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Reclaiming News as a Public Good

“Journalist interested in what works and why.” So reads the Twitter bio of this week’s guest, Tina Rosenberg. She is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, in fact. She is a co-writer of the New York Times Fixes column which, according to the masthead, “examines solutions to social problems and why they work,” and she is a co-founder and VP for Innovation at Solutions Journalism Network. 

It is through this last initiative that she thoroughly shares her passion for rigorous reporting, educating future journalists, and reclaiming the news as an agent of public good.

“America is actually not that polarized,” says Rosenberg. “We think we’re a lot more polarized than we are because the media just shows the extremes on both sides. And I think that’s had a big effect on turning what should be a straightforward public health issue into a political issue.”

How heavily should the media shoulder the responsibility of the erosion of trust in journalism itself as an industry of fact and truth? How significant is the block toward our efforts to heal?

Tina has taken broad steps to change perception of the public in her field. She joins us this week to share her work, and to help us better understand how we can follow in her footsteps in building a healthy foundation of trust in journalism’s future. 

Links & Notes

  • 00:00 – Welcome to Mission Forward
  • 02:23 – On Solutions Journalism
  • 06:27 – Rethinking Language
  • 12:16 – How are newsrooms responding?
  • 15:48 – Cultivating Engagement
  • 21:16 – Solutions Journalism in the J-School Classroom
  • 22:15 – The Intersection of News and Public Health
  • 30:10 – How can we be better news consumers?

Episode Transcript

Carrie Fox: Welcome to the Mission Forward Podcast, where each week, we bring you a thought-provoking and perspective-shifting conversation on the world around us. I’m Carrie Fox, your host and CEO of Mission Partners, a social impact communications firm and certified B Corporation. Coming off an amazing conversation last week with Linda Villarosa, we have got another amazing journalist with us this week, and a Pulitzer Prize winner at that. Tina Rosenberg is an author and journalist whose work has shaped my work. She’s the Co-Author of the Fixes column in the New York Times, Co-Founder of the Solutions Journalism Network, and her book, Join the Club: How Peer Pressure Can Transform the World, is one of my absolute favorites. We invited Tina on the show to talk about the role that news plays in shaping our views and understanding of the world. In this episode, we talk about the power and impact that the media has, and about the importance of asset-based framing, something that she, Natalie and I, are all very passionate about. So stay tuned for what I know you’re going to think is a great conversation, and I’ll see you on the other side. Let’s start at the top with just a simple check-in, Tina. Where do we find you today, and what is one thing in your view that has your attention?

Tina Rosenberg: Well, where you find me is in my home office, which is not a surprise. That’s where we find everybody these days, right? One thing that has my attention right now is the issue of journalism and marginalized communities. And there’s a lot of attention to the bias in journalism, but the most toxic bias in journalism is one that a lot of people don’t even identify as a bias, which is our focus on what’s wrong, our definition of news as what’s wrong, and how that has created a false and highly misleading, and extremely toxic narrative about marginalized communities and what we can do about that.

Carrie Fox: What I have learned so much from you over the years, and I know so many newsrooms have learned from you and your approach, is this solutions journalism approach to flip the narrative, to change folks’ behaviors and beliefs by how you tell a story, and I’d love you to talk a little bit about solutions journalism, the approach, and how you came to kind of coin that phrase.

Tina Rosenberg: Sure. Well, I mean, it’s a bad phrase, and I think it’s too late for us to change the name, but really, a good solution story should never use the word "solution," it’s a somewhat misleading term. So we should probably be called The Responses to Problems Journalism Network, but for obvious reasons, we didn’t choose that. Solutions journalism is an attempt to rebalance the news to alter what is the norm, which is a focus on problems, and instead balance that with reporting on how people are trying to solve problems, not as cheerleading, or advocacy, or fluff, or good news, but as real reporting. Covering these attempts, not celebrating them, but covering them. What’s working about them? Why did this work and other attempts like it didn’t work? What’s not working about it? What are the challenges that still remain? The idea is to surface insights about solving social problems that are useful to society.

