The hard part of solution journalism is agreeing on the problems

The only editorial mantra that ever made any sense to me comes from the Voice of San Diego new reporter guidelines: “Our bent: Reform. Things can always be better.” It’s been said that the role of journalism is to inform, but informing seems like a means, not an end, and I believe that a better world is  the ultimate goal for journalism. The ambitious idea of solution journalism is to concentrate reporting on what could be improved and how, not just what is wrong. There are a small number of people practicing this today, such as David Bornstein who writes the New York Times’ “fixes” column, and

But “things can always be better” is a supremely difficult phrase. It appeals to our hopes, while it hides our disagreements and our ignorance. Before we can come up with solutions, we have to agree on what the problems are. This is harder than it sounds; you can’t just sit down and make a list like “unemployment, education, crime, homelessness, global warming…” and get to reporting. People are going to disagree not only about priorities, but about how to best to understand a problem, and even about whether or not certain things are problems. Dealing in solutions also tends to move the journalist from informer to advocate, which is tricky territory.

I think there’s a way to do solution journalism that deals with these difficulties, but first we have to understand why this is so hard.

What’s a social problem?
In my time as a journalist I’ve seen a lot of bitter complaining that some particular issue is under-covered. Often, there is merit to the complaints. But let’s take the larger view and ask how we should decide which problems are deserving of attention, and how much. How do we weigh homelessness versus crime, or compare it to failing schools, onerous taxes, corrupt financiers, AIDS, unemployment, and global warming? How do we rate the local against the global? How do we weigh one endangered species against another? (In practice, very inconsistently.)

Sociologists have understood for some time that social problems are “products of a process of collective definition,” as Stephen Hilgartner and Charles Bosk put it in 1988. “After all,” they wrote,

there are many situations in society that could be perceived as social problems but are not so defined. A theory that views social problems as mere reflections of objective conditions cannot explain why some conditions are defined as problems, demanding a great deal of societal attention, whereas others, equally harmful or dangerous, are not. … The extent of the harm in these cases cannot, in itself, explain these differences, and it is not enough to say that some of these situations become problems because they are more “important.” All of these issues are important — or at least capable of being seen as such.

“Social problems” are real, but they are not like trees and planets and atoms, things “out there” in the universe that will be discovered the same way by anyone who looks. Although there are surely things wrong in the world, the process that transforms real-world conditions into the “issues” of any particular time and place, the issues that journalists “should” be writing about, is social and subjective. This was one of the lessons of the social constructionists in the 1970s. Meanwhile, it was the architect, engineer, and urban planner Horst Rittel who gave us a way to think and talk about problems that are real, but extraordinarily hard to pin down.

Wicked problems
A “wicked problem” is one where defining the problem is part of the problem. Suppose we’re concerned about homelessness. All right, the problem is that there are people on the streets. Why is that? Maybe they lack any employable skills, and the true difficulty lies with the education system. Or maybe they’re mentally ill, in which case health care could be the root problem. Or, maybe we need to look broader. Perhaps something is wrong with the way that we are managing our economy, so that too many people are plunged into poverty. And if we notice that many homeless people are women, or black, perhaps this is an issue with systemic discrimination of one kind of another. The whole thing is a massive tangle of cause and effect.

In a brilliant 1973 essay, Rittel saw that top-down, institutional solutions to social problems based on “objective” criteria simply wouldn’t work, because there is no one clear “right” way to define a problem, let alone solve it.

The search for scientific bases for confronting problems of social policy is bound to fail, because of the nature of those problems. They are “wicked” problems, whereas science has developed to deal with “tame” problems. Policy problems cannot be definitively described. Moreover, in a pluralistic society there is nothing like the undisputable public good; there is no objective definition of equity. … Goal-finding is turning out to be an extraordinarily obstinate task.

Rittel goes on eloquently about the features that wicked problems share. Jay Rosen has a good summary:

Wicked problems have these features: It is hard to say what the problem is, to define it clearly or to tell where it stops and starts. There is no “right” way to view the problem, no definitive formulation. The way it’s framed will change what the solution appears to be. Someone can always say that the problem is just a symptom of another problem and that someone will not be wrong. There are many stakeholders, all with their own frames, which they tend to see as exclusively correct. Ask what the problem is and you will get a different answer from each. The problem is inter-connected to a lot of other problems; pulling them apart is almost impossible.

Trained in cybernetics, an early mathematical form of systems theory, Rittel thought in networks of cause and effect and saw how all of society operates as an irreducible whole. But he was also deeply involved in the practical realities of social undertakings as an architect, designer, and civic planner, and he appreciated the reality of our pluralistic cultures. The result is a very nuanced argument that social problems cannot be grasped in “objective” terms. In most cases there is no obviously right conception of a problem, and no single “correct” solution. Instead, Rittel became interested the process of “design.”

