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.


35 thoughts on “The hard part of solution journalism is agreeing on the problems”

  1. Wonderfully said, Jonathan, as always.

    I’d make one addition to your post- in agreement with you, I think. Ultimately, a large part of the solutions “system” is the sphere of government- both the elected government and the state bureaucracy– insofar as these are the people technically empowered to make decisions on behalf of the public. And this, as I think more or less everyone is well aware by now, is a major (if not the major) missing piece in the system (if anyone still doubts this they should check out the latest Congressional approval ratings).

    Sometimes I worry that our obsession with journalism actually arises from our despair- our despair that actually fixing our broken democratic system is impossible, and so we default to the next best thing, which is our belief in the power of the press. One thing I’ve always tried to argue is that fixing the public sphere is related to fixing journalism, but is not entirely identical with it. Fixing the press will help, but ultimately, there are bigger stakes here than even just journalism.

  2. As usual you’re on target, Chris. I have deliberately avoided talking about the relationship between the press and government here, because it would have made the post much longer. Clearly the government is deeply involved! One could even argue that it’s the government planner’s job, not the journalist’s, to provide and moderate the public forum. But I do think there is something valuable in having an independent forum. It is a check on power, and it also usefully disconnects the range of topics and solutions from the organizational structure of the government (so we can talk about things that don’t fall under any particular “department.”)

    One thought that strikes me: you’ll know your solution journalism is good when government planners and elected officials find it essential reading. I stole this idea from the designer of the NY Senate mobile app, who said (at this event) “I want this so be so good that Senators are using it to find out what’s going on.” I think that’s an important goal. It keeps the government involved, and also, I don’t want journalists to be (only) in the business of translating complex issues for the public; there is no reason that this type of journalism can’t grapple with the real details of real problems.

  3. This post goes a long way towards moving the discussion around solutions journalism forward, clarifying what we might mean by that and how it might work. Thanks Jonathan.

    While I agree that the role of moderator is central, even primary, I’m still keenly interested in the other role of surfacing and reporting on solutions. I agree that journalists shouldn’t be prescribing solutions for a community, but I do think there is a huge opportunity to do more fact finding an analysis on potential solutions. To me, this kind of solutions journalism seems somewhat basic, but incredibly necessary and incredibly rare right now.

    That said, as news organizations seeks to re-imagine their roles in communities I think the role of moderator is more interesting, innovative and important. I actually think there is a way to weave this more closely together with the concerns regarding political institutions that Chris highlights in his comment. In November of 2010 the editors of the Columbia Journalism Review wrote an important piece which I think is relevant here. They write:

    “The battered mainstream press has a mission here that can frame its work and maybe even energize it: helping to rebuild the democratic conversation. The key is not some namby-pamby civic sewing circle. Rather, the press should work toward the kind of earned authority that provides some common factual ground.”

    Like you Jonathan, they saw fostering dialog (especially across “information silos”) as a critical role for the press in a digital age. The scholar Danielle Allen also takes this idea head on in her book “Talking to Strangers”, although she is not as attentive to the role of the press. She writes:

    “As for distrust of one’s fellow citizens, when this pervades democratic relations, it paralyzes democracy […] Within democracies, such congealed distrust indicates political failure. At its best, democracy is full of contention and fluid disagreement but free of settled patterns of mutual disdain. Democracy depends on trustful talk among strangers and, properly conducted, should dissolve any divisions that block it.”

    While not wanting to fall into the trap Chris describes of mistaking hope for the press as a panacea for fixing democracy, taken together, I do think the moderator role you describe can help address some of the broken political systems and institutions that Chris describes.

    (PS – I write way more about that CJR piece and Danielle Allen here – Escaping Silos and Talking to Strangers:

  4. One tension that really needs to be sorted out in online discussion is that between divergent and convergent thinking. Online discussions, when at their best in clean well-moderated spaces tend to do well at divergent thinking: adding lots of context and piling on different points of view.

    What’s missing is the convergent step where all of those ideas are shaped toward some outcome, a decision perhaps. This is the evaluative step where someone has to decide what’s valid, relevant, and connected. Why haven’t we seen this work well online? There are a lot of fly-by discussants who aren’t committed, or the discussant pool involves people from diverse publics, or the situation isn’t framed in a way that gets people thinking about an outcome or problem to solve.

    An area where journalists would be valuable is in taking all of the divergent thinking out there and doing some convergence on it. Not so much to find *the* solution as to trace the outlines of possible solutions.

