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Civil Solutions

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Brian Calfano

Brian Calfano is a professor in the departments of communication and political science at the University of Cincinnati, as well as a political reporter and producer for Nexstar Broadcasting Group. He has authored two books, over 30 scholarly articles, and also serves as a policy advisor for the City of Los Angeles’s Human Rights Commission.

Journalism has a commitment to the truth, but often the pursuit of truth via objectivity in reporting a story becomes an end to itself. In many cases, reporting “just the facts” is fine, and can be a public service. But sometimes the facts are not enough to serve the public interest. This is especially true in cases where reporting the “who, what, where and when” fails to make the public more enlightened in the process of telling them something they need to know.

Arguably, there is no greater subject area where people need to make enlightened decisions than in the political realm. Indeed, our democracy depends on an enlightened and engaged citizenry. The empty rhetoric defining much of the 2016 election season is case-in-point why standard, fact-based reporting alone cannot be all that journalism provides the public.

At the same time, political journalism runs the risk of turning reports on candidates, races and policy proposals into stories simply about the entertaining aspects of our political process (and there are many such aspects this year). This “political coverage as entertainment” focus has likely contributed to the lack of civility in our politics and the noticeable uptick in affective polarization between parties.

What is potentially more problematic, however, is when members of media organizations don’t push themselves to cover both political problems and potential solutions.

To be sure, whistleblowing, which the media has reported on for centuries, is useful, but is not the same as evaluating actual solutions to problems. The current reporting model must be replaced with something more concrete than a list of things journalists should not do in covering politics.

Hear Calfano speak on Solutions Journalism

Brian Calfano will be in Boise to deliver a talk on Solutions Journalism as part of the Civility Matters Symposium on Sept. 8. He speaks at 1:30 p.m. in the Jordan Ballroom. The Symposium is from 9 a.m. – 4:15 p.m. and open to the public. See the Center for Idaho History and Politics for more information.

I’m especially sensitive to this critique because of my unique position as an academic and political reporter/content producer for a major company with hundreds of local station affiliates covering 39 percent of the nation’s television households. To effectively work in the public interest as a member of the media covering politics in a national election year, I argue that stories evaluating and proposing solutions to our major societal problems must be an integral part of the media menu served to the public. Solutions are certainly not the only thing we need to cover in the media, but greater focus on problem solving is needed than what is provided at present.

A “solutions journalism” approach to covering political stories holds promise because it focuses attention on the evaluation of effectiveness in dealing with some of the most pressing problems we face as a society. Along the way, the solutions-based focus may even tamp down the incivility that plagues our politics. The author is a member of the Solutions Journalism Network.

So, how do we get started with a solutions journalism approach?

The Solutions Journalism Network has already done much of the legwork in setting up the scaffolding for journalists looking to sink their teeth into the consideration of “what works” in solving a social problem.

In their Solutions Journalism Toolkit (2015, pdf), the Solutions Journalism Network suggests focusing on the following questions when determining a topic to cover (pgs. 6-7):

  • Does the story explain the causes of social problem?
  • Does the story present an associated response to that problem?
  • Does the story get into the problem solving and how to details of implementation?
  • Does the story present evidence of results linked to the response?
  • Does the story explain limitations of the response?
  • Does the story convey an insight or teachable lesson?

Here’s an example from a solutions journalism series I am currently working on.

A growing concern among advocates for the working poor is the so-called “cliff effect” whereby food stamps, tax credits and health care subsides trail off once family earnings rise above the official poverty level. These families are not making enough to afford to pay the full cost of goods and services to survive, but, by gaining even small raises or promotions, they have become disqualified from many forms of government assistance.

The cliff effect touches on several issues at once: poverty, education, healthcare for women and children, reproductive rights, employment law and housing. Various local and statewide organizations are attempting to mitigate the cliff effect by proposing public/private sector partnerships and legislation intended to bring relief to affected families.

Since both major presidential candidates have made the plight of lower-income Americans a priority (at least in their rhetoric), covering potential solutions to a social challenge like the cliff effect is a clear opportunity for journalists during the 2016 election. A problem, however, is that real relief for those impacted by the cuts in aid are likely better addressed at the local and state levels than by major party candidates. This reality can be a boon to local media in terms of telling stories from a solutions journalism approach using local voices, but the path to success is not as simple as turning a package (i.e., a story that airs on a single news broadcast) in a day.

According to the Solutions Journalism Toolkit, in creating a solutions journalism story, journalists should (p. 13):

  • Ask what’s missing in the public conversation,
  • And look for story candidates — examples of where things are done better than average.

Overall, the goal is to “replace whodunit with howdunnit?” (p. 20).

But, again, this doesn’t mean editing together a few sound bytes from experts and “letting the viewers” decide. Neither should solutions stories be relegated to the “D” block community “feel good” pieces in TV news broadcasts where they can be dumped if the show is running long.

Solutions Journalism is not hero worship, it doesn’t spotlight “game-changers” or “lifesavers” as one-off stories and it’s not simply a PR piece that promotes a program as successful because the sponsoring organization said it was. Neither should it be seen as instant activism (e.g., contribute some money to a needy group) or a spotlight on do-gooders.

According to the Toolkit, solutions journalism, in contrast, looks to spotlight “adaptive responses to entrenched social ills” (p. 10). In the process, this approach to journalism can call effective strategies to policymakers’ attention, change public conversation about existing policies and “delegitimize excuses for inaction” (p. 11).

This is the process I’m embarking on with the series about countering the “cliff effect.”

Along the way, I will need to find a way to tell a compelling story about local and state organizations working on solutions while avoiding the pitfalls that characterize what solutions journalism is not.

Part of my effort will be to not only ask about the results, but about the measurements that matter most and identify them. As the Toolkit suggests, I will

replace questions about “is it working” with “in what ways is it succeeding and it what ways is it failing?” (p. 20).

Most interesting about this approach is that it calls on my experience as a social science researcher. I’m tempted to go into full researcher mode and critique the all-too-frequent use of basic cross-tabulations and observational survey data as means for showing cause and effect. Generally speaking, audiences may not care about research methods, but my job is to make the story compelling enough — including the bits about methodology — to make them interested.

Importantly, I’m not alone in this effort. Sources like the website feature a litany of randomized controlled trials that allow determination of direct impact from a policy intervention on issues like the “cliff effect.”

My work is made more difficult if the organizations I interview for the solutions journalism stories on the “cliff effect” are not using the randomized trial approach. At the least, I’ll have to point out to the viewer that the solutions an organization proposes are not being evaluated with the strongest possible assessment tools. This is not so much a problem, however, as an opportunity, as the organization might benefit from the critique of its own evaluation practices to find what works “better than average.”

The lasting challenge will be to elevate civility in the political discourse through the solutions-based approach to stories. This goes beyond general lack of public interest in stories that look too “wonkish.” A bigger problem is in convincing a sizeable number of voters who generally oppose increasing government spending and regulation — both of which are almost always in the mix of ingredients needed to address issues like the “cliff effect” — that the solutions being evaluated should be given more than an ideological cold shoulder.

For all but the most determined critics, however, there is likely much to be gained in elevating journalistic practices to focus on evaluating solutions in an election year featuring so much empty rhetoric. The hope is that elevated journalism will bolster civility. This proposal isn’t a vetted solution to our civility problem, but it’s worth a good look as an “adaptive response to entrenched social ills”.