David Bornstein

Solutions Journalism and Solutions for Journalism

Air Date: February 17, 2018

Solutions Journalism Network CEO and New York Times Fixes columnist David Bornstein discusses the constructive force of journalism.


HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. I don’t have a problem being identified as an activist, journalist, or host, if it’s in pursuit of the truth and towards the goal of a better working, thriving America. So if we are activists here, it’s not an ideological mandate, but a functional one, to push back against the entrenchment of gridlock and dysfunction, and to push forward the American people and their quality of life. My guest today might agree, which is rare for the journalistic cohort. He is a proponent of constructive media, indeed a refreshing concept in an age when the lives and livelihoods of our neighbors have been relegated to the backburner, and clicks and likes and partisan agendas appear to control vastly more limelight. “Fixes” New York Times columnist David Bornstein is CEO and cofounder of the Solutions Journalism Network, which seeks to spread the practice of solutions journalism, rigorous reporting that examines responses to social problems. When interviewed about the project in 2012, Bornstein described his mission: “The idea behind solutions journalism is sort of like the TV show CSI. The narrative is located in the pursuit of solving a problem, as opposed to just identifying who’s failing and how. Another way to say it is that solutions journalism has more in common with a Harry Potter novel—a quest or a struggle—than the traditional journalism.” I agree with David about the untapped potential of our journalistic imagination. But how do we incentivize integrity and result, both for journalism’s solutions and solutions journalism, welcome.

BORNSTEIN: Thank you.

HEFFNER: I know you want to… correct the record right? You want to establish what your project is. And I said in the intro, that I consider myself an activist in pursuit of truth, but in pursuit of a forward moving agenda, that is, progress for our country. But I know you see your work differently so I want to give you an opportunity to share with us how.

BORNSTEIN: Yeah, well, you know, when we think of solutions journalism we really just think of it as another tool in a reporter’s tool bag. Tool belt. So it’s just reporting on responses to social problems, with the results that they’re getting, and pretty much what we can learn from. So we’re pretty strong on the idea that we don’t think that journalists should advocate or try to pick winners or try to say this is the right solution. I mean I myself have been writing about microfinance for 25 years. I wrote a book about Muhammad Yunus and the Grameen Bank, in the mid-90s. And I’ve had to correct [LAUGHS] almost everything I’ve written over the past 20 years because the idea keeps changing, the research, the evidence comes out. So we think that journalists should really be humble about what is a solution, and in fact, our name, Solutions Journalism, is a problem sometimes for us because it’s really reporting on responses to problems and the results that they’re getting. And if you find out a year later that it’s not working or you were wrong, then you correct the record. But not advocating or pushing forward any particular agenda, that’s something we’re, we’re pretty tough on.

HEFFNER: But if you look at the… goal of the journalist, ultimately: reveal the truth. Beyond revealing the truth is the human and citizen impulse to want to correct the problem.

BORNSTEIN: Yeah, sure.

HEFFNER: And I know that you and your network believe that journalists are key in the ability of citizens, municipalities, and the federal government, and corporations too, to solve the problems. So how can journalists help?

BORNSTEIN: Well, we say cover the whole story. The biggest bias in journalism today isn’t liberal or conservative. It’s a bias towards the negative. It’s, if you know, we, we used to say the problem’s screamed but the solution’s whispered. If there’s a school that has a bullying problem, it’s a story. If there’s a school that has ended its bullying problem or reduced it, it’s not a story. So we’re always looking at, you know, where is the dysfunction, where is the pathology? If a police department has reduced its excessive use of force or has done a diversity training and hasn’t had a shooting in three years… there’s no story! Journalism doesn’t know, have a language to cover success. And so what ends up happening is we present a view of the world to people that’s like … it’s like a picture of a landscape with all the trees airbrushed out of it, and say this is reality. It’s not reality. It’s reality through the lens of the caricature that news presents the world as. So we say yes, truth. Truth means that you have to look at many sides, many aspects of the story. For any major problem in a country like the United States, there’s many, many people working to respond to that problem and trying to solve it. Some of them are wasting their money and your time, and some of them are actually having success and moving the needle. Journalists rarely think that that’s a story to cover, and they’re often afraid to cover it ’cause they think they’ll get, you know, they’ll get called advocates by reporting on something that’s actually working. So it’s professionally, my colleague Tina Rosenberg says, you know to cut, to, to be excessively cynical in journalism is a misdemeanor but to look naïve is a felony. And that’s one of the reasons why we don’t have this, more of this kind of reporting, although we’re seeing more of it now.

