If we think of the “media” as a feedback mechanism for society then — like any feedback mechanism — it can encourage or inhibit all sorts of things. Depending on what gets highlighted and what gets overlooked — and how stories are framed — the media can accelerate social progress or do just the opposite. The question is: What kind of feedback is likely to enhance or diminish society’s capacity to solve problems?
We can learn from other fields. Behavioral psychologists tell us that feedback is likely to lead to desired changes when it draws attention to possibilities, connects with people’s aspirations, and provides road maps. Feedback that is strengths-based also tends to be more effective than feedback that is deficit-based. If we want to encourage a child to develop a sense of honesty, for example, we’re learning that it’s probably more effective to notice truth-telling than to punish lying. (Most of us do just the opposite!) In an office context, one of the worst things a manager can do is provide negative feedback to an employee without also highlighting strengths.
We humans are influenced by unconscious thoughts and drives, so the way information is presented can make a big difference in how it is used. We can see this vividly with public health messaging. Threatening messages can backfire because people avoid them. That’s why today’s efforts to get people to stop smoking increasingly describe the near-term benefits of quitting. It’s a significant shift.
All this has implications for the media, particularly for journalists. One of the core assumptions in journalism is that the press helps society to self-correct largely by acting as a watchdog. Much of the time, reporters spotlight problems – i.e., provide negative feedback – with the goal of spurring reforms. The rationale is captured succinctly in the famous quote from Louis Brandeis: “sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.”
To be sure, this watchdog (or disinfectant) role is essential. But increasingly, we’re coming to see that it is also incomplete. We need to promote health, not just attack disease. To do that for society, it’s not enough to know what’s broken; people need to know how problems could be, or are being, fixed. Today, after four decades of declining confidence in virtually all major institutions, it’s important to provide people with credible stories that help them believe that progress is possible (at least when evidence suggests that it is!)
This doesn’t mean that the media’s job is to soothe people or provide hope. Today, with so much social innovation emerging around the globe, the media simply needs to allocate appropriate attention to stories of constructive problem-solving, stories that are important and compelling but often neglected. Through our work at the Solutions Journalism Network, we’ve found that a growing number of journalists, including investigative journalists, recognize that this is a necessary and under-represented function of news.
What needs to happen? Here are two questions to consider:
- How do we help journalists overcome their professional discomfort with reporting about creative responses to problems? How do we help journalists tell whole stories – not just stopping after revealing a deficiency, but looking further into how people are trying to construct solutions? This kind of reporting should never take the form of advocacy, but rather sound coverage of problem solving (which happens to be pretty engaging, when told well). In fact, if we overlook these stories, we intentionally offer an incomplete, and falsely negative, image of reality.
- How do we institutionalize “solutions journalism” as a rigorous reporting practice that adheres to the same standards of accuracy and independence as the best investigative journalism? How do we help journalists report on potential solutions without engaging in overly-simplified “good news” or “hero-oriented” reporting? It’s essential to have top-notch story-driven journalism that helps society understand how problems are being addressed, looking at ideas and models that show promise based on evidence and data.
Nearly a century ago, in Public Opinion, his classic analysis of media and democracy, Walter Lippmann wrote: “The way in which the world is imagined determines at any particular moment what men will do.” If we want more people to invest themselves in smart efforts to improve society, we need to do a better job helping them to see opportunities as well as risks. There is a landscape of stories waiting to be told. We need to help our media get over its reluctance to tell them.
This piece originally appeared on Forbes on November 29, 2012. It is reposted with permission.