Some personal news: I’m taking a part-time position with Solutions Journalism Network as a “solutions specialist” — essentially a subject-matter specialist in criminal justice, curating news stories that focus on proven solutions to crime and criminal justice problems. I’ll be a very small part of a much bigger operation, and idea, that to me represents one of the most hopeful developments in journalism today.
SJN is a large non-profit that’s been around for seven years, dedicated to spreading the solutions journalism gospel to working journalists. It grew out of a regular column of reported stories published by The New York Times called “Fixes” — stories about how big problems in society are getting solved. Now, many news organizations are practicing solutions journalism as an antidote to journalism fixated only on what’s not working. Here’s a video that neatly summarizes the approach and its potential to change the news industry.
I read a succinct description recently of what solutions journalism is: “investigative reporting into what’s going RIGHT.” In other words, it’s not happy, feel-good news. It’s deep reporting and storytelling that examines evidence-based solutions to complicated social problems — what works, proof that that it works, how it works, problems and gaps in its use, and how such policies and strategies can achieve widespread adoption.
I came to solutions journalism naturally. In my reporting on violence, I grew frustrated over a number of things I heard and saw: exploitative “crime porn” that simply entertains and shocks without having any redeeming social purpose; shallow crime reporting that creates an image of mayhem, even when the data say things are getting better, or that focuses on one tiny aspect of the problem (often for reasons of race and class) while ignoring the bigger problem; and ignorance of what actually does make things better. Even when journalists try to focus on what seems to be working, they often rely solely on anecdotes and one-off studies — possible flukes or coincidences that lack rigorous proof that their success could be replicated. Too often, crime reporting settles on simplistic explanations of causes and cures.
So, starting at least a decade ago, my stories gravitated toward messages of hope, based not on wishful thinking or chance but on solid scientific evidence of what works (or what at least looks promising, or what is commonly believed to work but doesn’t). My stories have looked at strategies that heal victims of violence in surprising ways; policing and community-based programs that reduce violence without all of the collateral damage that traditional law-and-order policies inflict on vulnerable communities; enlightened public policy decisions that provide safety instead of stoking anger and revenge. In Texas, I wrote about a program that heals victims of serious violence by conducting structured dialog between them and the people who harmed them. In Buffalo, I wrote about policing strategies that target the causes of violence effectively. In St. Louis, a program providing the hope of good jobs to people leaving prison (and a program of gun enforcement that had failed to curb violence). In Minneapolis and New York and Los Angeles, approaches to policing and caring for victims that reduce violence rather than perpetuate it. And my most recent, in Rochester, an approach to inspiring teens to reduce street violence and improve their community themselves. (The full list of my recent work can be found here.)
Solutions journalism, of course, covers far more topics than just criminal justice. But the thinking cuts across subjects to fulfill SJN’s mission: encouraging such reporting by training journalists in its methods and supporting such reporting in newsrooms around the country. Beyond just writing about social-science research, it encourages an approach that my former colleague Amanda Ripley calls “complicating the narrative” with depth and nuance.
As a solutions specialist, I’ll be on the hunt for examples of such stories in criminal justice and archiving them in our Story Tracker. I’ll also work with a team of archivists to make this accumulating body of knowledge more accessible as a source of information and training. At least in the near term, of course, much of that work will focus on the effects of the pandemic.
The job is half-time, so it leaves me time to continue to do this kind of journalism myself. I’ve produced dozens of articles in recent years that I now hope to use as the foundation for a book, one I’ve been talking about for too long and now am committed to focusing on.
We’re living in tumultuous, scary times. I’ve spent decades as a journalist because of my belief that this work can be a force for good, by correcting problems. I haven’t given up on that belief. My hope is that approaches like solutions journalism can make society and public policy better — and can begin to restore the public’s faith in the journalism that we depend on to be informed citizens.