HEFFNER: Well we want those who are dreamers to be journalists, and, and not dreamers because they are fabricating stories or because they are inventing sources. We want them to be dreamers because they in concert with communities can help improve people’s lives. And if that’s calling me activist, I’m activist but what’s the word that you use with your board and with your network, to connote this idea that journalists can be constructive forces in the creation of stories, is it just that we’re journalists? There has to be some new lexicon…

BORNSTEIN: You know…

HEFFNER: Because if we don’t adopt it, I think we’re gonna be constantly mired in this question of…


HEFFNER: That we, we’re deliberating about right now.

BORNSTEIN: It’s, I don’t know if we have a, a word for it. I think we just say it’s just good journalism. It’s, it’s telling the whole story. And we have little phrases like less tunnel and more light. What we’re able to do is to show, ’cause we’ve worked in our network now with more than 170 news organizations. And we’ve worked with really big ones, like we’ve had conversations with the BBC and major metro dailies and public radio stations across the United States, and also with local, small news organizations in rural areas. And we’ve seen across the board, when people begin doing journalism that looks at what are the priorities in our community? Are people aware of them? Are they outraged about the problems? And then do they know what to do about it? Is there any sense of efficacy? Do they have any power or a sense of options about what, how the community could get better? Once they start doing journalism that answers all of those questions, when they start surfacing ideas for the community in a rigorous thoughtful way, people engage around these stories. They spend more time with them. They want to come together to talk about them. You know they, they actually are, they, they send letters of appreciation to editors and, and journalists saying thank you for that story, it, it really covered the story in a more rounded way. So that’s the, that’s the potential. I think particularly today when, you know, so many people feel powerless, and there, and there is so much fatalism and apathy about democracy and the power that citizens can wield in terms of shaping democracy or shaping their institutions, you need to be able to show people, what does citizenship look like? Where is power happening? What does democracy in action actually look like when it’s done well, not just when it’s done poorly. ’cause we know what it looks like when it’s done poorly. We hear that every day.

HEFFNER: So David, you don’t object to the notion of constructive journalism, or the notion, to use your word, prioritizing journalists, in the sense that they are not tunnel visioned towards the darkness but opening the light, to me… to report on solutions means that you want to be constructive about the state of and potential of humanity.

BORNSTEIN: Oh absolutely. I think, that you know, if you, if you ask most people why they went into journalism, most journalists went in for sort of idealistic reasons. They went in because they wanted to help improve the world. And if you, you know, you can say what is journalism about? What is the definition of news? You can say it’s information that helps us understand who we are, what we care about, and how we can improve our community. That’s a pretty straightforward,

HEFFNER: So actively constructive, actively pro-social, might be a way that we can mutually,


HEFFNER: Identify what it is that we aspire to do.

BORNSTEIN: It, it’s just, the key is, is that journalists have long felt that the way journalism works, the sort of quote, theory of change of journalism is, the world will get better when we show people where it’s going wrong. It’s kind of like a parent saying my child will get better if I point out his or her shortcomings every morning at breakfast. It, it’s not really a theory of change. It’s not a feedback system that passes any test of human behavior. And so journalists, by focusing relentlessly on the dysfunction, on the pathology, on the malfeasance, on the dark corners, sunlight is the best disinfectant, we’ve got to make people always aware of what could go wrong or what it is going wrong. What they do is they feed into people’s sense of fatalism. They, they begin to think that nothing will ever work, that, that the deck is fatally stacked. Now the deck is stacked. I’m, I’m not denying that. But it’s not, there are things that people can do and are doing all the time, and if we don’t hear about them, they can’t grow.