Natalie: It’s so interesting that you talk about it in that way, because I don’t watch local news on a daily basis, because in my junior year of high school, I lost two friends in a car accident, and how I found out was that I had the local news on as someone was calling me, and I saw the car and I recognized the car, and what it did for me was it made every story, every night, very real. So when there was a fire, or when someone was killed. And so for me, to look at local news and to see 80, 85% of it and the lead of it to all be about the problems and the negative aspects of it, got too real and too heavy for me. When you think about solutions journalism, do you think that America is ready for it, and why?

Tina Rosenberg: Oh, my God, yes. I mean, it’s ironic that journalists are sort of the hardest people to convince of this. Non-journalists get it right away. Of course, you would cover what’s working. That’s obviously part of what’s going on in our world, and we shouldn’t artificially leave it out. Journalists, I think understand that on a gut level, but they’re afraid to try those stories because they don’t want it to come out sounding soft, or sounding like cheerleading. So, the task then is to show people how to do these stories with rigor and high standards, which is pretty easy to do. But not just America, but the world. I mean, we work all around the world ready for it, but long overdue. By far, the biggest reason people tune out from the news, is its negativity. It’s not politics. By far, the biggest reason people don’t trust the news is its negativity. Anyone who lives in a community that considers itself marginalized, rural people, Appalachia, the South, communities of color, you ask them what they think about how journalism covers them, they would say, "You come in here and you look for our worst stereotype, and that’s all you cover." That’s infuriating. People crave this. There’s an awful lot of research that has shown that these stories are what the public wants, so long overdue.

Carrie Fox: I want to go back, and maybe where we’ll end up spending a good amount of time is on language, the words that we use, the words we don’t use, the stories and statements that we’ve reinforced by those words. And what have you learned Tina, over time, around what you see happening in newsrooms, and maybe what needs to change in newsrooms about the way folks use language?

Tina Rosenberg: One of the projects we’re working on that we’re about to launch, is something called asset framing, and this is an idea that comes from a man named Trabian Shorters, who you probably know and have worked with, both of you. He used to be a journalist at The Detroit News, and was Vice-President of The Knight Foundation, and then founded and now leads an organization called the BMe Community for black male empowerment. And Trabian looked at the research on how our minds form ideas, and came up with this idea that we are now adapting, so it’s meaningful and useful for journalists. Trabian’s original focus was not on journalists, but we are working with him to do that. And the idea is this: your unconscious mind, the first time you are introduced to a person or an idea, connects that to a narrative that we already know about in our brains, and your conscious mind has absolutely nothing to say about that. There’s nothing you can do about that. And once it’s set, it’s hard to change. And then that narrative starts to filter in facts that agree with it, and filter out facts that don’t agree with it. And so, how you introduce a person or a place is really important. So asset framing for journalists is saying, when you introduce someone, don’t introduce them based on their challenges and deficits or problems. Introduce them based on their skills, and assets, and aspirations. In the next paragraph, you can get to their challenges or problems. We’re not saying leave that stuff out, but it’s the difference between introducing someone as a quote, "at risk youth," which sparks a threat narrative in the reader, or introducing them as a student, because chances are, that person is a student. So it’s not the same as people-first language, which while important, is also deficit framed, and it’s not about erasing the bad stuff, or trying to sort of recast a drug dealer as an entrepreneur. That’s not what we’re talking about. We’re talking about meeting people in places in a way that gives you information about them as a full, whole person, rather as triggering the stereotype narrative. And we think this could be really important, because the way journalism has traditionally covered communities like this, I think this may be a bit of a generalization or an overstatement, but not much, it is a racial injustice that has set a narrative that justifies all other racial injustices, because we’ve created narratives about these communities as problematic and unworthy, and that’s what people know about them. If you’re not in contact personally, that’s what you know. You know What the media says.

