Defining Solution Journalism, Part II: The anatomy of a powerful idea
This article is the latest in a series that dissects news stories to make the case for high-quality “solution journalism.”
Ten (sustainable) stars to Gardiner Harris and The New York Times for their recent Solution Journalism piece on changing admission requirements for medical schools. This article made both the “Most-Emailed” and “Top-Shared on Facebook” lists, which have become indicators of success for online journalism.
In an interesting twist, The Times’ Nicholas D. Kristof, the most famous journalist who regularly reports on solutions, pointed out that his “good news columns” often lead to decreased readership. I don’t doubt it. In a contest between his solid critiques of American politicians and reports on social innovations in Africa, the former will always win. Readers are deeply connected to the local political story — and they are always looking for the next installment. Plus we do have to acknowledge the “negativity bias” — our (probably biological) tendency to pay more attention to threats, violations or setbacks. For the media, that means bad news gets good ratings.
But as Harris’s article shows, a work of Solution Journalism that reports intelligently on an innovative idea — an idea with the potential to produce system-wide change — runs counter to Kristof’s observation.
Harris’s med school reform article addressed a problem that medical schools have struggled to fix for years–namely, that a lot of doctors “can be insufferable know-it-alls who bully nurses and do not listen to patients.”
Doctors with subpar social skills have ripple effects throughout the health care system. Nurses often fail to correct doctors’ errors because of their fears of being dressed down, and patients are more likely to sue doctors when they feel they haven’t been listened to. The subsequent lawsuits drive up malpractice premiums, and force doctors to practice defensive medicine, which makes healthcare more expensive for you. And though new government policies are shifting the medical landscape from solo practices to large, coordinated care systems–like The Mayo Clinic and Intermountain Healthcare where teamwork is essential — many doctors simply won’t, or can’t, collaborate.
The article succeeds because it explains the problem and examines a burgeoning potential solution–med schools’ adoption of the “multiple mini interview, or M.M.I.” as a way to weed out students with poor communication skills–with a story that sings:
Essentially, it covers solution journalism’s M.O.: who is solving what and how?
Why was this article so widely shared? Perhaps because it presents a novel, seemingly replicable solution to a problem that everyone can relate to. (We still have to follow up to see how well it works in the long run.)
In the article, Harris quotes a dean from Stanford University School of Medicine who said that, for years, the school had valued communication skills in its students, but didn’t know of a “reliable way” to use its admission system to weed out applicants with poor social skills until they found mini-interviews.
The reason why we feel it’s important to characterize this story as Solution Journalism is because it shows another way that journalists can help society self-correct: by drawing attention to new models and ideas and explaining them. Most reporters seem to believe that exposing problems and bringing a critical eye to bear on events are the primary — even the only — ways to fix things.
But as we’ve said before, a big part of effecting change is showing people what’s working. If you broke your bike, would you sit around and stare at it? No. You would go to the hardware store and look for a repair kit. But first, you have to know that a repair kit exists. That gets to the essence of journalism’s theory of change: providing information to society that allows it to self-correct.
Just as it’s vital to expose corruption and incompetence, it’s vital to show how problems are being solved. Solution Journalism is the other half of the story — and journalists have to learn how to start telling it.
Ultimately, people are not interested in good news–they want powerful stories. They want stories that help them understand how the world is changing, how to anticipate and navigate the future, and, ultimately, how to be a more powerful and successful actor in whatever they choose to be or do. Solution Journalism is about power: the power of ideas, models, organizations.
If you’re competing with murders and scandals and shrill sound bites, you need good stories. You need stories of people doing things that are genuinely exciting, things that people would be interested in talking about at a cocktail party. You need stories that identify new opportunities, new patterns and fields; stories of people overcoming obstacles, stories of people who have transformed their lives, defied convention, and are attempting to tackle goals that seem impossibly large.
And the good news is that there is no shortage of them.