HEFFNER: So let’s be specific. What are you building on in your pro-social solutions journalism of 2017 in this, this year now?

BORNSTEIN: So we … like I say, we’ve worked with 170 news organizations. What we basically do is, just to give you a sense, is we, we do trainings and workshops initially so that they understand, they come to see that solutions journalism is a legitimate form of journalism. It’s not advocacy. It’s not fluff or puffery. And that there are many, many good news organizations, we have thousands of stories now that we’ve gathered, to show that this is really high quality. Some of the projects we’ve worked on have been, you know, one of them was a finalist for the Pulitzer. OK? So we get people to lower their defenses and say this is OK. Then secondly they say how do we do it, how do we construct project and, and editorial vision for a project, that includes solutions journalism? Now what we’re seeing is that in response to the election, and much of the sort of malaise in the country, there’s a real sense of powerlessness across the country. It’s, it’s been, it’s shown up in survey after survey. People just not feeling that they have a say as citizens, that they can have power. This is really bad for democracy. When people feel that they have no control, they circle the wagons, they become tribalistic and the worst aspects of human nature come out. So it’s important for journalists to be able to show people, at the local level, at the national level, that there’s lots of things that can be done or are being done, without advocating for ideas, without being pollyanna-ish, just reporting realistically on who are, who are the smart people moving the needle against the opioid epidemic. How are people actually reducing dropout rates in, in high schools in underserved communities? So what we’re doing is we’re helping news organizations around the country show citizen power. What does citizen power look like, through rigorous reporting. It’s a project that we call Democrat Renewal, and our goal in 2018 is to start a process of reaching out to 100 news organizations, and helping them develop reporting projects that look at this particular aspect.

HEFFNER: And then you want to theoretically scale the success stories so that, if Charlottesville addresses its racial concerns in this way and it’s successful and breeds the kind of culture that more communities envision as healthy, that that is… emulated? Are you, are you thinking about how those documented cases of solutions that work can then be scaled to different communities across this country?

BORNSTEIN: Oh absolutely. I think one of the most powerful things, I mean it’s a, it’s a very important question. One of the most powerful things that you can do through this model is surface what we call positive deviants, examples where people are doing better against a problem. Now in a country like the US, which has more than 3000 counties, for any problem you have in your county, whether it’s diabetes or low high school graduation rates or substance abuse or depression, there are other counties who are doing better than you. And there are actually known methods, probably, that journalists can go discover to figure out how they did it. How did they reduce the hospital infection rate? How did they, how are they doing a better job housing chronically homeless people? So once you realize as a journalist that your job is to look for these how-to questions in really interesting narrative forms, then you realize, boy there’s other communities that could benefit from this knowledge. So the journalists are not just watchdogs. They become kind of like guide dogs sniffing their way to something that’s better. And then ultimately they become like bees. They need to sort of cross-pollinate the ideas. And that’s hard for one journalist to do, ’cause you’re covering your local hometown. But if you have a little bit of travel money, you might want to look at four or five other communities that have done smart things that your community could learn from. And what’s interesting about solutions journalism is once news organizations start doing this, they start realizing that local coverage is not just what happens in my community. Local coverage becomes, what happens in any community that my community stands to benefit from learning about? So they start bringing new ideas and insights into the community. And then the news organizations often host conversations about these ideas. What can we do about them? Do you like these ideas? It’s not the job of the news organization to tell the community what to do. But it is a very helpful thing for a news organization to gather ideas and to show locals what their options are, and what the costs are, and what the evidence is associated with different ideas. That really brings fresh insight and, you know, a real sense of possibility into a community that is very often feeling, you know, you know just really kind of hopeless in some cases.

HEFFNER: For those citizens and journalists watching who are inspired by your message, are you archiving, preserving an inventory of these solutions, so that independent of your network’s collaboration, they can visit your website and see, look at all these solutions that were reported on, and the material benefit that these communities have. Is there such an, a resource that exists?