Designing society
Rittel researched, practiced, and wrote on the subject of design, which he said was about planning a path from what “is” to what “ought” to be. Rather than a linear method, he saw design as an iterative process of imagining future worlds and investigating the tools available to reach them from the actual present. In “The Reasoning of Designers” he wrote,

A design problem keeps changing while it is treated, because the understanding of what ought to be accomplished, and how it might be accomplished is continually shifting. Learning what the problem is IS the problem.

Such a design process is flexible and amorphous enough to attack the wicked problems of society. But it is necessarily a subjective process, dependent on the background assumptions and values of the designer, and also necessarily a political process because design, especially social planning, affects many lives.

No plan has ever been beneficial to everybody. Therefore, many persons with varying, often contradictory interests and ideas are or want to be involved in plan-making. The resulting plans are usually compromises resulting from negotiation and the application of power. The designer is party in these processes; he takes sides. Designing entails political commitment — although many experts would rather see themselves as neutral, impartial, benevolent experts who serve the abstraction of “the common good.”

Rittel saw many parallels between design and discussion. In fact he saw design as “a process of argumentation” and asked how people could engage in productive discussions to come up with good plans. There are strong parallels here to the concept of deliberative democracy, and the idea that journalism “must provide a forum for public criticism and compromise” (according to the Elements of Journalism.)

The role of the solution journalist
A journalist is not an urban planner, a teacher, an economist, a police captain, or an epidemiologist. We already have those people in society, so I don’t know why we would imagine that journalists are supposed to invent good plans. Even the idea of journalists merely promoting particular solutions flies in the face of the orthodoxy that says journalism exists to inform, not to advise or act. Personally, I find the idea of total journalistic detachment to be nonsensical; if journalism has no effect, then it simply does not work. But neither do I think that journalists have any particular legitimacy to decide for everyone else. Chris Anderson nails this point when he asks,

by what right, and on what grounds, do journalists claim the authority to offer solutions to any particularly difficult problem? Journalists are neither elected, nor particularly accountable, nor all that expert in anything in particular.

I answer this by saying that I don’t want the journalist to offer solutions. The solution journalist ought to be well informed, certainly, and perhaps they ought to report and write on possible solutions to social problems, but I dont think that’s their primary responsibility. Rather, I see the solution journalist as responsible for the process of public discussion by which problems are defined and turned into plans for the future.

This is the moderator’s role. There is wide scope here, beyond the daily nuts and bolts of moderating a networked discussion (for which there are already a great variety of models.) It would be very valuable if the journalist continually curated links that describe both potential issues and potential solutions within the community. It would be crucial to include a variety of voices in this discussion, or the conclusions may not be representative; I like John Dewey’s definition of a public as a group of people affected by some issue. And the journalist could step in at key moments to clarify basic points of fact, either by citing authoritative references or by doing some reporting. The point is to have a healthy discussion about just what are the most pressing public problems — and the possible solutions. “Healthy” might mean many things, such as reality-based, respectful, and productive. Deciding what kind of discussion we want to have and how best to go about having it is itself a wonderful design problem!

There is a great deal of room here for experimentation with software and process. As early as 1970 Rittel designed what we would now call “social software” to facilitate discussions, building his “issue-based information system” for government planning departments. But we know very little about how to make discussion systems work at web scale. We have a few tantalizing examples — the Slashdots, Wikipedias, and Reddits of the world — but no general principles. Meanwhile, we are just beginning to ask about the very human process of tending to an online community. What is the most effective and the fairest way to deal with trolls, crazies, and other spoilers? How do we make the hard decisions about excluding people? How can the users best contribute to the process? What is the right combination of norms, rules, and code? Unfortunately, we are going to have to learn how to do this differently for different sizes of groups. A neighborhood, a city, a country and a planet will all require different approaches, because social interactions do not scale cleanly (see, e.g., Dunbar’s number.)

So there is software, and there is process, and there are people bound up together who will see different aspects of their shared condition. Sometimes they will disagree violently about the truest representation and the worthiest goal. Perhaps the work of solution journalism is not to propose solutions, but to help a community come to a shared understanding of what its major problems are, which is the first and possibly hardest step in solving them.


Darfur and the limits of public outcry

I just finished reading Rebecca Hamilton’s new book Fighting for Darfur: Public Action and the Struggle to Stop Genocide, and I must say I’m more confused than ever about the role that ordinary people can play in resolving international problems. But I think I’m confused in a good way, that kind of “this is a lot trickier than I thought” way that leads to learning. Hamilton was deeply involved in student activism for Darfur, but in 2006 she switched tracks to study whether this sort of advocacy had any real effect. Over the next few years she interviewed everyone involved: activists, people within the governments of the U.S., Sudan, and other countries, staff from the UN and the International Criminal Court, and of course lots of Darfuris on numerous visits to the region.

