, that dialogue yielded five citizen-led committees, each charged with taking on a slice of the population loss problem — and the Acantha continues to report on their progress.

We think that project represents an important dynamic. By providing evidence-based reporting on what works, and on how it works, solutions reporting can help shift public discourse from divisive finger-pointing to a focus on shared goals and how to get there. One participant in the Acantha’s forum told us: “That was one of the first times I remember people from all different groups coming together and having conversation about ‘What do we need to do in our community to make it a better place to live?’” This shift changes the way people think about their own agency: Our research and that of others consistently reveals that people who consume solutions stories are more likely to think that problems can be solved, and are more interested in getting involved in change efforts.

Residents of Choteau, MT close out a successful community forum.

We’ve also found a connection between solutions journalism and renewed trust in media.

When we surveyed Montana newspaper readers recently, people who indicated they had read stories in the “Montana Gap” series were significantly more likely to say that they trusted their local paper’s coverage, that the coverage was fair, and that the paper helps people understand how they can get involved with community issues. In addition, people who thought their newspaper highlighted solutions were far more likely to feel that they felt more capable of making change in their community.

We’ve seen this play out many times — with reporting on prison reentry in Philadelphia; infant mortality in rural Ohio; public education in Seattle; and more. Citizenship and civic life is strengthened. Change happens, faster and better. Solutions stories don’t diminish the seriousness of the underlying problems — but they do provide a pathway to more inclusive and constructive discourse about what happens next. And they signal a far richer role in society for news organizations and journalists themselves — not as dispassionate observers nor as sensationalist fear-mongers, but as interested actors that help to bring about change.

The Solutions Journalism Network is working toward a day when journalism will be balanced — but in a different way than we usually think. We aim not only for ideological, gender or racial balance, but for balance between news that raises concern about problems and news that builds awareness about possibilities and credible options to build something better. So, alongside the world’s corruption, negligence, malice, and prejudice, the news will reveal more of the world’s competence, creativity, and tolerance. And with more light and attention, these stories will help society move beyond the fears and falsehoods that engender division and tribalism to a place where people focus on their shared challenges — and on their ability to confront those challenges together.

Keith Hammonds is president of the Solutions Journalism Network, a non-profit organization founded in 2013 that builds the
capacity for rigorous and compelling reporting on the responses to social issues.
Hammonds arrived at SJN from Ashoka, where he founded and ran the News & Knowledge initiative, a program funded by the Knight Foundation and Google to identify and support social entrepreneurs whose innovations better inform, connect, and engage people around the world.He previously was executive editor at Fast Company magazine, where he helped shape
editorial strategy across the magazine — and where he co-founded the Fast
/Monitor Group Social Capitalist Awards. Hammonds also has been a bureau chief and editor for BusinessWeek in Boston and New York; a writer for The New York Times in London and Johannesburg; a consultant
to New Nation in Johannesburg; director of an emergency food distribution program inNamibia; and coach of the Firebolts, a fearsome girls soccer team.

This piece is a commentary on the PACE paper: “Infogagement: Citizenship and Democracy in the Age of Connection.” Please see the publication for more commentaries and the original paper — and follow #Infogagement to continue the conversation.