BORNSTEIN: I love you for asking that question. So this is one of our most exciting projects. We, we call it the Solutions Story Tracker. It, it sort of, maybe we need a better name. But what we’ve been able to do is gather, now I think currently 2600 stories that have come either from our partners, or things we’ve just found from other news organizations, and we tag them, and map them, so you can type in opioids and find, I don’t know, maybe close to 100 stories there that all look at communities that are doing something to respond to the opioid crisis, that you can learn from. These are all solutions journalism. They’re all vetted. We read them all, a couple of people read them all, actually. We tag them. And now that that resource exists, we keep on adding to it, it’s actually being used in universities as a teaching tool. So if you want to learn, if you have a teaching a, a course about public health, you might want to use the solutions story tracker to see what are some of the ideas emerging around the country to reduce hospital infections or, or respond to the opioid crisis or, or deal with some other, another dimension of say diabetes or something. We’re also seeing that journalism schools, you know, we have programs, we have courses now emerging in about a dozen journalism schools. There’s a center. There’s even an endowed chair at Temple University called the Chair for Media, Cities and Solutions. So we’re seeing that these stories become part of the education in the field of journalism and academics are actually putting together collections of these stories as curriculum and exchanging them with each other so that if you want to teach about a dimension of a problem. And this is really important because young people in universities, I mean I’ve done this in universities, I’ve given talks where I say, you know, I want you to make a list of, you know, five social problems that you know about, and we can fill a whiteboard up with 100 problems in about a minute and a half. And then I say what are some of the solutions that you hear about coming up. And in a class of 200 students, they sometimes can’t even come up with a half a dozen solutions. They can come up with 100 problems. So people are over informed about the world’s pathologies and dramatically under informed about what they can do about it. And this makes it more likely that they’re going to focus on private things, and less on the commons. And we want people to focus on the commons. We want them to care about the collective, not just the rosebush in their own backyard.

HEFFNER: And one might argue that’s an activist notion or an advocacy, in so far as the collective good is being challenged on a regular basis in society now. But I don’t mean to belabor that… that’s all nomenclature. I bless your heart, and bless Tina’s heart, your co-founder for developing.

BORNSTEIN: Right. Courtney Martin, our third co-founder, yep.

HEFFNER: For developing this tool. It’s why I asked you the question. To give you a lens into how I view this [LAUGHS] on the other side of,


HEFFNER: Media. You, you come from a print culture and I’m here on television. I think of solutions journalism as a journalist or a producer who can get a congressperson or a think tank officer in a room on a federal level, to scale your idea of a solutions network, ultimately to what seems unachievable today, which is that fractured politics of the United States of America, what President Obama talked about as blue states and red states, which has only been exacerbated frankly since he gave that speech in 2004, the point being that there is no incentive right now frankly for Maggie Haberman at the New York Times, just as much as a CNN producer, there’s no incentive to have sources in stories that reflect the common good to which you allude in politics coverage for instance. So when I say activist journalists, or advocacy journalist, yes, I’m saying not the way that MSNBC and FOX News predominately do it. I’m saying, actively prosocial, in that when you interview folks for a story, or when you develop a segment, the idea is you’re bringing together voices who are going to ultimately wrestle and then rationalize and afford the American public an opportunity to listen to solutions and to play a role in the compromising that really is a requisite ingredient in any functioning republic. That’s my perspective.


HEFFNER: What say you?

BORNSTEIN: I think the problem you’re identifying is a core one, and I think it is central to the way journalists approach their work. And the way, actually, they feel that truth emerges. Journalists essentially think that truth emerges the way lawyers think it emerges through a sort of a binary conflict, a for and against. And they’re always looking to to create, you know, the first question my editor would ask me when I was you know, working at New York Newsday, where’s the conflict? Right. That’s what generates a story. And the conflict is always seen in this very, I would say simplistic way as an argument… you know, between opposing sides. There’s another way of trying to get tooth which is truth which is the way scientists approach it, which is to say, you try to, you, you have a theory, you try to apply that theory, you try to do something in the world, you try to make something happen, or make something better. And then the world gives you feedback. It worked or it didn’t work. And then over, and then you iterate, you do it again, and eventually after a while, you begin to say, oh this is a better way to get doctors to wash their hands in a hospital. This is a better way to teach fourth grade English language learning, or, or whatever. And you can approach truth through this iterative process of trial and error.

