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How To Cover Social Innovation, Part II: Ask Different Questions

   /   Oct 28th, 2011Solution Journalism, The Other Half Of The Story

This article is the latest in a series that dissects news stories to make the case for high-quality “solution journalism.”

In business, you reach success when you start asking the right questions. One of my favorite stories comes from a blog called Under30CEO. I don’t know if it’s true, but under30CEO claims his mentor reported directly to Howard Schultz at Starbucks:

Howard had called my mentor on his cell phone and asked ‘Why is the letter B not working on the signage at the 50th & Wallingford location’ in Seattle….

‘I don’t know. I’ll check. And I’ll get it fixed,” my mentor said. “However, if we’re really going to grow this brand our leadership team needs to ask leadership questions….

…like this instead: I noticed the letter B on a sign at 50th & Wallingford isn’t working. What systems do we have in place to ensure that all letters, on all signs, at all locations, in all countries, are always working?’

You can probably guess where I’m going with this: in this metaphor, Howard Schultz is journalism.

I’m not saying journalists ask bad questions. Howard’s question about why the letter B wasn’t working was worthwhile, legitimate and important. And would have probably fixed the sign.

But for sustainable solutions, Schultz had to ask more questions. A slightly different question. He had to look at the problem with a different frame of mind.

I see this all the time in stories that come so close to being the kind of story that could really help society self-correct. For example, on October 14th, New York Times reporter Timothy Williams published an article called “Tackling Infant Mortality Rates Among Blacks.”

It’s a big problem. The United States’ infant mortality rate pales in comparison to other countries, both developed and developing, and within the black community, those numbers skyrocket. In Pittsburgh, where this article takes place, the rate is nearly five times as high as white infant mortality rates.

Based on the headline and the first photo caption, (“Amanda Ralph gets a home exam from Clara Brown, a nurse with Healthy Start, which has curbed infant mortality among participants”) I expected Williams’ piece to explore the strategies that worked within Healthy Start.

Instead, the article gave a cursory referral to Healthy Start’s work and instead, for the most part, explored the “mystery” behind the “multifactorial” problem that is the disparity in infant mortality rates among blacks.
To be fair, it’s a complex problem. No one has yet to identify a gene or a single social factor–like poverty, education or geography–that can, alone, explain the gap. And the fact that infant mortality is a grossly undercovered beat doesn’t help the matter. Year to date, The New York Times has published ten articles on the subject – the one at hand, five on the issue in developing countries, and three slightly-related pieces about the federal budget, worldwide population boom and an obscure protein. Not a word this year about the gap, until Williams’ article.

Exposing the problems is half the battle, so kudos to Williams for covering a hidden issue.

However, if you’re going to frame an article as a story about solutions, 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 successful in fixing it.

If I were to report this article, I’d do two additional things:

1. Investigate Healthy Start’s strategy. The article gave me the impression that Healthy Start’s success stems not from their medical support, but rather from their psychological services. I also checked out their website and emailed Williams. He said, in a one line response, the same thing – “they believe their success comes from psychological support.”
Fabulous. So what does that psychological support look like? How do they do it? What types of programs do they run? Where does their funding come from? Why did they choose to focus on psychological support? What obstacles have they encountered? How do they see the growth of their work? And why did they lose not one patient in 2007, but by 2010 the infant mortality rate in their area had climbed to 13.9%?

The goal is to demystify the process of social innovation so that others–including social entrepreneurs, policy makers, business owners and even expectant mothers–can see how its done. If you need some guidance selecting questions that help dig to the root of social success, without becoming advocacy, Dowser has compiled a list of interview questions that may help. Right now, they’re framed to generate a profile piece, but several of the questions can be isolated for other types of stories.

Essentially, you want to hit these main points:

  • What is the model and approach of the organization? What services does it provide and how?
  • What is the scope of the organization? What are the two or three key statistics that give a sense of its size and impact? Where does it work? How long has it been operating?
  • What is the distinguishing factor of the organization? What is unique or innovative about it? What makes this organization stand out from others in its field?
  • What is the pressing problem that the organization is trying to solve? What makes the problem newsworthy?

2. Put Healthy Start in context. While thoughtful reporting on Healthy Start is, indeed, a healthy start (sorry), strengthen the report by putting their model in context with other efforts. It’s best to stick with similar geographic areas, because solution implementation varies region to region based on cultural and societal factors. Tactics for combatting infant mortality in the United States won’t be the same as in Kenya.

After about an hour and a half of research, using Dowser’s database and good ‘ole Google, one strategy for curbing infant mortality in the United States consistently presented itself as the frontrunner: strong community engagement and community health worker programs. In other words–the psychological support upon which Healthy Start pegs its success.

Across the board, successful programs involve lots of attention and support from nurses. It’s the strategy behind Nurses For Newborn Foundation, Nurse Family Partnership and Birthing Project USA, all vetted organizations with proven rates of success. The Nurse Family Partnership even lists the eighteen key elements of their model on their website.

I also found an interesting case study: Dane County, Wisconsin. Over the last ten years, infant mortality rates in Dane County “plummeted…from an average of 19 deaths per thousand births to, in recent years, fewer than 5.” Professionals there can’t link the drop to a single medical change – which, officials say, seems to be further support that the key to closing the disparity gap is social.

As a reporter, I’m most interested in the flurry of research that emerged surrounding the case of Dane County. The New York Times article mentioned a “three-year study, led by Dr. Gloria E. Sarto of the University of Wisconsin,” charged with finding out what went right in Dane.

Dipping into the reader comments led me to an October 2009 article in The Isthumus, a Madison newspaper, that maps out the research process in more detail.

Following this trail ultimately let me know The Infant Mortality Collaborative, and a $500,000 grant, is leading the research. Here’s their website. Their study is set to close sometime next year. If I were writing an article on solutions to infant mortality, one of my top to-dos would be to call this research group.

And while we’re talking about context: the scope of success of community support reaches beyond that of infant mortality. Practitioners in the developing world call this type of medical care a community health operation, and it’s widely regarded as one of the most effective tactics for improving a village’s overall health. Several coordinated care centers and medical compliance initiatives use similar one-on-one, community-driven programs to improve the quality of care (and often to reduce costs).

I’m not saying that community support is the solution to closing the infant mortality gap. I am saying that it has shown promise. If this were business journalism, and we were covering a promising company, we’d ask what they’ve done. We’d ask about their team. We’d ask about obstacles and their future plans – all so others can learn, and investors can gauge where to place their bets.

In the interest of time, I haven’t done any actual reporting. My goal with this series is to compile lots of examples of how a news story can be “solutionized” (not ideal language, but for the sake of convenience, our team has been going with it. Suggestions? Contact, so hopefully, an enterprising reporter will pick this outline up.

My ultimate point here: when one strategy is employed in so many different circumstances with success, it’s worth investigating why. Asking different questions, and seeking different perspectives, may lead to sources working on different pieces of the puzzle.

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