  5. I write about innovation a lot, supposedly a “solution” to lots of societal issues. In fact, innovation ends up working more on a case by case basis, or it works for a small group but can’t scale, or if it does scale it creates problems that nobody thought about or that we can’t really measure, and thus some argue they aren’t problems. Your discussion of Rittel was interesting, but it also left me wondering whether by looking at design, a journalist might end up dealing primarily in hypotheticals. Might we not become detached from reality, or become advocates for something that was impractical?

    There is a lot of nuance in ‘solutions’ journalism. I don’t feel like nuance works well in stories that get published, especially in the news cycle. Political reporting feels to me like sports reporting (he won, she scored points, they lost) rather than dealing with the impact on ordinary people of decisions. We also try to boil multiple points down to a take-away, which probably feels like it’s solving something, but probably rarely does.

    You nail the challenge of trying to balance differing perspectives pretty well. I just did a piece on Fair Trade and in 1000 words I could really only get at one piece of what’s going on in a movement that is going in about six directions. I found it unsatisfying as a writer, and I know what I wrote vexed some of my sources, who felt I didn’t express their vision properly (never mind that their visions were completely divergent). I wanted to avoid a he=said/she-said argument, but think it would have taken me about three times the words to really get into the differences in a way that could give readers enough information to make their own call, which is (i think) what you ultimately want solutions journalism to achieve.

    thanks for the interesting essay on what journalists should do, and how to go about it.

  6. Mr. Stray is suggesting that we journalists abandon our traditional role as “watch dog” and instead adopt a “herd dog.” Solution journalism is not journalism. It’s a thinly disguised advocacy.

    That is wrong. Journalists are not supposed to be advocates; we are observers who report on what is happening in society whether it is good or bad. Our reports are to alert both voters and policy makers so they can make informed decisions. That is their responsibility…not ours.

    Advocates come in various stripes. They may be elected or appointed politicians, they may be lobbyists working for trade associations, they may be scholars employed by think tanks or universities. Or they may be any one of a score of local, regional, national or international Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO. Each has a specific cause or agenda.

    Yes, journalists have an agenda, too. But it is to assure that society at all levels remains open and accountable. We watch and inform; others are charged with actions and solutions.

    I would suggest that if Mr. Stray wishes to be an advocate, he take off his “journalist” hat and replace it with a one that reads “lobbyist.”

  7. Steve,

    First of all, thanks for taking the time to reply.

    I am not suggesting that journalism abandon the “watch dog” role. I don’t think anyone is suggesting that, actually. There are many kinds of journalism, including breaking news, analysis, and investigative. Solution journalism would be one kind.

    As to the charge of advocacy: if you’re writing an investigative story about what you see as someone’s shady business practices, you are implicitly advocating that these practices stop. As you point out, watch dog journalism does have an agenda, one of transparency and accountability.

    But society needs many things besides than transparency and accountability, such as social plans and polices that work. What is journalism’s involvement in those things? If there isn’t a clear issue of wrongdoing, does journalism have nothing at all to contribute?

    The reason I suggest the role of moderator is precisely because I don’t believe journalists are qualified to choose for all of society. But I believe that they might be qualified to tend to the discussion, to help everyone else choose.

  8. Josh: to my mind, “surfacing and reporting on solutions” are part of the moderation job. The point is to have a successful dialog. If that dialog is ignoring key possibilities, or needs some fact finding to continue, then the journalist can step in to fill that gap. But only if it’s a gap that needs filling; I’d much rather see other people doing this work, for the sake of efficiency and inclusive participation.

    To put it another way, I’ve previously written about the different functions of the public sphere. The journalist has responsibility to see that these needs are met, and may need to step into any one of those roles if that turns out to be the best way to get things done.

    Nick: I agree there is a missing “convergent” step, which is why I’m so excited about the rise of explanatory journalism and the whole context movement.

  9. Jonathan – you are right – I think I falsely broke apart the surfacing and studying of solutions from the role of moderation. Thanks for clarifying that. And I think layering in your earlier post on the functions of the public square is really useful. In fact those functions help us get at some of what Greg Linch raises about your post and mine – the need to find metrics to measure impact. See his comment here:

  10. “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.”

    I’m none of the above, but I *am* an applied mathematician and have spent a lengthy career speaking the quantitative language of planners, economists, epidemiologists and other scientists and engineers, and crafting code to provide solutions. Journalism was actually my second choice career – if I hadn’t been “born to program”, I would have been a science journalist, or perhaps a humor columnist or music critic.

    In any event, I think both we in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) and journalists serve to steer civilization between the utopias and dystopias that confront us with on a daily basis in the second decade of the twenty-first century. If that’s “solution journalism”, then sign me up!

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