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Social Innovation Roundup: Tackling Diabetes With A Different Slant

   /   Oct 5th, 2011News, Solution Journalism, The Other Half Of The Story

The mainstream media tends to place a disproportionate amount of its attention on problems. This is not just something we’ve noticed at Dowser. The public has noticed, too:

  • In 1997, a Public Agenda survey found that close to 80 percent of participants agreed with the statement “A reporter’s job is to cover bad news.”
  • In the same study, two thirds contended that journalists “unfairly dwell upon conflict and failure.”
  • Participants in a 2008 AP study overwhelmingly agreed that “all news is negative.”
  • In the last three decades, the New York Times has referred to the Grameen Bank – the microfinance pioneer–in 84 stories, a third of them since Grameen won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006. By contrast, it referred to the Tamil Tigers in eight hundred stories and the Irish Republican Army in 3,600.

This perspective is too narrow.

So, to try to balance the scales a bit, we’ve created a new editorial feature – a social innovation roundup.

We’ll pick stories from the mainstream media that we think could have been improved with reporting on social innovation. Then, to highlight how this process might work, we’ll point to existing solution journalism and organizations that we know, through our own contacts or resources, are working on innovative solutions with proven, or highly probable, rates of success.

The goal here is to show how reporting on social innovation can enrich news coverage. People want information that makes them powerful agents in the world.

Cursory referrals to solutions, like the ones I’m about to map out, won’t suffice in the long run.

But for now, we can consider this like an outline for the deeper reporting that needs to be done — some of which we’ll start to commission, and some of which will need an analytical, maker reporter to adopt its story.

It’s important to keep in mind that this is a test. One of Dowser’s goals is to provide services and tools to help working journalists integrate solution journalism into their work flows. The best way to do that is to test different iterations, so you can tell us what works – and what doesn’t. Please contact with feedback.

So, without further ado, welcome to the first Social Innovation Roundup: Tackling Diabetes With A Different Slant.

On September 13th, in The Atlantic Wire, Dino Grandoni wrote a post called “Someone Dies of Diabetes Every Seven Seconds.” The three-paragraph piece summarizes new information from the International Diabetes Foundation, originally reported by Jason Gale at Bloomberg, that tells a vital story with important stats: 366 million people worldwide have diabetes. That’s 5.3% of the population. Every seven seconds, someone dies of the disease.

The Atlantic Wire piece also draws from an Economist post published earlier this summer, summarizing a study that tracked the rise in diabetes since 1980 across several countries. That study found that from 1980 to 2008, “the number of adults with diabetes more than doubled.”

“For how prevalent the disease seems to be,” Grandoni wrote, “the world’s health systems don’t seem to be handling it well, collectively.”

That’s true. But the ending leaves you feeling a little…dismal. It highlights a big, complex problem, without mentioning any potential solutions, or information that could help you, as a member of society, self-correct.

However, some organizations are working on innovative strategies that tackle some of the root causes of diabetes. Grandoni already pointed out that rising obesity rates have played a major role in the rise in the disease’s expansion. That is a root cause. It’s not the only cause. But it’s a big one – 85% to 95% of diabetes is classified as Type 2, which is not always, but often, linked to obesity.

We also know that obesity, at least in America, is closely related to our crappy exercise routines and crappy diets. Sometimes, this unhealthy lifestyle is a matter of personal choice, or ignorance. Other times, Americans’ poor diets are a consequence of inadequate access to healthy food. Fresh produce is expensive, and some of the poorest communities in America exist within “food deserts,” areas that lack access to affordable fruits, vegetables and other healthy foods.

A five minute search of Dowser’s Innovation Database, an Excel spreadsheet with 700+ vetted organizations (which we’re working to get online), revealed several organizations working on innovative strategies to improve the way America eats:

  1. Organic School Project in Chicago
  2. The Food Project in Lincoln, MA
  3. Urban Tilth in California
  4. Green City Market in Chicago
  5. Food Shed Alliance – New Jersey

Another quick search of Dowser’s content revealed these four stories that examine initiatives to improve both access to, and the quality of, the food America consumes. These stories offer practical, credible information on how these programs implement their work:

Highlighting these strategies–either through an extra paragraph or a sidebar widget–would have made The Atlantic Wire’s post a stronger, more comprehensive piece. It’s not advocacy; it’s giving people the information they need to become powerful citizens. It’s an accurate reflection of what’s happening in the world, curated to help individuals become powerful agents.

Tackling obesity is just one piece of the puzzle. Though this strategy may impact America’s rising diabetes rates, developing nations like India may need different tactics. As mentioned in both The Atlantic Wire piece and Gale’s original Bloomberg report, four in five people with diabetes today live in developing nations. Though I couldn’t get a straight answer as to why (neither piece links to a report), an e-mail to Gale pointed me to a great 2010 explainer on India’s Diabetes Paradox: as incomes rise, diabetes spreads.

“Doctors say a perverse twist of science makes Indians susceptible to diabetes and complications such as heart disease and stroke as soon as their living conditions improve,” Gale explained in the original article. “As a decade of 7 percent average annual growth lifts 400 million people into the middle class, bodies primed over generations for poverty, malnutrition and manual labor are leaving Indians ill- prepared for calorie-loaded food or the cars, TVs and computers that sap physical activity.”

And the complications don’t end there. A 2009 report from the International Diabetes Foundation predicted that diabetes would cost the world economy at least US $367 billion in 2010. That’s 11.6% of total world healthcare expenditure. “The United States accounts for $198 billion or 52.7% of total diabetes spending worldwide,” said the report. “India, which has the largest diabetes population, spends US$2.8 billion or 1% of the global total.”

Spending is unevenly distributed, incredibly high, and in the face of a global financial crisis, it makes sense, to me, to explore whether or not funneling money to diabetes prevention and treatment would have an impact on the global economy.

If anything, this Atlantic Wire piece, and the questions that raises, highlights a need for further investigation and reporting. The government and the people will be responsible for assembling new policy and implementing solutions. But the journalist’s job is to present stories in such a way that the public can grasp the full scope of an issue and have the practical information they need to change.

Cursory referrals to solutions, like the one I’m mapping out right now, won’t suffice in the long-run. Solutions are an ecosystem. Or, as I like to think of it, pieces of a puzzle. People need to see the big picture. They need great narratives, and powerful stories of change – stories that appeal to our emotional elephants. Piecemeal reporting on social innovations, while important, won’t be enough to provide a powerful big picture.

However, workflows like the one above are a place to start. It takes the media’s narrow focus on problems and broadens it to include a more accurate state of society. And for quick-response news teams, like those at The Atlantic Wire, it may be one of the best ways to contribute.

One Response

  1. Roshni says:

    I am looking to start a diabetes clinic with a difference .. the usual nutrition and fitness programs are really way past and done to death ! any new ideas?