Natalie: Well, Tina, it’s interesting because to me, it speaks to some of the issues around social identity groups and the labels that we use to organize ourselves in society, so that we are grouping ourselves to understand how to be in relationship with each other, and rather than living by the label to really reflect on and share how people experience the world. And that’s a very different way of thinking about it because for us, for instance, we focus on the language of oppression, and when you say social sector is sick with this, that is an understatement, because the language that we put into communities, is the language that communities then reflect to us. So when we call them vulnerable, which they perceive to be weak, they then reflect that language to us, because they think it’s the expectation, right? When we say "We empower," that then says, "Well, if I’m not here to empower you, do you have power?" I think you do. We see the use of the language, "non-white," all over the place, even by very well-educated, well-intended, down for the cause kind of people, and saying "non-white" centralizes whiteness, and otherizes everyone else, as though they are some sort of a deviation or variation of white. And so, I do think it’s so important that we rethink the language, and its asset, and more. Right? It’s that asset-based language, and even more than that, so I really appreciate the work that you’re doing in this area. I

Tina Rosenberg: I totally agree with you, Natalie. That is so important, and I had not thought about how this plays out in the NGO sector, but you’re totally right. Fundraising materials, it’s a very similar problem.

Carrie Fox: Yeah, it’s a terrible, I mean, exploitive issue in terms of how nonprofits use individuals’ stories and their challenges as fuel to fundraise against.

Tina Rosenberg: Yeah. When I was little, I cut out a magazine ad and put it on the door of my room and it said, "Tina has never had a teddy bear," And it was an ad for, I think it was a Save the Children like organization where you sponsor a child. And even back then, I mean, I chose it obviously for the name, but even back then, I knew there was something wrong with this.

Carrie Fox: I think the other thing to point out about the work that you’re doing, it has an important, not just trickle down, that doesn’t seem like the right phrase, but this opportunity to ripple out across so many different newsrooms, versus being an initiative or an entity that sits inside one newsroom, and I think that’s the power of Solutions Journalism Network, and it rings especially relevant with me right now, when we think about how little diversity there is in the news that so many folks consume, right? So we have our go-to set of news outlets, we rely on them for insight and information. Often, they are reinforcing our own beliefs and understanding of the world around us. And so, if we are not constantly challenged and presented frames that introduce new ways of looking at the world, we will continue to just see what we’ve always seen, and it does seem like you’re trying to dig into that and challenge folks. I’m curious how people are responding to it.

Tina Rosenberg: It’s funny, when we started, we assumed there’d be a lot of pushback against this idea, that people would say, "Well, this is not real journalism, this is PR," and we sometimes get that for like the first five minutes, and then we don’t get it. I mean, it’s very easy to explain that this is not PR, that this is real journalism, and the tremendous need for this, and the tremendous advantage newsrooms who use this can have. It helps you develop new revenue streams, it creates more trust, it engages people. It actually gives you more real world impact in your reporting. But the problem has been, I mean, journalism is a traditionally very defensive profession, and resistant to change. The reason I think solutions journalism is being accepted, is that the profession is suffering these twin crises that are long-standing now. One is economic. I mean, with the death of advertising, and the fact that Google and Facebook take vast, vast majority of all online ads, there’s nothing left for news organizations. So there’s that, and then there’s our existential crisis, which is people don’t love us, people don’t trust us, and that’s probably equally long-standing, but we just started thinking about it with the election of Donald Trump, I think. But it’s made journalism very open to new ideas. And so, there’s a lot of interest in this. Ironically though, at the same time, it is an imperiled profession. It’s worse being a journalist than a coal miner right now, in terms of layoffs. Some huge percentage of newsrooms in America have closed in the last 10 years, and those that haven’t closed are a quarter of the size that they used to be. And so, journalists want to do new things, but they don’t have the resources. If they want to do new things, they have to stop doing old things, and that’s hard to do. If you have to fill the paper every day, or you have to constantly put out new digital stories over the news cycle, you don’t have the time to devote to more in-depth reporting, whether it’s solutions journalism, or investigative, or explanatory, and that’s been a big barrier. People are so stressed, and it’s so hard for them to do their work, that they can’t really focus on new things. So our big challenge has been that, the resource issues in newsrooms.

