Award-winning writer Tina Rosenberg explores the role that good journalism plays in helping to build societal trust.
For too long, journalists have defined news as “what’s wrong.” Journalism’s theory of change is “Society will get better when we reveal problems that need fixing.”
Bad news is considered more salable, more dramatic — more newsworthy. A shooting gets coverage. A once-violent neighborhood going a year without a shooting gets none, although that story is important, fresh, and interesting.
Right now, the United States is experiencing a health crisis, an economic crisis, and a racial justice crisis — all at once. Bad news is overwhelming. But with so many places responding to these crises, some of those responses are successful and newsworthy. We need more reporting about what works.
In 2013, we founded the Solutions Journalism Network (SJN) to challenge the idea that only bad news is news. Our goal was to legitimize and spread rigorous coverage of how people are responding to problems and their associated results. Solutions journalism isn’t activism or advocacy or “good news.” It’s plain old covering the news — but the news is about how people are trying to solve problems, what results they’re getting, and what can be learned from it.
We work with hundreds of news organizations in the United States, and increasingly, abroad, to help them understand the value of this coverage and the specifics of how to do it well.
Because journalism is suffering from twin catastrophes — the collapse of the business model, and the collapse of trust — a usually-defensive profession has been remarkably open to these new ideas. It helps that the public demands these stories. By far the biggest reason people disengage from the news is its relentless negativity. In survey after survey, audiences — especially young audiences — say they want media to cover solutions.
A steady media diet of failure, dysfunction and corruption provides a distorted picture of the world — one that breeds cynicism and erodes trust.
Revealing wrongdoing is crucial, of course — now more than ever. But it’s not enough. It’s not the way people change. We adopt new habits when we know that people just like us have done so. The same is true of societies. We can’t do better until we know that better is possible — and how it happened. And of critical importance here is having confidence that our change in behavior will be welcome, supported, and make a larger difference. This requires trust.
A steady media diet of failure, dysfunction and corruption provides a distorted picture of the world — one that breeds cynicism and erodes trust. Nothing works, so let’s burn it all down.
This diet of failure not only has reduced trust in institutions. Worse, it has reduced our trust in each other. In 1972, 46% of Americans surveyed thought that most people can be trusted. In 2012, that figure was only 32%. And we especially don’t trust people who don’t look like us.
This is a worldwide problem. According to the Edelman Trust Barometer, we are in the midst of a global epidemic of mistrust. Until COVID-19, which produced a spike in trust in government, three-quarters of governments around the world were distrusted by their citizens, slightly more than half of people surveyed distrusted the media, and slightly less than half of people surveyed distrusted NGOs.
We know about people like us first-hand. But we mainly know people who are different through what we see, hear, and read in the media — which mainly portrays “the other” as predators or victims. No wonder we don’t respect or trust them. Such reporting is about those who are different, but it’s not for them. It robs diverse communities of agency and serves the biases of a white audience. Yet every community works to solve its own problems. We need to cover those responses.
This mistrust infects collaboration across sectors for social change. We see government as broken and corrupt, NGOs as unrealistic dreamers, and the private sector as greedy and untrustworthy.
There’s enough truth to all these labels that they’ve become the stereotypes — and hence, the focus of coverage for journalists.
There are, of course, many dedicated public servants, well-designed and -run government programs, NGOs with impact, and businesses whose bottom line includes the health of their community. But we tend not to know about them, because they’ve rarely been covered.
Because of such stereotypes, we miss opportunities for progress. We might assume that no desirable partners exist. We might assume that there’s no profit in trying to collaborate, because we are unaware of where it has succeeded. And those two assumptions can lead to a third: change is not possible.
For philanthropists involved in — or just contemplating — such collaborations, Solutions Journalism brings two different kinds of value. First, it spreads models that work, and tells how.
In SJN’s Solutions Story Tracker, a searchable database of thousands of solutions stories, looking up the “Cross-sector collaboration” tag yields more than 500 stories. One, for example, is “Inside the Ambitious Campaign to Drive Homicides in Chicago Below 400” from The Trace. That story shows how the state of Illinois, Chicago’s government, foundations, universities, and businesses have joined forces to create massive, evidence-driven programs that take a public health approach to gun violence.
Another example is the partnership between government, the private sector and NGOs in Cleveland to reduce infant mortality. The city had long planned to establish a task force on infant mortality, but it took shape only after a series in the Cleveland Plain Dealer showed how in Baltimore, all these parties collaborated — and achieved a 24% drop in infant mortality over five years.
The other value solutions journalism provides is more subtle: to break down walls of distrust. We in the media bear much of the responsibility for creating these walls. People working for social change often experience (and fume about) the media’s focus on failure. As subjects of journalism, we know that what’s reported doesn’t tell the whole story. But as consumers of journalism, we often forget. We know the media’s biases — but we still allow them to shape our views, creating distrust and inaction.
Fortunately, journalism can also tear down these walls. Reporting that busts stereotypes about government (or NGOs, or philanthropy, or business) creates trust. Covering what works, and how it works, is information society needs and news consumers want. Most important, it’s doing what journalists were always supposed to do: tell the whole story.