The field of journalism is undergoing many changes: the decline of traditional media organizations, the emergence of online outlets, the impact of social media, the rise of blogging and community journalism, the exciting potential of data journalism. Now add one more to the list: ‘solution-based journalism’, which you can learn about through the MOOC Journalism for Social Change, starting March 4, 2015. It is being taught by Daniel Heimpel, lecturer at the Goldman School of Public Policy at UC Berkeley.
Solution-based Journalism Intro video
Solution-based journalism is a broad category of reporting that has the goal of not only reporting on problems, but identifying the solutions, and pointing out the barriers to seeing those solutions implemented. Driving this approach is our increasingly complex world, where the solutions are complex, system, and nuanced.
Solution-based journalism is a broad category of reporting that has the goal of not only reporting on problems, but identifying the solutions, and pointing out the barriers to seeing those solutions implemented
Hempel’s focus area is child welfare within the U.S. foster care system, which had over 400,000 kids in 2013. Heimpel writes stories to bring attention to issues with the system, and does the digging to help figure out how they can be fixed. For example, he brought attention to a budget-saving phase-in of a California law that cost more than 2,000 foster youth the opportunity to receive the full benefits of extended care, and has described how social service agencies can use preventative analytics to help stratify risk and allocate services.
You can watch a video interview with Heimpel and former Michigan governor, Jennifer Granholm, talking with Henry E. Brady, Dean of UC Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy.
“Maybe this is earth-shattering in its simplicity: instead of focusing all the time on problems, let’s also spend some time fixing the problems”
From Heimpel’s perspective, this focus on solution-based journalism requires several things that traditional journalism has not focused on:
• Developing deep expertise in an issue area. Traditional journalism schools have focused on honing skills such as reporting and writing, but not on learning content. While it is important for journalists to have foundational skills that they can apply across new situations, it is also the case that the world has become complex enough that many will need to specialize and develop deep expertise in some area to provide the best coverage.
• Being conscientious in presenting different perspectives. When journalists both explain issues and talk about solutions, it can be perceived as biased advocacy. Heimpel has run into this perception, and as a result feels a higher level of burden in reporting his facts, and giving fair voice to alternative viewpoints. However, there are of course many challenges (e.g. child welfare, crime, health), where the vast majority of the public have, and people are very interested in hearing about solutions.
• Not overly focusing on anecdotes in a story. Anecdotes are crucial in storytelling, to draw readers in, demonstrate the impact of an issue, and paint a vivid picture. Policy changes are often catalyzed by specific incidents and stories (think of all the laws that are nicknamed with a person’s name). However, Heimpel points out that they sometimes obscure the larger systemic issues that are underlying the issue (for example, poorly-designed laws or unintended consequences). It is important to lay out the broader context so that people can gain a good understanding of the issues.
• Understanding the policy implementation processes. Many key social issues are closely tied to federal, state, and local policies, at the legislative, administrative, and judicial levels. Journalists who are cultivating deep expertise in an issue area can’t be ivy tower theorists…they must understand how the policies are implemented, so that they can help point out where the challenges are.
The Impact of Solution-based Journalism
So what impact can solution journalism have? A lot. The printed word can be very important, Jennifer Granholm points out: “It speaks volumes to how sensitive the political system is to printed articles about it. No matter where its specifically printed…it is on the desk of every one of the legislators”. In addition to policy makers, foundations, which are playing a more active role in policy-shaping, are paying attention..
Solution-based journalism is gaining in popularity. Heimpel points to examples such as the Solutions Journalism Network, founded by David Bornstein, columnist of the New York Times blog ‘Fixes’, and ACESTooHigh, focused on adverse childhood experiences.
The Solution-based Journalism MOOC
Heimpel has been working to help disseminate solution journalism, and founded The Chronicle of Social Change, an online news site focused on juvenile justice and child welfare issues. His avowed goal is to “create an army of solution-based journalists”. Thus, when UC Berkeley’s MOOC Lab offered grants to create MOOCs, Heimpel applied and was selected. And he is eager to hone the teaching methods that he will use in the MOOC. In fact, there is a limited beta session with 200 students that is starting this week, to help refine the methods and curriculum.
There will be a few unique teaching methods that Heimpel uses in the course:
• Skills simulations. To help teach investigative skills, Heimpel uses exercises that simulate what journalists do in the real world: given a scenario, students have to select which sources they want to pursue, and with a particular source, which questions to ask (out of a set of possible questions). Then they have to write a story pitch based on what they find. These types of ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ exercises are sure to be fun and a great learning experience.
• A focus on writing about real issues. In the course, students will select a topic in the area of child welfare to research and write about. Through this practice, students will be able to directly utilize the skills being learned, and then apply them in the future to other issue areas.
• Blogging & writing opportunities. In addition to writing, there are opportunities to be published. A few student stories may be selected to be published on The Chronicle of Social Change. There is also a blogging co-op, where participants contribute a story and a token amount of funds, which are then pooled and distributed to popular stories (measured by traffic).
If you are passionate about social issues and want to develop your journalistic chops, or are already involved in journalism, and want to learn more about how to develop a solution-oriented focus, you can sign up for Journalism for Social Change, which starts March 4.