Natalie: Tina, I wonder, as you think about consumers of news, one of the things that’s been frustrating for me, when I’ve written things for placement and so on, and the editors come back and they want to slash and burn, it’s cut, cut, cut. It’s too long. This whole thing about you can’t really fully develop a concept or idea, or tell a story, and it seems as though we’ve socialized people for short, really short consumption of information that doesn’t allow for a level of development of ideas. Is there anything that you can think of that we should be doing more broadly to help cultivate news consumers who can appreciate depth? Because I’m frustrated. I work in public health primarily, and it’s not an easy thing to explain how health happens, and how relationships and policy matter to whether people have opportunities for health. We need more time, and more space, and more engagement. Is there anything that you can think of that we can or should be doing to cultivate that level of engagement?

Tina Rosenberg: Yeah, that’s a great question. First of all, it is not true that people don’t like long-form stories. It’s true for most stories, people read the first couple of paragraphs, and never get beyond that. So it is incumbent on journalists to learn how to write extremely concisely, because the realistic point is that chances are, if you leave it for later in the story, it’ll [inaudible 00:17:23] forever. People just won’t get there. But there is a lot of appreciation among many, not all readers, for more in-depth stories. And actually, I mean, obviously the internet has killed our attention spans, and we’re used to this constant barrage of short hits of serotonin, and that’s not going away. But with the death of advertising, advertising is a business model that relies on selling a piece of the reader’s attention to a corporation or an advertisement. If we’re moving away from advertising, and the newsrooms that survive will have to move away from advertising, we’re moving towards a new model where we survive by selling journalism to people, either through subscriptions, memberships, other forms of reader revenue, or getting grants, or other kinds of money like that, and that is much better for good journalism. That is a business model where the richer, the better, the more high value, the more in depth the story, the better it does, because it’s more engaging, and it leads people to subscribe to the newsletter. Nobody subscribes to a newspaper to get clickbait, because there’s no shortage of other places to get that. But you will subscribe if that news organization is offering you something of high value you cannot get anywhere else, and that prioritizes longer form, more in-depth, deeper stories.

Natalie: So as you said that, the thing that came to mind for me was if we were all living in Tina Rosenberg’s world and you had the power to determine how the next generation of journalists perceive their role in the national narrative, so to speak, what would you say that role should be?

Tina Rosenberg: The job of a journalist is to hold a mirror up to society, so we can learn about ourselves and improve, and I think that is correct, that’s what it should be. The problem is, we’ve been holding up a very distorted mirror, and we need to hold up a true mirror, and I’m not even talking about the inaccuracy. The stories I’m complaining about aren’t inaccurate necessarily, they’re just not the whole story, and the slice of the whole story we’re telling gives the wrong impression, makes people believe stuff that’s not true. So they may be accurate stories, but when you add them all up, they give you a very wrong picture of society. So I think what journalists need to do, and I believe that younger journalists are very open to this, is broaden their concept of what news is, and be conscious of how our framing, and our choices, our word choices and our story selection, tell us the whole story or not.

Natalie: It sounds like you’re saying that journalism has an informal algorithm, because I’m listening to you and in a way, it sounds like you’re leading and guiding people in a direction, the way that journalism has been working, is that you lead people down pathways and it’s hard for them to get off of those paths, which reminds me a lot of when we talk about algorithms in social media, that once people start looking at certain things, that’s all that they end up seeing. So that’s what actually popped into my head as you were speaking.

Tina Rosenberg: Yeah. I think the problem with it, in addition to all the other problems with it, is that journalists are not conscious of this. We don’t understand that we’re doing this. We think, "Hey, this story is true. There was a shooting in this neighborhood. There was a fire. Therefore, if we report it, we’re telling the truth." And people aren’t thinking about the cumulative effect of only seeing stories about shootings in certain neighborhoods, and not seeing any other aspects of life there.

Carrie Fox: So downstream then, Tina, do you think that there are changes happening in journalism schools and in programs to make sure that as young journalists are emerging from their programs, taking their jobs, that they have that awareness? Whereas what I see you doing, is in a lot of ways, upskilling existing journalists to be more mindful of their work and their actions.

Tina Rosenberg: Well, we also work in journalism schools, dozens of them, and there are lots and lots of schools now that either have solutions journalism courses, or they have solutions journalism modules that they put in every intermediate reporting course. Young journalists are much more attracted to this idea than the crusty older ones who have been brought up with journalism in a certain way, and then have to unlearn that idea before they can think about something new. With young journalists, it’s much more instinctive for them. So I’m optimistic about the future of that.

