Why we all need to ask: Who's doing it better?

By Catherine Cheney 26 April 2016

Devex reporter Catherine Cheney on solutions journalism at the SwitchPoint 2016 conference in Saxapahaw, North Carolina. Photo by: Stephanie Yeargan

Editor's note: Catherine Cheney presented on solutions journalism at the SwitchPoint 2016 conference in Saxapahaw, North Carolina. This article is adapted from her speech about her personal experience as a journalist and should not be taken as official Devex policy.

On Wednesday, United Nations director general Michael Møller will meet with journalists in London to urge them to offer “constructive alternatives in the current stream of news” and uncover “solutions that inspire us to action.” The U.N. is joining forces with Constructive Voices, a project from the U.K.-based National Council for Voluntary Organizations, to urge the media to help combat public apathy toward world events.

Across the development community, there is a growing push for solutions-oriented storytelling. I focused on this last week at SwitchPoint 2016, a conference meant to highlight “great ideas, tools, and people making a real difference in the world” organized by IntraHealth International in Saxapahaw, North Carolina. I talked with professionals in humanitarian response, international development and global health about the benefits for society if the media covered the responses to problems as rigorously as they do the problems themselves.

Speaking at the event, I asked the audience to consider a question I often ask myself as I’m reporting: “Who’s doing it better?”

“Because the problems scream, but the solutions whisper, we often overlook them,” I said, quoting David Bornstein, cofounder of the Solutions Journalism Network. Outside of my role as the West Coast correspondent for Devex, I work with this nonprofit organization, which aims to legitimize and spread the practice of reporting on responses to social problems, in the San Francisco Bay Area and beyond.

Most journalists ask the questions “Who, What, When, Where, and Why.” Solutions journalists focus on an additional question: “How?” The best examples of reporting on what is working should read like detective stories. They should feature a response to a problem, provide evidence of results, produce insights that can help others respond, and discuss limitations. Examples of solutions journalism include stories about experiments in progress, big new ideas, or positive deviants, the best performers in a dataset.

Evidence from the Engaging News Project at the University of Texas suggests that when people think something can be done about a problem, they are more receptive and attentive to that information. The majority of people who read solutions-oriented reporting say the stories change the way they think about topics and make them feel more inspired and optimistic. 

Graphic by: Christie Montague

Many before me have pointed out how media professionals looking to increase reader engagement and make an impact through their coverage can benefit from a solutions journalism approach. I believe global development professionals can also benefit from solutions journalism because it’s more likely to mobilize audiences to act in support of what is working.

Here is a bit more on the methodology of strong solutions journalism, or constructive journalism, as it is often called. First, identify an issue or question as concern, being as specific as possible. Then, ask whether responses are missing from the public conversation. Next, start looking for candidates for solutions stories. After selecting a story to highlight (which does not have to be the solution to a problem but does need to be a step toward a solution), tell the story, then promote and engage.

I report most of my stories from the West Coast, looking at how Facebook is shifting its strategy to connect the next billion, how coffee is becoming a more effective tool for development, or how Premise is reinventing data collection in emerging markets. Whenever possible, I travel to fully report the “howdunnitstory, as the Solutions Journalism Network puts it, by gathering insights about the comprehensive responses that are needed for complex problems.

My first international trip for Devex was last fall to Haiti, where I saw how nonstop bad news media coverage can lead people to conclude that an entire country is a lost cause. Traveling with the Clinton Foundation, I tried to look past the problems that scream in the media to find and feature those whispers of recovery and resilience that rarely make it in the headlines. More recently, I traveled to Tanzania, where I focused on how Population Services International is putting teenage girls and health care providers at the center of their work.

I know the consequences of getting it wrong are far greater when my audience is looking for examples of effectiveness. The example I often think of is the reporting of the PlayPump by Amy Costello, a reporter who was particularly drawn to this “good news” story after a career reporting “bad news” in Africa. Her initial reporting on this technology, which was designed to harness the power of children playing to operate a water pump, led to tens of millions of dollars in support of this model. But when she returned to Mozambique three years later, she reported problems with the PlayPump in a process she said filled her with dismay. Costello went on to launch the TinySpark podcast, which asks tough questions of well intentioned people.

To me, Costello’s story is not an argument against solutions journalism but an argument for the kind of extreme due diligence that is required of journalists taking this approach. That is why I rely on data resources such as those available from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, consult with sources whose expertise I trust and look to networks of innovators such as Ashoka.

Another point I emphasized at SwitchPoint was that the more complex the problem is, the more critical the need for solutions journalism becomes. I mentioned a 2012 speech by Jay Rosen, a media commentator who defined the need for a “wicked problems” beat that would have reporters jumping back and forth “from a global understanding that is constantly in revision to local solutions that are constantly being tested.” Because the causes and effects of wicked problems such as Ebola or Zika turn up across topics such as politics, education, and business, this beat would have to extend across traditional newsroom verticals. It would work best not as an individual, but as a global network, he said, and the stars of the beat would be the people who are good at wicked problems and those firms that listen to them.

An effort as daunting as “end global poverty in all its forms everywhere” — the first of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals — is certainly a candidate for a wicked problems beat, or as I would put it, a solutions journalism beat.

Whether you’re pitching your organization’s work to reporters like me, or working to tell your story yourself, I would urge you to think about ways you can take a solutions journalism approach. Ask yourself how you are doing it better, point to evidence of impact, and move from inspiration to information that people can act on.

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About the author

Catherine cheney devex
Catherine Cheneycatherinecheney

Catherine Cheney covers the West Coast global development community for Devex. Since graduating from Yale University, where she earned bachelor's and master's degrees in political science, Catherine has worked as a reporter and editor for a range of publications including World Politics Review, POLITICO, and NationSwell, a media company and membership network she helped to build. She is also an ambassador for the Solutions Journalism Network and the Franklin Project at the Aspen Institute.

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