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.