‘Solutions’ and journalism grow closer together — what are implications for independence?

There is increasing momentum driving the idea that mainstream journalism — and the ethics training around it — should include the notion that it is not only OK but essential for reporters to report and even help convene community conversation around “solutions” to problems. But what does this do to the notion of independence? 

Jan Schaffer
Jan Schaffer

J-Lab Executive Director Jan Schaffer writes about this on the Nieman Blog this week.  She mentions the climate-change activist Bill McKibben, who was editor of the Harvard Crimson in college, and continues as a staff writer at The New Yorker while writing books and articles urging solutions to what he sees as a doomsday environmental crisis.  McKibben gave the keynote address at a Reynolds Journalism Institute-co-sponsored event in Denver, arguing that it is possible to be both a journalist and an activist if you are completely up front about both roles. 

Two days later, at the National Conference for Media Reform also in Denver, Sarah van Gelder, the executive editor of Yes! magazine, moderated a breakout session on Solutions Journalism, and was interviewed on the topic.  You can listen to audio of the FreePress session. 

All of this maps well to the ideas of Mike Fancher, RJI alumni fellow and retired Seattle Times executive editor,who has been arguing since at least 2008 that journalism must incorporate a “new ethic of public trust through public engagement,” explored in his 2011 Aspen-Knight white paper, and in a recent talk, where he said: “There have been concerns that to more deeply engage the public, we’re giving up independence, lowering standards, pandering to lowest possible denominator. But I see this in reverse. The public will trust us more if we are more richly engaged with them.” 

Engaging with the community should mean helping solve its problems and meet its challenges. As Northeastern University journalism Prof. Dan Kennedy wrote recently: “It is up to news organizations not merely to serve the public, but to nurture and educate the public so that it is engaged with civic life, and thus with the fundamental purpose of journalism.” 

Newspapers have always paid attention to civic issues, but typically the newsroom mantra was to just print the news and let others act as a result. Papers with active editorial-page staff have often been good about soliciting commentary on civic issues and that has the effect of fostering dialog and perhaps change. And during the 1980s it became acceptable for papers to organize civic forums. As social-media editors engage more and more actively with their audiences, additional opportunities arise to nudge and direct civic discourse. Schaffer spoke about another challenge of solutions/engagement journalism in a fall, 2012 web interview with Tom Grubisich at StreetFight — is it fundable? 

At JTM-Denver, the question of how deeply a reporter may appropriate engage with the community was captured in session notes by Dan Moulthrop, and Emily Guerin, in a session which included an ethics faculty member at the Poynter Institute, Kelly McBride.  McBride talked about three emerging principles of journalism ethics that will be included in a forthcoming book she has co-edited. While journalistic independence continues to be an important idea, McBride says, perhaps more important is that jouranlists be “radically transparent” about their point of view and about what they know about the point of view of other story tellers. 

“These principles open up the boundaries of what we consider journalism and so it allows for nonprpofits and advocacy groups to consider what they do journalism in a way that serves community and those old principles I don’t think would . . . and it allows the journalists who are really attached to independence to build bridges to other organizations,” McBride told JTM participants in Denver. 

AUDIO: You can listen to McBride’s 11-minute summary of new journalism ethical principles from her JTM mini-talk. 

At Journalism That Matters, a Seattle-area based non-profit that provides education and convening services to journalists seeking to connect with civic actors outside the industry, executive director Peggy Holman says the idea of solutions-based journalism is gaining steam. “I’ve been collecting examples of journalism with a possibility orientation for years because I think it may be one of the most important elements of creating a cultural narrative that moves us from despair to inspired action,” she says.  Holman first talked about this subject as “possibility journalism” as early as 2008. (Disclosure, I’m a board member of Journalism That Matters). 


Jan Schaffer
Executive Director
J-Lab: The Institute for Interactive Journalism
Entrepreneur in Residence
American University School of Communication
3201 New Mexico Ave. NW, Suite 330
Washington, DC 20016
P: 202.885.8100

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