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What does Constructive Journalism Construct?

Constructive journalism is a service to the public, says the U.S. American journalism professor Jay Rosen. His keynote address at the opening of the Bonn Institute on April 27, 2022.

Jay Rosens Keynote zur Eröffnung des Bonn Institute
Jay Rosen's keynote speech at the opening of the Bonn Institute

Keynote speech to Bonn Institute
by Jay Rosen, New York University

Bonn, Germany, April 27, 2022

Ellen Heinrichs — and her partners in launching the Bonn Institute For Constructive Dialogue — have made a wise decision at the beginning of their adventure.

They want to avoid arguing about the concept of “constructive journalism.” They want to avoid arguing about the fitness of that term or its proper definition. They would rather get on with the task of supporting this kind of journalism without debating how new or revolutionary it is.

I think that’s a smart strategy and I support it.

My contribution tonight is to share with you some of my own reporting, and some thoughts I have about journalism becoming more constructive.

By “my own reporting” I mean to say that in preparation for this speech tonight, I interviewed David Bornstein, who is the co-founder of the Solutions Journalism Network in the U.S, an institution roughly parallel to what we hope the Bonn Institute will become. I asked David to share any insights he might have for this audience.

Knowledge transfer that is called.

David has been doing this work for 15 years: Trying to bring a more constructive journalism into view, guiding a nonprofit organization dedicated to spreading the practice and its key insights. Here are some things he told me:

First, he said he no longer hears it said that solutions journalism is just “positive news” or “happy talk,” an attempt to bury or look away from violence, misery, corruption, fatigue, and failure.

“We have moved beyond that,” he said. More than 600 news organizations and 30,000 journalists have taken part in solutions journalism training or other projects, so those people know that it’s a lot more than happy talk and the search for “good news.”

Über den Autor

Jay Rosen ist seit 1986 Professor für Journalismus an der New York University. Er gilt als einer der ersten Vordenker und Verfechter des Bürgerjournalismus. Im Jahr 1999 veröffentlichte die Yale University Press sein Buch »What Are Journalists For?«. Als Pressekritiker ist er in der New York Times, der Washington Post, der Los Angeles Times, dem Guardian und vielen anderen Publikationen erschienen. Rosen ist der Autor von PressThink, einem Blog über den Journalismus und seine Tücken, den er 2003 gründete. Im Jahr 2005 wurde PressThink mit dem Freedom Blog Award von Reporter ohne Grenzen ausgezeichnet.

Another thing David Bornstein, co-founder of the Solutions Journalism Network, no longer hears much is the criticism from journalists that solutions journalism is a kind of advocacy, a political activity rather than a journalistic one. “We have moved beyond that too,” he said.

For many years, Bornstein wrote a column at the New York Times called “Fixes,” in which he and his co-author Tina Rosenberg would describe emerging solutions and the struggle to spread them to where they are most needed. That column ran in the “Opinion” section of the Times for eleven years, which surprised me because the authors almost never talked about their opinions. Rather, they described how somewhere on the earth, good people had solved a problem that other people, living on the same planet, still needed to solve.

This is the basic situation that solutions journalism was created for, so I’m going to repeat it.

Somewhere around the globe, good people have solved a problem that other people, living on the same planet, still need to solve. Solutions journalism is, in a way, born from that.

It’s similar to a famous remark from the science fiction author William Gibson, who said around 1992: “The future has already arrived, but it is not evenly distributed yet.”

Problem-solving knowledge that is not evenly distributed yet— that is something that journalism can do something about. Let me make it even stronger: Newsrooms that cannot find a way to treat problem-solving and knowledge transfer as a basic part of the news mix will, I think, become less and less valuable over time.

The journalism part in solutions journalism is not only gathering good information and reporting on “fixes” that work; it’s distributing that practical knowledge to the people who need it to solve their own community’s problems. Put it all together and it’s public service at a high level.

Why, then, did the New York Times put the “Fixes” column in its Opinion section if the content was actually practical information and reportage?

Well, here is what the profession of journalism believed for decades— in the U.S. at least. Newspapers uncover problems. It’s up to politicians and other institutions to solve them. Solutions? We leave that to the pundits and guest columnists. This is probably why the “Fixes” column ran in the Opinion section.

Solutions journalism is actually accountability reporting, but shifted slightly. Here’s how David Bornstein puts it: “You can’t hold people to account for bad performance if you can’t prove that it’s possible to do better.” He and his team look for what they call “positive outliers,” which simply means those who somehow found a solution where others failed. “Then we reverse engineer it,” he said, to learn how the outliers came to their answers.

Bornstein said he often asks newspaper editors, “what is your theory of change?” This is a surprisingly good question to ask an editor! How do you think problems get solved in, say, the city of Cleveland, Ohio, which is part of America’s industrial heartland. “What is the role of your newsroom in public problem-solving? Spell it out for me.”

If forced to spell out their theory of change, journalists will often describe an outrage model. It goes like this: Investigative reporting reveals incompetence, corruption, poor leadership or bad decision-making. The outrage that results gets the attention of people in power. If the public demands change, and the political system sticks with it long enough, the newspaper will report on those things too, and eventually there will be change.

That’s the theory. If people get mad enough, government will respond, and problems will be solved.

One of the consequences of working with this half-conscious idea is that when outrage is triggered, but nothing changes, public trust starts heading to zero.

It’s not journalism’s fault, Bornstein said, but a theory of change that relies on outrage can grind to a halt when outrage fills the public square.

Instead, he said, you can try to establish through good reporting that other communities similar to yours have found fixes for problems that are still unsolved in, say, Cleveland, Ohio. To get there you need to ask some very basic questions like these:

  • What’s working where? (It’s a simple starting point. But so different from, “what’s broken here?”)
  • Who does it better than we do? (Who in North Rhine-Westphalia, who in Germany, in Europe, or around the world.)
  • Who has bucked the trend? (Meaning: faced the same problem, got a different result. Also called “positive outliers.”)
  • How did they find their way to a better outcome? (Bornstein calls this the “detective story.”)
  • What’s missing from our community that these other communities seem to have?

The point is these are all reporting opportunities. “Who does it better than we do?” is an assignment any good journalist should love. Answer it and you are doing… constructive journalism.

Bornstein says the journalists he works with understand that “just being a smoke detector hasn’t been working for us.” Sounding the alarm is not constructive enough. In the language of economics, we would say: just bringing problems to our attention does not add enough value— which is important if you want people to pay for news.

In journalism around the world we need a better theory of how change happens. And we need better practices that give readers, viewers, listeners, voters at least some sense of civic agency— that feeling that there’s something they can do.

In fact, that’s a good description of constructive or solutions journalism as a whole: through the simple device of knowledge transfer, it converts a sense of urgency, which is the specialty of news, into a sense of agency: the conviction that there’s something “we” can do about it. This, then, is what constructive journalism constructs.

Not just urgency but agency. Not just news, but what we can do about it. In the Solutions Journalism Network, they call that the whole story. And getting the whole story is already a priority in newsrooms, which is why we can say: constructive journalism isn’t something new, or a radical departure from what journalists already do. It’s just good practice. Practice corrected.

Recalling his advice to a newspaper editor, David Bornstein said it should sound like this.

Look! Other communities like ours have done better than we have. Here are the benchmarks they have met. As your newspaper for North East Ohio, we went there. We visited these places. We investigated. We found they did things differently than we do in North East Ohio. We can change what we’re doing; other cities like us have done that. We can be smarter than we have been.

To finish this up, I have a question of my own to get you thinking. What is your model of change, and how does journalism fit into it?

Thank you for your attention.

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