In 2010, US journalists Tina Rosenberg and David Bornstein launched a new column in The New York Times opinion section called Fixes.
With two decades of industry experience each, they set out with a radical new vision when reporting on problems in society like education system reform, hospital safety or voting turnout.
They looked at "positive deviants"; people or institutions who are tackling a given issue - and seeing progress - better than the norm. Fixes became wildly popular and a model of solutions journalism for the last 11 years, until it shut down at the end of 2021.
"Early on, certain issues never made the most emailed list no matter how important they were: foster care, malaria, child trauma," says Bornstein on a podcast with Journalism.co.uk, reflecting on the column's legacy. That much changed when Fixes started to look at these topics through a different lens.
"For some reason, that gave people a handle to get into the story and maybe some emotional space to deal with it.
"News avoidance is on the rise. It’s about how much capacity people have to be able to take in what’s going on in the world."
He adds that these difficult and dark topics became easier for audiences to grapple with when written about through a solutions lens. Pieces such as 'Teaching children to calm themselves', for instance, invite parents and teachers to consider effective alternative strategies to help children calm down, especially when they have encountered past traumas.
Readers can feel helpless or frustrated if they are presented with problem-focused news stories and no way to act upon that information. What is important here is that solutions journalism offers an actionable idea of how we can deal with the issue.
The trick to solutions journalism from Bornstein - an author and practitioner on the subject, as well as the co-founder of the Solutions Journalism Network - is that you can never ask enough how-to questions. In fact, people tend to focus too much on the 'who' of a solution, as opposed to the 'how'.
The process typically starts with looking for evidence of a positive deviant. Put plainly, find out who is doing better, either from data or anecdotal evidence which would indicate this is worth looking into.
The next question is how. People tend to attribute success to an individual: a teacher, principal, or as Bornstein puts it, "the visionary leader of the non-profit". You want to ask these people how they cracked the code with specific questions.
"What are they doing differently? What’s the process? How did they get the teacher to show up to the meeting? How did they get the curriculum to be adopted with any fidelity? How did they get anyone to pay for this? How did they get the unions to agree that it was alright to do it? How did they get the politicians to fund the pilot?
"When you dig into these questions, you start to understand what it took. And that's when surprises emerge and that's where you can start to draw upon the curiosity in the stories. We came to call these columns ‘’howdunits' for that reason, as opposed to ‘whodunit?’"
Your goal in any solutions journalism story is not to show off 'good news', but to promote ideas and learning. The reader needs to see whether "better" is actually possible and the method.
Getting sources to open up
In one of Bornstein's analogies, a detective story is not interesting if they crack the case in the first five minutes. The satisfaction comes when the audience understands the struggles, the stakes and previous attempts.
Naturally, that means any good solutions journalism story will be better if you can ask sources about what they got wrong along the way. Unfortunately, people are often reluctant to receive bad press, preferring to conceal their failures and sing about their achievements. But you cannot truly understand success without first understanding the setbacks.
"That’s how you innovate; you fail forward," continues Bornstein. His tactic to get sources to open up in this scenario is to explain the detective analogy. The secret to their success normally lies in the setbacks. So ask about the initial problem, the low points as well as the breakthroughs.
Many organisations give their solutions journalism a clearly identifiable, branded space: think the BBC's Crossing Divides series, or The Guardian's The Upside, and, of course, Fixes. This is considered a good idea when starting with solutions journalism at your publication.
Bornstein says that, initially, it pays for readers to see there is an alternative product on offer. But ultimately, his goal is to get rid of the term solutions journalism. He reasons that journalism should be allowed to look at competency as well as incompetency, negligence and attentiveness.
"It's like a doctors appointment where there is only a diagnosis and the doctor never tells you what your treatment options are — which would be frustrating and scary."
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