In 2015, journalist Brie Zeltner investigated consequences of Cleveland, Ohio, having one of the highest child poverty rates in the United States.
“One of the big impacts is infant deaths. We were looking at the rates of infant death across the city and then particularly in Black mothers, because there is a very big disparity between white infant deaths and Black infant deaths,” Zeltner told VOA.
At the time, Zeltner, who specialized in health journalism for The Plain Dealer news outlet, reported that about 13 Cleveland newborns per 1,000 die before their first birthday. Black babies were more than two times as likely to die as white babies.
“The problem was big, and it had been around for a long time,” Zeltner said.
Going through the news outlet’s archives, she realized that previous health reporters came back to that topic about every 10 years, but there were no improvements. She therefore chose a different approach.
“We wanted to find a place that was doing it better but also is very similar to Cleveland with its struggles. Baltimore, in terms of demographics, income, is pretty similar to Cleveland. And the infant mortality rates before they started to implement their changes were very similar to that very wide disparity between Black and white infant deaths,” Zeltner said.
She discovered that Baltimore started to address the issue in 2009, and by 2015 “they had already seen a 24-25% drop in the number of infant deaths.”
After Zeltner published her stories, Cleveland officials contacted her for insights as they were working on an initiative to tackle the problem.
“They started to implement many of the same kind of programs and systemwide changes that Baltimore had, targeting sleep-related deaths, systemic racism and its role in the treatment of Black mothers in the health care system and preterm birth rates,” Zeltner said, adding that since the programs were launched in 2015, Cleveland had “roughly the same percent decrease in infant deaths that Baltimore saw over that same period of time.”
What Zeltner did at the time has become known as “solutions journalism.”
“Solutions journalism is simply looking at the news in a broader way, to include what is working,” Tina Rosenberg, vice president for innovation of the Solutions Journalism Network, told VOA.
“Traditionally, journalists tend to define the news as what's not working, so we help journalists cover what's working but do so with rigor and high standards. You are not celebrating these efforts to solve problems. You're reporting on them just like you would report on any other news,” she said.
Too much focus on bad news
Rosenberg co-founded the Solutions Journalism Network with David Bornstein. The two used to write a column called “Fixes” in The New York Times that looked at a different response to a social problem every week.
“We started this organization to try and build a network of journalists doing the same thing,” said Rosenberg, whose organization has educated more than 30,000 reporters in the 10 years since its founding.
“It's not new; a lot of people have been doing solutions journalism without putting a name on it for a long time. What we have done is create a system for doing it and marshaled research around it in case studies and learning tools and help to spread it.”
According to her, one of the key problems of media today is too much focus on bad news – in the United States, that trend started in the 1970s because of the Vietnam War and Watergate.
“Journalism had before that a very cozy relationship with people in power and often gave powerful people a free pass to do what they wanted without being covered, and that was not good. So then came the rise of investigative journalism and a rise of parallel distrust of government,” Rosenberg said.
“Investigative journalism then became sort of the height of journalism, what people aspire to, and that has grown, and it has really gotten to the point where that is the only definite way of journalism. While it's very important to have investigative journalism, more important than ever, it can't be the only thing, and we believe the balance has to shift a little bit.”
Rosenberg and Zeltner stressed that solutions journalism is not about positive stories or giving praise but rather about a response to a problem.
“These are not kind of fluff pieces or feel-good stories,” Zeltner said. “You have to actually look into the evidence with some rigor and make sure that these solutions are viable and that the data that they are reporting is credible and all of those things that we owe to our readers.”
“It's not a human-interest story about an act of kindness, and it really is: ‘Here is a problem that many people share, including people in our area, but look how another city has solved it, or look how this group has gone about trying to solve it. Are there things we can learn from that that we can do here?’ Solutions journalism is not just inspirational. It's insightful. It has insights that are useful to society,” Rosenberg said.
An answer to the crisis in journalism
The Solutions Journalism Network has a database called “Solutions Story Tracker,” which contains 14,700 solution stories from more than 190 countries.
Rosenberg said journalists are practicing such reporting more and more, adding that one of the main reasons is the crisis that the news industry and journalism more broadly are experiencing.
“Normally, our profession is very defensive and not open to change. But because we have these twin crises: the economic crisis that has destroyed advertising basically for newspapers, and also the existential crisis of journalism, all over the world, we're realizing people don't trust us, they don't like us, they don't believe us. And those two things have really combined to make journalism open to new ways of reporting,” Rosenberg told VOA.
Zeltner is now director of content and programs at the nonprofit YouthCast Media Group, which trains high school students from under-resourced communities, 95% of whom are Black or Hispanic, in multimedia journalism.
“We have high school student journalists working on feature-length stories two times a year, and they focus on solutions to these big issues in their own communities,” Zeltner said.
Rosenberg said solutions journalism is not only about making investigations and stories more effective, but also changing the way marginalized communities and countries are covered.
“When people go into a low-income Black community in Chicago, they're there to write about gun violence, nothing else. When reporters from mainstream media in the United States go into the South of the U.S., they're there to find people who have four teeth,” Rosenberg said.
“That's not the norm. But we make it look like the norm and we distort the narrative so much. And it is a social and racial injustice that underlines and makes possible all other social and racial injustices. And that has to change. Solutions journalism is a way of going about it.”
This story originated in VOA’s Serbian service.