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Looking Beyond Investigative Journalism (a Case for Solution Journalism)

   /   Jun 9th, 2011New York City, Solution Journalism, The Other Half Of The Story

Photo Credit: Flickr User TonZ This article is the first in a series that dissects news stories to make the case for high-quality “solution journalism.”

Earlier this week, the New York Times published a powerful work of investigative reporting by Danny Hakim, which exposed terrible abuse and negligence in New York State’s institutions for the developmentally disabled. The story, which focused on the death of a 13-year-old autistic boy at the hands of a caretaker of the Oswald D. Heck Developmental Center (O.D. Heck), would infuriate any reader.

Hakim’s reporting is superb and detailed. Go read it. I hope he and his colleagues win awards for this.

But when I finished the article, I also felt that the story was incomplete. I had scads of information about the problem, details and details about what went wrong, the degradation, disregard, beatings–and it made me angry.

However,  when thinking about what could be done to solve this problem – to help the disabled residents – short of firing some people and adding more controls, I had little sense of possibilities. As good as this reporting is, it highlighted to me an area where journalism frequently falls short: it does a great job defining the problem, but says little about how that problem could be handled. Some journalists will respond by saying, “That’s not our job. We expose corruption, malfeasance and incompetence. It’s up to society to figure out how to fix things.”

But at Dowser, we believe that journalists need to go a step further: if we’re going to spend energy exposing serious problems – especially problems that raise questions about the integrity and competence of people in public systems – we should also present examples of how these problems can be solved – and how they are currently being solved in other situations.

Why? Because the press should be a mechanism for the self-correction of society. This isn’t a particularly new or radical idea. It’s the whole rationale behind investigative journalism.

For systems to change, people need two kinds of information: what’s broken and how to fix it. Hakim’s story does a great job with the first half of the equation, but omits the second. This is standard for most news articles.

The question of how to staff and manage large institutions to care for people with disabilities demands attention. The problem has been around for more than a century, and it will take a lot more than improving institutional controls to solve it. How do we select people who have the right temperament for these jobs? How do we create evaluation systems so that communities of disabled people have a voice in which staff members get to keep their jobs and which ones do not? How do we empower whistleblowers among the staff? These questions could all point to solutions.

A plethora of institutions, large and small, have addressed them creatively. Any discussion of what needs to happen in New York State’s institutions is incomplete without exploring these and other pragmatic considerations. It’s not enough to get people outraged; they need to know how to channel that outrage into something constructive.

So: kudos to Hakim for a job well done. And please continue with part two of this story and let us know, beyond the consequences for the bad guys, what should, or could, happen next. What are the best ideas for addressing these problems?

In terms of format, how could the Times fit in this dimension of reporting?

The Times already includes a widget offering “Resources for Families,” which contains links on how to locate providers and report abuse. Why not post another widget offering “Resources For Providers?” that highlights innovative models from similar institutions around the globe. (See the modified graphic to the right for an example of what this might look like.)

For example, a similar chain of events happened in Massachusetts about fifteen years ago. The Boston Globe published a scathing series that exposed extreme abuse of two mildly retarded men, and the apathetic state response.

Two years later, officials sat down and developed Massachusetts’ Building Partnerships Initiative, an award-winning program that incorporates several different government agencies to streamline inter-department communication and improve the abuse response system. Since 1999, they’ve seen a 63% increase in the cases of reported abuse.

And though this program addresses the symptoms, rather than the disease, it’s a start, and it’s been around for nearly twelve years. There might be a nugget or two of wisdom to mine. The initiative outlines its process on the website. The results page details the workflow. They have a sample memorandum of understanding, which other states can copy freely.

Plus, a myriad of awareness programs teach the public and the disabled how to recognize and respond to abuse. For example, Awareness and Action, which is developed by people with disabilities, teaches people with disabilities how to recognize and report abuse.

But if there is a root cause to this problem, we have to point to the near total lack of empathy among the caretakers.