Carrie Fox: I want to go to one of the themes we’re taking on in this whole season of the show, is around the role of public health in our day-to-day lives and the decisions that we make, and in the news that we consume. And so, thinking about that intersection between our public health and our news. And I’m curious, as you think about not just the events of 2020, but as we are here in 2021, still working through the effects of COVID, how do you think news has played a role in people’s connection to one another, in people’s connection to their community, and maybe too in people’s connection to their own health? What role does the media play?

Tina Rosenberg: When COVID first hit, a lot of people who had tuned out from the news rediscovered it, and decided, "Geez, I really need to learn about this," and the media played a very important role in just sort of showing people how not to drown. "Here’s where you can go to get the equipment you need. Here’s where you can go to get COVID tests. Here are the rules. Here’s what’s going on with schools." It was just really basic information. I think there was a lot of coverage of people coming together as a community to help each other, which was a big feature in a lot of communities, mutual aid and community organizations, and that got a lot of attention. So I want to tell you a story that started with some tweets by a nurse in North Dakota, who said, "I have patients who are denying that COVID exists, even as they’re being intubated, even as they’re dying," and that series of tweets got turned into stories, journalists reported on that, it became very widespread. And the reason it did, is that it confirms a lot of people’s biases about how deranged some of the COVID deniers can be. The problem is, it wasn’t true, and they could not find any other nurses in North Dakota who had confirmed this, and a lot of people said, "No, no, no, no, no, that is not happening," and journalists didn’t investigate it, because it confirmed their biases. And so, there’s a lot of that going on, where we make stories out of stuff that shows how extreme the other side is, and I’m certain it happens, well, I know it happens in right-wing media as well, and that is falsely polarizing. America is actually not that polarized, but we think we’re a lot more polarized than we are, because the media just shows the extremes on both sides. And I think that’s had a big effect on turning what should be a straightforward public health issue, into a political issue.

Natalie: 100%, and the way that the messaging has been skewed, I think cut into our ability to be empathetic, and compassionate, and patient, and connected, and to feel a sense of responsibility to one another during what has been an incredibly difficult time. It pitted people against one another, even within their own families, which is such an incredibly sad thing to see, because that’s not over. It’s going to take a lot of work, a lot of conscious effort to heal that. And I’ll also say that the damage done to public health during this time, I think it’s probably going to take a solid generation for public health to re-establish its footing. To see people who work in public health, health directors who were threatened and basically run out of their jobs, based on the types of things that we’re talking about here, it’s alarming. I’ve seen great people leave the profession during this time, and so much of it tracks back to information and how information has been used, and spread, and cultivated, and the whole nine yards. And so, I think from a public health perspective, I know that there’s a lot of work that we will need to do moving forward to reshape and reframe what public health actually is, and to try to build trust and rebuild trust. So I appreciate you sharing that piece, because I do remember the story, Tina.

Tina Rosenberg: Yeah. You’re so right, Natalie, and I think what’s scary is that the closest parallel to what you’re saying, it’s almost an exact parallel, is in terms of people’s views about who won the election.

Natalie: Yeah.

Tina Rosenberg: And there should not be parallels between those two things.

Carrie Fox: So then the ultimate public health solutions journalism story then is, is there anywhere in the world where we see the media working in a way that is challenging stereotypes, that’s building equity, that’s reinforcing the humanity and the shared connection? It’s something that we think about a lot, that truly, is there a place that is getting it right, or across the board, is this not a United States issue, it’s not an American issue, it’s a universal issue? I’d love to get both of your takes on that.

Tina Rosenberg: In my opinion, while many, many countries are very polarized, and the United States is not even among the most polarized, I don’t know that makes you feel better or worse, the polarization of public health is unique to the US and a few other countries that also have had autocratic, big lie leadership. You see it in Brazil, you see it in the Philippines, you see it in India. These are the places where leaders have abandoned their responsibility to help people survive this, and instead chose to demagogue on it, and that’s where you see mask wearing and vaccination being such a polarizing issue. In most places, it isn’t. Mask wearing is not controversial.

