Editor's notebook: A solution to 'bummer gun' journalism
There's been a lot of hand-wringing in the journalism trade press recently about why people are tuning out the news. Popular theories involve our president, Mark Zuckerberg and, of course, the Russians.
But I found an uncomfortable alternative explanation at an unlikely venue. During a raucous "Holiday Ordeal" show at Portland's Aladdin Theater at the close of 2017, Storm Large confessed that she finds it hard to follow headlines these days.
"It's like a bummer gun aimed right at your face," she said, pointing a pair of imaginary pistols at her head. "Pew! Pew! Pew!"
As usual, the popular Oregon performer was pitch perfect.
As newsrooms shrank during and since the last recession and readers turned to their phones for news, coverage skewed toward what was easy, cheap and popular.
An April 2016 study by The Tow Center for Digital Journalism offered this sobering observation: "In a journalistic environment where the mantra 'if it bleeds, it leads' continues to resonate — and is amplified ever more by the clickbait web — there is a professional bias in favor of reporting on violence, crime, police brutality, and other negative tropes."
The study noted an apparent paradox. Although consumers say they don't like "negative" news, they read it. In a media world where success is measured by clicks, mug shots are the new jail bait. And, you, dear readers, take it every time.
So, a year ago I might have pushed back on Storm Large's critique. As journalists, it's our job to point out problems. If we don't shine a spotlight on the harsh realities of the world, who will? If you want to get mad at someone, Storm, aim that bummer gun at the bums we write about or the bums who click on those bloody stories. But don't shoot the messengers; we're just doing our jobs.
In the past several months, however, I've come to see that we messengers are part of the problem — and, thankfully, that there's a fix.
To be honest, when I first heard about "solutions journalism" I was skeptical. It sounded to me like some fuzzy feel-good trend. At a time when Oregon has lost many of its best journalistic watchdogs, the last thing we need is newsrooms full of lap dogs.
But that's not the tonic that the folks at the Solutions Journalism Network (SJN) are peddling.
Their point is that journalists, from the Washington Post to the Sandy Post, consistently do an amazing job of providing independent, objective reporting on societal problems, from broken systems to corrupt individuals, on issues ranging from global warming to suburban homelessness.
What we don't do as well is report how people respond to those problems, leaving readers like Storm feeling depressed.
SJN, led by New York Times reporters Tina Rosenberg and David Bornstein, aims to change that. They're not asking us to dish out "happy news" but simply use a slightly different lens when we look at issues, to take the same professional rigor we bring to our reporting on problems and apply it to investigations of potential remedies.
It's the same approach Rosenberg and Bornstein use in their weekly "Fixes" column in the Times.
That means digging into academic research and looking outside our parochial borders to see if an initiative to curb teen pregnancy in suburban Boston might work in Beaverton. Or whether Hillsboro's success in boosting the Latino high school graduation rate could be replicated in Hermiston.
Journalists already do some of this. In October, for example, Portland Tribune reporter Lyndsey Hewitt traveled to Eugene and came back with a story about lessons for Portland in combating homelessness. But we must do more.
SJN has found that solutions journalism — rigorous reporting about how people are responding to problems — engages readers and leaves them feeling empowered, rather than helpless. What's more, in this era of mistrust and "fake news," it can show that journalists are committed to not just harping on problems but also looking at ways to strengthen their communities.
In early October, SJN came to Portland and trained two dozen journalists, including Pamplin Media Group reporters and editors, on how to bring a solutions focus to regular, daily reporting. SJN is offering additional support to our yearlong investigation into high school concussions.
So, when our series launches next month, we will have some sobering statistics about the number of Oregon student athletes suffering brain injuries. And we'll highlight the limits of the laws and regulations aimed at protecting those kids.
But we also will take a hard look at some of the innovative ways that people in Oregon — and elsewhere — are working to prevent, identify and treat concussions.
And we'll be asking "Who's doing it better?" in other stories as well, to avoid the quick and easy "bummer gun" journalism that has smart, engaged people like Storm Large wanting to tune us out.
In 2018, our newsrooms will still be home to plenty of watchdogs, ready to point out problems. But we're also doing some guide-dog training, so we can point out paths to solving them.