In fact, if you read Hakim’s story with this frame in mind, the lack of empathy leaps out of almost every passage. You see it when Jonathan Carey’s caretakers drive around for an hour after his death, even stopping at a video game store and later to have a smoke. You see it when a caretaker, after being suspended for beating a resident named Eddie Adkins, updates his Facebook status to: “I’m on administrative leave. Cheers, brother. Here’s to beating retards.” You see it in the way caretakers repeatedly taunt and humiliate residents.

Though lack of empathy is the overarching theme in the story, it’s never discussed directly. What should we do when caregivers lack empathy? It’s a complex and pervasive problem that transcends cases of explicit abuse. Disabled people suffer countless indignities at the hands of caregivers who are not, technically, engaged in fireable offenses. What do we do about caregivers who speak rudely to residents every day and intentionally hurt their feelings? It would be useful to address this question directly, since it is so central.

Plus, a lack of empathy towards the disabled is not just a problem in institutions; it runs through society. For example, JCS, a parent with an autistic son, said in the comments, “If I thought the public at large cared anything about the disabled and their care and treatment, I would say that these investigations will cause some change. I do not. I attend school board meetings where parent after parent stand up and ask why money is being spent on “special education” at the expense of real students.”

The hero in Hakim’s story is the former O.D. Heck employee (and whistleblower) Mary Maioriello, who couldn’t fathom how her bosses tolerated abuse of residents. “These individuals are people,” she told them. But Maioriello, like JCS, has a disabled son, which may be why she found it easier to empathize with the patients and their families. The big issue is why the caregivers, and their bosses, could not.

If we think of violence and abuse as a disease, how do we treat the causes, not just the symptoms? In this case, what can be done to improve the long-term conditions of disabled people who are forced to live under others’ control, beyond doling out consequences and firing people? The question can’t be answered without thinking about how to teach empathy more effectively. Several models are doing this successfully.

So, looking ahead, here are some initiatives that we’ve come across. Please let us know if you have other suggestions.

  • Roots of Empathy This Canadian program teaches empathy to kids in grades K-8. Participants have better social/emotional learning skills, and a myriad of beneficial health side effects. They’ve seen a decrease in aggression in up to 39% of students; levels of empathy have increased anywhere from 65 to 78%, with results lasting at least three years out.
  • Alliance Industrial Union This program is the creation of Hungarian Ashoka fellow Erzsébet Szekeres. She focuses on normalization and integration into society, and much of her program is based on skills-training. However, it’s a client-centric teaching method that transcends to relationships with the staff. Residents have a say in who gets to be a “helper” (staff), which creates a flatter, organizational structure, vs. a top down, narrow form of management. They have a much more stringent hiring process, and the staff develops relationships with residents. They treat residents with respect, empathy, and exhibit flexible thinking, treating them like functioning members of society who have the potential to live independently.
  • DanceAbility This “mixed-ability” dance workshop is another by-product of Ashoka, founded by fellow Alito Alessi. Their programs integrate disabled and non-disabled people in the same performance, decreasing prejudice, increasing understanding and fostering an inclusive community.

These are just a handful of examples among hundreds of organizations whose work holds crucial insights about how to turn institutions into more humane environments. Once the dust settles from the Times’ investigation, the serious business of building something better will remain. That will take awareness of the best ideas and models to work with — and a sense of possibility about what can be achieved. Journalists have an important role to play in making sure that those possibilities are made visible. Contributed research by Nami Mody.

Reactions: Comments, Tweets and Dialogue

Crafting a definition for Solution Journalism is an agile process. Every time we publish a post on the subject, we’ll follow-up by highlighting poignant follow-up discussions.