Natalie: Well, the interesting thing that comes to mind for me is one of the things that I’ve been saying for years is that in the absence of communication, you’re communicating something. Public health has this mindset that when public health works, nobody knows that it’s working, right? Because there’s no outbreak, there’s no pandemic. It’s not visible, but we’re just here, kind of keeping it all together. And for me, that drives me nuts, because that sort of over the top, I would like say, professional humility that public health folks put forward is not helpful, because people have to understand we all play a role in the production of the public’s health. And so, if you want people to show up and be able to engage in ways that will produce good health, well-being, and quality of life, versus illness, disease, and early death, you have to talk about public health with a degree of transparency, and in a way that is comprehensive and accessible. And so, the silence of public health all along made this moment possible, because had public health been doing what it should’ve been doing, solidly for 50 years, when this moment arose and the miscommunication and discommunication started to happen, and misinformation and disinformation started to happen, it would’ve been so easy to shut it down, because what people would’ve said, "No, that’s not true," right? "We know better. We know different." But in the absence of communication, people were able to fill in the blanks with whatever information served their purposes, and now it is so hard to dislodge that information, which is erroneous, and really, really has undermined public health.

Carrie Fox: All right, so here’s my last question then for both of you. So where do we go from here, right? So Natalie, you’re right. There’s a ton of problems, big problems that have to be figured out. We’re thinking about how those problems are addressed in newsrooms, we are thinking about how those problems are addressed in public health systems, but if we think about it from the perspective, as we wind down here, from the perspective of the news consumer, because everyone who’s listening to this isn’t a journalist, everyone who’s listening to this isn’t in public health, but everyone, I hope, is a news consumer. So what are the things that all of us, as news consumers, can be doing to challenge, hold accountable, dig deeper, and move us toward that envisioned future/

Tina Rosenberg: Carrie, what the issue is, there’s nobody who’s saying, "I’m going to ignore everything I’m being told, and hold views that are diametrically the opposite." The people who believe that vaccines can make you infertile, or that there is no such thing as COVID, believe that because that’s what they’re reading and listening to, and watching. That’s the information they’re getting. They’re relying on the information they’re getting, just like people who believe the opposite are. It’s not irrational for them. The problem is, we live in a society where we not only have our own opinions, we all have our own facts. And I don’t know what we can do to change that, but it’s a perfectly reasonable conclusion to make, if that is what you’re hearing 24 hours a day.

Natalie: I don’t consider myself to be an optimist, per se, but this period of re-entry, as we re-enter so many different parts of our lives, I think creates an opportunity for us to use journalism and other forms of communication to shape and frame a narrative that is about valuing one another, and valuing how we choose to be in relationship, and we can’t miss this opportunity.

Carrie Fox: It’s true, and to your point, Tina, it needs to get beyond politics, beyond the issue, it needs to get back to people, however we find that way. That actually comes right back to where you started today. Asset framing could be the tool that could help so much of this across the board, right? It comes back to how we are telling stories and consuming stories.

Tina Rosenberg: That’s true.

Carrie Fox: Thank you for the stories that you tell, and for the way that you are helping to shape the field that you have been part of and have had such an incredible impact on.

Tina Rosenberg: Well, thank you so much for having me, Carrie and Natalie. It’s been a pleasure.

Carrie Fox: Thanks for listening to this episode of Mission Forward. If you like what you heard, please share this episode with a friend, and check out other episodes, and subscribe. And if you’re willing, please leave us a rating or a review. They mean a lot to me, and they can help our show grow. Mission Forward is produced with the support of Nimra Haroon, and the Mission Partners team. Engineering by Pete Wright. Music this week is Blue Race, by Out of Flux. Thanks for your support, and see you next time.

This season, we are taking you on a journey to meet ten people influencing and shaping how we communicate at scale for social change. From advertising executives to coalition directors, news editors, campaign managers, and authors, they’re all people who are shaping and challenging the deep power of communication. If you’re working to become a more inclusive and thoughtful communicator, there’s nothing holding you back—except you.
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