Though the paper hasn’t confirmed it to me directly, news is getting out that the Boston Globe is soon going to launch an expanded, solutions-oriented education news desk.
Once it does so, the Globe will be joining the Seattle Times, which has been combining daily news coverage with solutions-oriented features coverage for the past couple of years through something called the Education Lab.
Solutions journalism is everywhere these days when it comes to education coverage. It first appeared on my radar screen a couple of years ago, when network co-founder David Bornstein gave a talk about it at the 2013 Education Writers Association conference at Stanford. There’s also a small new “pop-up” magazine on Medium taking the same approach, called BRIGHT. Written by the co-founders of Solutions Journalism Network, the NY Times “Fixes” column frequently touches on education stories. The solutions folks were back at EWA last month in Chicago, too.
But is solutions journalism helping readers better understand what’s really going on in education than traditional journalism, or is it a heavy-handed attempt by outside funders to promote a specific policy agenda and hide problems and mistakes? Or, is amazing when done right — as in (I’d argue) Kate Boo’s 2006 Swamp Nurse story — but too hard for most reporters and editors to pull off with any regularity?
I don’t think we really know yet.
As I understand it, solutions journalism is basically is an attempt to refocus news coverage on progress rather than catastrophe — or at least to balance things out between the two.
“We’re trying to get journalists to add a few extra questions before they give into the knee-jerk reaction to look for the negative,” says Sarika Bansal, who edits BRIGHT and works at the Solutions Journalism offices in New York City. Instead, the could ask about who’s making progress, or who’s a positive outlier. Taking a solutions approach “lends itself to a very different conversation in education, one that’s much more forward looking and nuanced,” Bansal says.
The challenges are pretty daunting. Progress addressing complex social endeavors like public education can be incremental and slow-moving — hard to see, capture, and get assigned and written.Taking anything but the most critical approach to a story is scary for reporters and editors whose mindset is that they don’t want to be seen as soft or to miss something wrong going on. “For a lot of reporters, there’s a lot of fear,” says Bansal.
There’s also what Bansal calls a double standard. “If you report on a problem and it turns out that the problem isn’t nearly as serious as you thought it was, it’s a misdemeanor. But if you report on progress or response and it turns out it’s not credible, it’s a felony.”
Done well, it can be extremely powerful. My own personal favorite of what might be called solutions journalism is Kate Boo’s New Yorker piece, Swamp Nurse, about home visitation programs for new mothers. Other favorite examples, which may or may not officially represent the solutions approach, include Peg Tyre’s 2011 Atlantic magazine piece The Writing Revolution. I tend to think that national education reporting in particular tends towards the hyper-critical these days.
But it’s no easy task changing embattled reporters’ mindsets, given the long and entrenched history of reporters looking for scandals (and the abundance of misdeeds from which they can choose). And solutions journalism done badly can be awful — credulous, feel-good, and simplistic rather than careful and clear. As I’ve written, the rush to be first to cover a promising new innovation sometimes creates big problems.
There can be a fine line between solutions journalism and advocacy journalism. For example, GOOD magazine and TakePart have upbeat education stories and some journalistic elements, but aren’t necessarily journalistic (depending on whom you talk to). Ditto for Edutopia, the outfit funded by the Lucas Foundation. It takes an extremely skilled journalist — Glenn Greenwald, say, or Atul Gawande — to engage in reporting that’s both good journalism and powerful advocacy.
Last but not least, there’s also the issue of outside influence. Private philanthropic dollars usually play a large part in funding the hiring and training of additional staff. In the case of the Globe, the main funder is the Nellie Mae Foundation. In the case of Seattle, Gates and Knight have led the way. When the funder and a newsroom grant are the same — say Gates in Seattle — then there are obvious concerns. These can also be worked out, but it’s not easy.
So far, at least, things seem to have gone well for Seattle Times reporters Linda Shaw and Claudia Rowe. There was a kerfluffle with Seattle Public Radio a year or so ago over the terms under which the Times was gathering student data information, but it’s apparently been addressed (see editor’s note here). The Education Lab team presented at last month’s Education Writers Association national conference but I haven’t been able to find video or a transcript of the event. And the solutions folks aren’t done yet. Once the Globe’s launch is up and running, they’re working on a project with the Detroit Free Press that is going to focus on violence reduction and prevention with a strong school-related element.
Education coverage desperately needs to find a smart middle ground, between hype and hysteria. Solutions journalism might — might! — be one way to get there.
Disclosures: Peg Tyre is an advisor to this site. One of the Seattle Times reporters, Linda Shaw, is also a Spencer Education Journalism Fellowship alum.