The discussion after this week’s article exposed a shared, common misconception about solution journalism: namely, that writing about a possible solution means that’s the solution. Rachel Signer (a Dowser writer), questioned whether or not empathy programs could solve the problem of abuse within the care industry:

“The author’s emphasis on empathy, while touching upon an important subject, seems overly optimistic. You can’t just inject former criminals, who are working overtime in low-paying jobs they didn’t choose as careers, with empathy. If they are going to develop an empathetic relationship with the people they are caring for, a much larger re-structuring of the entire care system is required…Maybe, at best, the care industry could learn from the empathy-inducing programs the author suggests and incorporate them into their employee training – though it’s still not the only solution.”

She’s right–it’s entirely possible that empathy won’t result in systemic change. But it’s a start.

One of the vital functions of solution journalism is to break huge problems and their solutions into digestible chunks. If people believe that a challenge is too daunting, then they won’t try. Psychologists have done scads of research on the subject. Or you can just look at your own life. If you want to renovate your house, look around and say, “Well, the foundation’s crumbling, and that window is a little drafty, and the green shag carpet isn’t really working with this door color, and I would really love to finish the basement,” then you’d probably just be overwhelmed. Instead, you start by painting the door. And though training people in empathy may not be the sole solution, it is within reach and could help solve the problem.

@NielJohnBailey and @KatToth struck up a similar debate on Twitter:

Part I:

Part II:


Part II:

They both hit on good points. The media should give people space to think for themselves. Unfortunately, they predominantly expose problems. And without a corresponding exposure to solutions, that leaves people little space to innovate. (For more on this, check out the work of both Barry Glassner and David Altheide.)

But that doesn’t mean exposing one solution is, or should be, prescriptive; it’s conditional. It’s a suggestion. A springboard for thought innovation and collaboration.We don’t say, “You see this company Lumni? They’re heroes who are going to fix the education system.”  We say, “You see Lumni? It’s an interesting, scalable model. And they have some data to back it up.”

The jist: process-oriented solutions require process-oriented journalism. Maybe that will expose a definitive solution. Maybe not. The key is to highlight possibilities to the public, and then create space for citizens to take on the discourse.

16 Responses

  1. Rachel Signer says:

    This is an important essay that highlights many of journalism’s limits and possibilities. In addition to the fact that solutions-journalism provides readers with information they can actually use to improve their work and personal lives, it also makes investigative journalism more valuable – which could reverse the trend of news bureaus cutting their investigative reporters due to the large expenses they incur, given the time they put into their work.

    But the author’s emphasis on empathy, while touching upon an important subject, seems overly optimistic. You can’t just inject former criminals, who are working overtime in low-paying jobs they didn’t choose as careers, with empathy. If they are going to develop an empathetic relationship with the people they are caring for, a much larger re-structuring of the entire care system is required. For example, in New York City a lot of homeless people are employed in home health care – not because they want to be or because they feel empathy for the elderly or terminally ill, but because it’s a job and they need one to receive city services. If you employ people who have minimum commitments to a job, and then overwork them and underpay them, empathy is an elusive goal. But maybe, at best, the care industry could learn from the empathy-inducing programs the author suggests and incorporate them into their employee training – though it’s still not the only solution.

    • Blair Hickman says:

      I completely agree with you–empathy is not the sole answer. It’s only a piece of the puzzle. That’s why I referenced some alternative abuse response models and awareness campaigns. Also, some of the organizations listed under empathy, like Alliance Industrial, include extensive programs for empowering the disabled themselves, not just fostering empathy amongst employees.

      However, I do still think empathy is the root of this, and a score of other issues. It’s quickly rising as an imperative skill in several aspects of society. Bill Drayton’s named it an essential leadership skill, saying that anyone who doesn’t have it will be “marginalized.” ( And a ton of books have been published on the topic. David Brooks wrote a really interesting one called The Social Animal, which basically argues that we need to help far more people master this skill.

      But, again, I agree with you–changing entire systems is a big problem. Focusing on empathy is one piece, like saying “Right now, we’re looking at Tuesday from 2-4 pm.” Tomorrow, we’ll look at a different time slot. When we’ve done that, we can examine all of Tuesday.

