Tired of just hearing about problems, we are hungry for solutions

When journalists get more curious about ‘what works’ rather than ‘what is wrong’, we learn about solutions and not just problems. That is the reasoning behind the Solutions Journalism Network, which grew out of a powerful article written in 2018 by Amanda Ripley. She asked if journalists, in trying to present ‘two sides’ of stories, were actually increasing what she calls ‘high conflict’ and thus deepening ideological differences, and called on journalists to become curious, to look behind and beyond the obvious, especially where there are conflicts.

Photo by jean wimmerlin on Unsplash

In 2018, she had realized that despite being a journalist for two decades, she didn’t know much about how to navigate conflict creatively, and she spent three months “interviewing people who know conflict intimately and have developed creative ways of navigating it. I met psychologists, mediators, lawyers, rabbis and other people who know how to disrupt toxic narratives and get people to reveal deeper truths. They do it every day — with livid spouses, feuding business partners, spiteful neighbors. They have learned how to get people to open up to new ideas, rather than closing down in judgment and indignation.”

So she spent more than 50 hours in training for different kinds of dispute resolution and realized that she had “overestimated my ability to quickly understand what drives people to do what they do. I have overvalued reasoning in myself and others and undervalued pride, fear and the need to belong.”

This article had a powerful impact. It made many journalists ask if their journalism was contributing to the problem rather than the solution, and it led to a movement – and then organization – called ‘solutions journalism’.

Ripley pointed out that one of every 20 conflicts worldwide is what researchers call an ‘intractable conflict’, in which peoples’ encounters with the other tribe become more and more charged, driving people to “defend our side and attack the other”. When we feel threatened, we lose our curiosity and become immune to new information, she said. So ‘no amount of investigative reporting or leaked documents will change our mind, no matter what”. And such conflicts feed on themselves because once we get drawn in, ‘complexity collapses, and the us-versus-them narrative sucks the oxygen from the room”.

What this does, over time, is that “people grow increasingly certain of the obvious rightness of their views and increasingly baffled by what seems like unreasonable, malicious, extreme or crazy beliefs and actions of others,” says Resetting the Table, an organization that helps people talk across profound differences in the Middle East and the U.S.

She has since written a fascinating book that delineates the differences between this ‘high conflict’, which shuts us down to curiosity and thus other ideas and solutions, and ‘good conflict’, which makes us curious and leads to questions that can take us out of such tribal battles. It is well worth reading.

One of the stories she tells in the book is about what happened when two groups of Americans with quite different worldviews spent time with each other. And it is a heartening read about what can happen when people move beyond superficial caricatures of each other.

A consequence of getting stuck in ‘high conflict’ is that we don’t look for, and thus don’t hear about, solutions. And the Solutions Journalism Network has just published a fascinating analysis of how the spreading of solutions can really create change.

Here’s a summary:

In October 2018, looking into local outrage over the tasering and subsequent death of a mentally ill 36 year old man in California, Zusha Elinson, a California-based reporter for The Wall Street Journal, wondered if there was a better way to respond to minor problems involving mental health. A police union official told him to check out CAHOOTS, a mobile crisis team in Eugene, Oregon that had been around for 30 years.

His story in November 2018 started a stream of stories that turned into a torrent after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May 2020, when US reporters increasingly began to ask the same question – is there a better way?

“Elinson’s article “launched CAHOOTS into national recognition,” said Rory Elliott, a spokesperson for White Bird Clinic, the nonprofit that runs CAHOOTS, an acronym for Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets….. “When organizers became aware that there was an actively working program based on that very premise, they spread that knowledge,” Elliott said.”

The Solutions Journalism Network, which helps journalists look for effective community responses to problems, decided to explore how knowledge spreads through a combination of solutions journalism and community activism, each feeding off the other. It found that since Floyd’s death, more than 500 news outlets and nearly 700 communities have contacted White Bird Clinic, and in the past two years, CAHOOTS has helped launch similar efforts in San Francisco; Denver; Olympia, Washington; Portland, Oregon; Rochester, New York; and enquiries continue to come in from all sides.

While all the stories in the Solutions Journalism Network database start by explaining how CAHOOTS works –  sending social workers and medics to crises where help, not arrest, can de-escalate tensions in nonviolent, noncriminal incidents and get needed care to people experiencing mental health or substance issues – the interesting thing is that journalists began to look at how this could work in their community or city. They asked interesting questions, and those questions suggest interesting new ideas.

“USA Today’s Grace Hauck, for example, focused on the range of strategic options, from replacing police to partnering with them — or training police to handle mental health calls better on their own. The Wall Street Journal’s Elinson dug into the bipartisan political sales job needed to sustain a program like CAHOOTS. CityLab’s Holder and Harris compared CAHOOTS with Stockholm’s Psykiatrisk Akut Mobilitet (PAM) “to see what these kinds of efforts would look like when they are formally woven into a city and nation with a famously stout social safety net.” And a host of local reporters, like Santa Cruz Local’s Stephen Baxter, pondered how the approach could be modified to fit local conditions.”

In Eugene, it took a journalist who was new to the city to profile an organization that had attracted such attention nationally. In 2019, Tatiana Parafiniuk-Talesnick, a reporter for The Register-Guard in Eugene, Oregon, lived in a neighbourhood which was home to many unhoused people and often saw CAHOOTS vans there. She was shocked to discover that her paper had not written much about it. Only after she started researching did she come across the Wall Street Journal article.

Her story was the one most frequently cited by the 21 journalists who responded to the Network’s questions. (They surveyed 40 journalists about 35 stories.) While only one of those journalists believed that her story had led to a policy initiative, many of them saw that there was a hunger for such stories. “Several said their stories produced inquiries and comments from far and wide, asking for more information or relating plans to propose a CAHOOTS-like program in their own communities.”

I believe this is true – that people want stories about what works, that they are tired of reading about problems without learning about the solutions that people have developed around the world. And increasingly, there are newsletters that find and share such stories – and that is something I celebrate each time I read one of them.