1. Sojo Learning: Using New Archetypes To Re-imagine Old Problems

    October 31, 2014

    Photo: Brody McKnight

    Photo: Brody McKnight

    Whether us journalists realize it or not, our coverage (and our understanding) of complex societal problems is defined by the types of characters and conflicts we choose to include in our stories. Environmental reporting, for instance, often focuses on an underdog activist’s archetypal struggle to bring justice against a powerful company or government. There’s nothing factually incorrect about these types of narrative frames. Yet a problem arises when the same ones are used over and over.

    Let’s return to that lonely activist doing battle against powerful established forces. Journalists use this David vs. Goliath framing in their reporting to make sense of (and lend narrative tension to) otherwise dry and complicated ecological issues. Yet over time this image of the activist savior taking on the corporate defiler has come to define our understanding of those issues. Look at climate change, which is now widely perceived as a fight between the environment and the economy, despite much evidence showing clean energy makes more financial sense than fossil fuels.

    One way to understand solutions reporting, then, is as a search for new characters and struggles that cause readers to rethink their ideological assumptions. I spent an afternoon in July, 2014, driving around suburban Honolulu with just such a character. Jeff Davis had been installing solar panels in Hawaii for 24 years, and also happened to be a libertarian campaigning to become the state’s next governor.

    Davis certainly cared about the environment. But he also saw rooftop solar energy as a way to achieve independence from utility monopolies and big government. By telling the story of Hawaii’s solar energy explosion from Davis’ perspective, I was able to show readers two things. One, that clean energy is supported by a much larger demographic than just liberal environmentalists. And two, there’s a financial case for it strong enough to keep someone like Davis in business for two decades.

    The implication of my story was that the rigid dichotomy between the environment and the economy (and between progressives and conservatives) is not inevitable. And if we’re to make any progress on climate change, or on equally complex societal problems, those are exactly the type of ideological walls that need to come down.

    So how does an aspiring solutions reporter find new characters or struggles around issues that are largely understood through old archetypes? As with most things in journalism, part of it comes down to luck. I happened to be Googling a new clean energy poll in Hawaii when I stumbled across a blog post announcing Jeff Davis’ libertarian bid for governor, which also mentioned that he hosts a popular AM talk radio show about solar power. Yet luck only gets you part of the way there.

    In order to understand the significance of Davis’ story to North America’s climate change debate, I had to first be willing to rethink my own ideological assumptions. If I’d clung to the perceived wisdom that clean energy is a left-wing issue without a solid business case, then I might have dismissed that blog post on Davis as marginal.

    So, here’s my advice: be aware of the narrative frames and archetypes used over and over by reporters to cover complex societal problems, because they may limit our ability to imagine new solutions.

  2. It takes a village (or several countries) to stop infectious disease

    October 29, 2014

    Amid the fierce debate and public outcry over American cities quarantining health workers returning from West Africa, at least one difficult question has also emerged: what are the other optimal measures, perhaps more balanced across legal rights and public health needs, we should use against a deadly infectious disease that doesn’t carry a passport?

    Dealing with infectious diseases that don’t respect geographic boundaries has been a longtime public health challenge, and it has only become more complicated in an interconnected and mobile world. The current Ebola epidemic clearly points to this growing problem. Originating in Guinea, Ebola was able to quickly leap to Sierra Leone and Liberia – and then to many other countries, including the United States – precisely because international borders don’t stop the spread of most infectious diseases. Unless, of course, someone or something deliberately halts these diseases in their tracks.

    How to execute this kind of deliberate halting of infectious diseases can be, at minimum, contentious. Quarantines used to be viewed as a more acceptable public health measure when asymptomatic individuals with potential disease exposure had fewer treatment or prevention options. Other types of travel restrictions, such as Do Not Board (DNB) lists, have been enacted for particularly contagious diseases, such as confirmed cases of multi-drug resistant tuberculosis.  But what about more proactive efforts to tackle infectious diseases, or those that involve less stigmatization of afflicted individuals? [Read more...]

  3. Making progress contagious: Lessons from the DRC on measles

    October 17, 2014

    Photo Credit: Flickr User hdptcar

    Photo Credit: Flickr User hdptcar

    Infectious diseases, whether they’re ebola, SARS or the flu, are very good at a few things. Namely, they excel at passing bits of a virus or bacteria from a given source to people. How easily they spread, how sick people become, and how lethal these diseases can be vary, as recently shown by the Washington Post.

    The current ebola epidemic has been called “the most severe acute public health emergency seen in modern times,” largely due to its duration and high rates of death among infected individuals. No fully effective treatment is available and no vaccine exists against ebola, which makes its persisting presence even more unsettling.

    The “good news” is that ebola actually spreads more slowly than many other infectious diseases. This means that, in theory, ebola outbreaks can be more easily contained and halted than these other infectious diseases. This is the case if health agencies and systems can provide a timely and effective response to outbreaks (which we know tragically didn’t happen in West Africa).

    Measles is another infectious disease that can very rapidly upend and ravage any place where people lack exposure or protection against the virus. In 1980, just prior to the widespread implementation of the measles vaccine, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimated that measles killed 2.6 million. In 1951, when a traveler unwittingly brought measles to Greenland, nearly every person on the island subsequently got measles – literally, 999 measles cases per 1,000 people. [Read more...]