      I think that’s an important piece of solution journalism in general–acknowledging that one solution can’t possibly change massive systems. It’ll be a combination of things.

      And thanks for your input! We’re hoping to get the conversation on solution journalism moving, so please share and continue to contribute.

  2. Serenity says:

    Thanks for this very insightful article. I read the article that this one references and found myself reeling with the idea that this sort of thing happens everyday, unable to get the images out of my head. As a person with Asperger Syndrome, and also a mother of 2 autistic children I find myself avoiding these sorts of in your face shocking articles due to the lack of solutions when you reach the very end. It’s refreshing to see something being done rather than just something being reported. Secrecy and lack of options is what lets systems of corruption continue to be in place. Shedding light on the injustices while giving people some ideas of what to do about it is a crucial step in remedying the situation.

    • Blair Hickman says:

      I’m glad this could help.

      I’m also incredibly aware that we’re only capable of covering part of the solutions — people like you with direct experience will be an important part of Solution Journalism. Please do let us know if you and your family have found any effective solutions we may have missed. Feel free to email me at

  3. JO says:

    Whereas you write, “For systems to change, people need two kinds of information: what’s broken and how to fix it,” I suggest that the former is “information,” the latter is opinion. Is lack of empathy really the problem, is was it a nearly complete lack of accountability on the part of the state department responsibile for the care of the disabled, and lack of professional training of staff, perhaps for budgetary reasons? The Times discharged its responsibility by bringing this incredible sityation to our attention. Is The New York Times responsible for administering the agency in whose care the disabled are placed? Obviously not! Any more than empathy is a quality that can be taught, measured, or legislated.

  4. [...] great reporting, she added that the article felt “incomplete,” and explained that Journalism needs to do more than just expose problems. She explains journalism needs to provide analysis and solutions: At Dowser, we believe that [...]

  5. [...] article is the latest in a series that dissects news stories to make the case for high-quality "solution [...]

  6. Manuel R says:

    Great article! Great conversation! I especially enjoyed the reactions section–this is a smart approach to highlighting thoughtful reader comments.

  7. Manuel R says:

    Here’s a good example of an approach to solution-oriented investigative journalism on a somewhat related topic to the NYT disability abuse story. (The first few grafs of each story should give the idea.) In the first installment, Propublica’s Sasha Chavkin lays out the problem of policies which disenfranchise disabled student borrowers:
    In the secone one, Chavkin lays out potential solutions:
    And, surprisingly, the Education Department actually agreed to some of Chavkin’s proposed reforms!:

    • Blair Hickman says:

      This is fabulous. Thank you for the tip! Spread the word and keep them coming.

  8. [...] as we’ve said before, a big part of effecting change is showing people what’s working. If you broke your bike, would [...]

  9. [...] Though phone hacking doesn't exactly fall under the realm of social justice, this scandal does remind us that the media can act as a vehicle for social change.  It's a big institution that sets priorities and highlights disasters as such. The Times Of London published a controversial cartoon, asking why the media lavishes attention upon Murdoch when a famine is underway in Somalia, and though some dubbed it "disgusting" (since Murdoch owns the Times), others claimed that it makes a valid point regarding the media's priorities. [...]

  10. [...] Investigative reports such as these are pointless without calls to action. The need for “solution journalism,” as Blair Hickman of Dowser tellingly blares in response to Danny [...]

  11. [...] then it should investigate the solution in a way that's smart and thoughtful. As we've said numerous times, to really innovate and change, people need to know two things: what's broken and what's been [...]

  12. Amy Prince says:

    As tempting as this all sounds, it is dangerous. If one starts to set the agenda through information, one risks the consequences of missteps and abuses. Allow the democratic nature inherent in journalism to work. Yes. Solution journalism or Muckraking is not a new idea, just a bad one.

  13. [...] from Blair Hickman, who’s been one of the main champions of the idea. The starting point is ‘Looking beyond investigative journalism – a case for solutions journalism’ but there’s also a whole page of related posts and a set of [...]