HEFFNER: The scientific method.

BORNSTEIN: The scientific method. I mean, now, when journalists write this way,

HEFFNER: It has to be operative.

BORNSTEIN: Well… when journalists see this way, they realize that you can create a really engaging narrative. That’s why we talked about Harry Potter. How do you keep people all along for 4000 pages? You create a narrative where people want to know, people, where, where, where people want to know what’s gonna happen next. It’s a narrative driven by curiosity rather than by this sort of conflict driven narrative. Once journalists realize you can create narratives that are driven by curiosity, by trying to understand the world through efforts to improve things, and that these stories sell, they get lots of time on page, they get more shares and things like that, you might find that they will move away from this binary conflict, which is extremely reductive and polarizing, and asks people to identify and defend their positions, not to bring their curiosity and imagination. That’s why journalism is, has become a negative force, and has actually increased polarization.

HEFFNER: And no one is suggesting that it’s an easy feat, to be able to assemble the sources in a story that comes to a solutions oriented conclusion. Or that gives some fertile ground for solutions to be built on. No one’s suggesting that’s easy. But we’re suggesting that’s not the operative model. The scientific method still is the operative model in so far as the truth and nothing but the truth so help us… But, the reality of political journalism is that it is the opposite right now, of solutions oriented, solutions journalism, or journalism solutions are not being adopted in the pursuit of political or public affairs journalism. And I’ve said this on the air before, and I just want to get your final thoughts on it. To me the imagination point is critical.


HEFFNER: Because, whenever there’s deliberation on a serious issue, whether it’s tax reform or health care, we live in a culture of celebrification, where reality shows are the, the operating consciousness of a country. And so it would be heartening to see the public affairs journalists, those who are still there … adopting this reality show in pursuit of not only the truth but in pursuit of the advancement of the collective. And so instead of the town hall debates with Bernie Sanders on one side and… Ted Cruz on the other, that have no potential of having any solutions appeal, or any pursuit of solutions, you should be getting together legislators like John McCain or Patrick Lahey but two senators who come from opposite parties to flesh out a series, in effect a reality show, days in their lives, to come ultimately to some agreement. To me that would be solutions journalism on broadcast television, where you entice and imagine and entertain the audience and simultaneously develop a platform where there are some prospects for organic … common good, an organic common good to be established.

BORNSTEIN: Yeah. I think that, that the way to begin is by showing people, you do some great reporting and you show people that better options are possible, there’s better things we could be doing. So you make it illegitimate to not be doing better. And you bring these ideas and options to the table in these conversations with political figures. And then you say, look we have all these options to do better against our problems. Which ones do you favor? Let’s have a debate about which ones you favor or you don’t. So you make the conversation not about ideology but practical considerations.

HEFFNER: The only successful example of that is the Fred Friendly Seminar. I don’t know if you’re familiar with,

BORNSTEIN: I remember, sure.

HEFFNER: But that is what accomplished solutions on the air.

BORNSTEIN: And that was, that was path breaking. We’re seeing a lot of this happening at the local level around the country. Where local people are practically getting together, local news organizations, it’s much easier at the local level, where people have a lot more trust in their news organization, than at the national level, which is really sort of driven by this big argument we’re having in the country today. And so I think that the local news organizations are gonna lead the way in teaching the national organizations how to do better journalism. We’re seeing a lot of that.

HEFFNER: David, thank you for breaking bread with me here today.

BORNSTEIN: Thank you very much, Alexander.

HEFFNER: And thanks to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time for a thoughtful excursion into the world of ideas. Until then, keep an open mind. Please visit The Open Mind website at Thirteen.org/OpenMind to view this program online, or to access over 1,500 other interviews. And do check us out on Twitter and Facebook @OpenMindTV for updates on future programming.