This is a story about the limitations of public outcry, which Hamilton also talks about in this excerpt (full video and transcript)

All of this seems especially interesting right now in light of the debate around the Kony 2012 video and Mike Daisey’s falsehoods about the working conditions of Apple employees in China. At what point does simplification or sensationalization of a message make broad public “awareness” ineffective or even harmful? A number of smart people have wrestled with this question recently, including Ethan Zuckerman, who co-founded the Global Voices international citizen media project, in a very thoughtful essay.

Hamilton explains that the U.S. Darfur advocacy movement began on the back of the lessons of Samantha Power’s hugely influential book A Problem from Hell:

“It is in the realm of [U.S.] domestic politics that the battle to stop genocide is lost,” was the key message from the mammoth research Samantha Power had undertaken into the genocides of the twentieth century. It was a mantra that could be seen scribbled on post-it notes on Darfur advocates’ desks and added at the sign off of to their emails. The citizens who started to join the growing movement for Darfur believed that the power to make “never again” meaningful was in their hands, that if they created a loud enough outcry, they could generate the political will needed to get their political leaders to save Darfuri lives.

But this is only true if the problem is, in fact, a lack of political will — and if the political pressure that activists create pushes in the direction of solutions that actually work.

What happened next — during the six or seven years since the start of the attacks in Darfur and the writing of the book — is complicated. Secretary of State Colin Powell publicly called what was happening in Darfur a “genocide” in September 2004, marking the first time in history that an international leader had used “the g-word” while the violence was still ongoing, but the Darfur advocacy moment was really just in its infancy at that point, and Hamilton traces the internal politics of the decision to other factors. Then there was a UN resolution referring the matter to the newly-established International Criminal Court but, writes Hamilton, “contrary to conventional wisdom, the growing Darfur movement was not a significant part of this decision. Although some Darfur advocates voiced their support, the most influential advocates were those based in Africa.”

In 2006, advocates focussed their attention on getting a UN security council resolution authorizing a peacekeeping mission to Darfur. Getting the UN to deploy troops seemed like a way forward, but China, with its close connections to Sudan, would not support the necessary UN resolution. Here, perhaps, is a place where the citizen’s advocacy moment was clearly effective.

U.S. Darfur advocates realized that domestic pressure would not work to influence Chinese leaders. But the 2008 Olympics in Beijing were coming up. Activists executed a prolonged, international “genocide olympics” campaign to publicly link China  with the events in Darfur. This included marches, a torch relay, and press campaigns such as a Wall Street Journal op-ed. This had real consequences for China, including the high-profile withdrawal of Steven Speilberg as an artistic advisor to the opening ceremonies. Eventually, China backed down, signing on to a UN Security Council “presidential statement” calling for Sudan to “cooperate fully” with the International Criminal Court.

As one U.S. government official put it, “Activists finally ‘cracked the code’ on moving China.” This didn’t mean that China moved into line with the activist position, but it did move from obstructing all outside involvement with Darfur back to a position of neutrality. In an admittedly rare instance, the Olympics, when activists in the West could threaten an image China actually cared about, public shaming had worked.

The only problem was that a UN peacekeeping mission was doomed to fail, because Sudan didn’t want peacekeepers there at all:

Any mission to protect civilians using outside forces without the consent of the Sudanese government would not only be tantamount to invasion in rhetorical and legal terms, it would bring with it logistical and military complications rising near the level of practical impossibility. No country, not even the United States, was willing to fight a real war with real costs in terms of lives lost in order to protect Darfuris. And until any country was willing to do that, the theoretical debates could continue ad infinitum. The reality was that Sudanese consent was a necessity.

This is just the barest outlines of the story, which was (and is) an intricate international situation. But if this 1,000 word post can only barely outline the situation, how is an advocacy movement supposed to explain the details to large numbers of people? And how are regular people supposed to influence the decision makers in a different country? U.S. politicians have to listen to U.S. voters, but foreign politicians don’t.

International situations seem to require international advocacy — a much harder proposition.  As Hamilton asks in this video, “more generally, beyond a state model at all, how are we building connections between different communities?”

Perhaps the most fundamental question here is, why do we believe that bringing something to the attention of a large number of people will have any real effect at all? Of course it’s impossible to know what would have happened in Darfur had there not been this sort of mass advocacy, but the fact remains that in many of the ways that count, the effort was a failure. Hamilton ends the introduction of her book on this point:

Until Darfur, the persistent failure of the U.S. government to protect civilians from genocidal violence could be all-too-easily attributed to and justified by the absence of a politically relevant outcry from citizens. The insufficiency of that alibi has now been revealed. By telling the story of what happened when citizens did create an outcry, Fighting for Darfur enables us to take the next step and begin to understand the other missing pieces of the puzzle.