David Bornstein, author, New York Times columnist (The Opinionator) and co-founder of the US-based Solutions Journalism Network, took part in a Foundation-sponsored retreat in early June, on the topic “Can 21st Century Journalism Solve 21st Century Challenges?”
The following is an edited transcript of an interview with Bornstein in which he explains how journalism can help society to self-correct, by helping people understand where the deficiencies are.
What is the difference between journalism and solutions journalism?
BORNSTEIN: By and large journalism helps society to self-correct, by helping people understand where the deficiencies are. The theory of change is that we need to shine a light on the dark corners of society, to bring attention and, if necessary, outrage to those areas so that change takes place.
But what we’re seeing today is that we need to re-invent many institutions designed for the nineteenth or twentieth centuries that are ill-suited for twenty-first century challenges, because of limits on planetary carrying capacity, in terms of global warming; and because the pace of change is so much faster today.
Journalism’s role now is not just to keep institutions honest but also to help people understand that in the twenty-first century, we need to reshape some of these institutions, or create whole new ones. And so the questions we need to ask are not just ‘what’s going wrong and who is responsible?’ but also, ‘what are the ideas that are emerging?, where is the knowledge; where are new models being born?’. That’s what solutions journalism does.
You’ve worked with the Seattle Times on the Education Lab project. How does it illustrate the way that solutions journalism can lead to change in a given system?
BORNSTEIN: The Education Lab project with the Seattle Times has shown that solutions-oriented journalism focusing on education can produce positive change in practice and policy. It is quite powerful when you are able to show a school that is suspending kids at five times the rate that it should be, compared with another that no longer has that problem.
So if you just merely did the watchdog story and left it there, you would have a story of outrage, but by also showing it is possible to do better against this problem; not just an opinion piece saying “we should do better,” but actually “here are two or three schools that have tried a variety of models and this is one that has demonstrated some results”.
The Times also noticed that as they began covering issues this way, they’ve been able to draw in new audiences and get them to pay more attention.
You’re based in New York City. How does the Canadian media landscape look to you? Any surprises?
BORNSTEIN: I go back to Montreal often to visit family but I don’t follow closely the changes happening in Canada. I was surprised to learn about the dire situation with Postmedia. Frankly I am alarmed that the Canadian news marketplace is so concentrated. I didn’t realize that things I have been taking for granted in the United States – like foundations that support public interest journalism and media innovation – are relatively rare here.
The pleasant surprise is how in the conversations that we had at Wasan you could see how serious and thoughtful people are about wanting to do a better job covering Indigenous issues, following on the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.