Solutions Journalism Network Launches Philadelphia Chapter

With all the stories about poverty, corruption, terrorism and danger, is it any wonder cute cat videos predominate online? It’s a reprieve from all the other content that suggests we live in a deeply flawed world — one that just continues to get worse.

It doesn’t matter how you get your headlines — whether through a bleary-eyed peek at early-morning TV, a scroll through Twitter on your smartphone, from the car radio as you maneuver through traffic, or online when you get to work — chances are, a lot of it is bad.
Local news emphasizes the most recent disaster and violence: “Firefighters battle blaze in Bucks County,” “Man shot and killed in Paulsboro, N.J.”
“3 injured in police-involved crash in Olney.”
National news does the same, but with a broader palette: “Intel: ISIS threat to U.S. bases,” “U.S. military loses billions in aircraft,” “Deadly heat scorches Southwest.”
Cable news networks lurch from crisis to crisis, many of them grossly inflated, in order to keep viewers tethered to their screens.
With all the stories about poverty, corruption, terrorism and danger, is it any wonder cute cat videos predominate online? It’s a reprieve from all the other content that suggests we live in a deeply flawed world — one that just continues to get worse.
The Solutions Journalism Network (SJN), a national organization that recently launched a Philadelphia chapter, wants to change the way that media outlets tell stories. Rather than merely chronicling what’s wrong, SJN advocates also telling stories about how people are making things better — not in a fluffy human interest way, but in a way that reflects reality.
SJN co-founder David Bornstein articulated this vision in a Tedx Talk in 2012, which outlined a history of muckraking and the way that journalism became focused on highlighting wrongdoing.
While that’s inarguably important, Bornstein said, it’s equally important to recognize that journalism is a feedback loop, and providing only negative feedback in any context — as a parent, as a boss, in a relationship — is destructive and misleading.
He asked, “What if we reframed a journalist’s job so that it’s actually to put spotlight on wrongdoing and put a spotlight on right-doing as well? Because you need both pieces of information to solve the problem.”
Bornstein co-authors the “Fixes” column in The New York Times along with one of his SJN co-founders, Tina Rosenberg, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author of Join the Club: How Peer Pressure Can Transform the World. Their third SJN co-founder is Courtney E. Martin, editor emeritus of and author of Do It Anyway: The New Generation of Activists.
Bornstein’s talk resonated with Mount Airy native Jean Friedman-Rudovsky, who at that time had been working as a journalist in Bolivia for several years.
“I felt like he was just articulating eloquently all of these thoughts that were going around in my head at the time,” she said. “Around 2010 or so, I started getting kind of frustrated by the traditional media narrative coming out of Latin America, even in my own reporting.”
She noticed, for instance, that women tended to be represented in the context of oppression, and as powerless victims.
There was truth to that, of course, but she knew plenty of women who were fighting hard against oppression. It seemed people were only getting one side of the story.
The young reporter’s focus on social justice comes, in part, from her family (her father is renowned civil rights lawyer David Rudovsky), as well as her Jewish background.
“I’m culturally Jewish and not religiously Jewish,” she said. “But there’s a lot of overlap with what I consider culturally Jewish values with progressive values, and living a life of social justice and your life having some greater purpose in the world. That was something that my parents, stepparents and grandparents taught me.”
When she knew she was coming back to the states for a visit a couple years ago, she reached out to Bornstein to tell him about her book about women in Mexico fighting injustice. They met in New York and stayed in touch. Last year Bornstein asked Friedman Rudovsky if she’d be interested in helping them expand SJN by becoming a part-time coordinator in Philadelphia.
SJN already had employees in New York, the Bay area and Washington, D.C.
Friedman-Rudovsky, a new mom who’d recently moved back to Mount Airy, agreed to help.
It’s a mission she feels strongly about.
“People are really frustrated by the news, and disheartened by it,” she said. “There have been a ton of studies showing that confidence in the media is at an all time low. That’s for various reasons, but I think one of them is that it’s just this negative, negative, negative cycle.
“It’s important for readers to see that for every societal problem out there, there are people working towards a solution. It’s just how the world works, right? Wherever you have oppression, you have some kind of resistance. So why are we not focusing on that resistance as much as we are on the oppression?”
SJN has developed a thorough curriculum to train newsrooms and individual journalists in how to use a solutions-oriented approach. It’s not as intuitive as it might seem.
“We’re not talking about just cute human interest stories,” said Friedman-Rudovsky. “These are not fluff pieces; this is not PR and advocacy — it’s applying the same standards of rigorous and critical analysis reporting that we’d put toward the problem as we do towards the solution. There’s a whole methodology to this approach.”
The new SJN online platform has examples of articles being published that represent that approach, as well as the SJN60, which lists some of the foremost practitioners in the field.
After a launch event a few weeks ago, SJN Philadelphia offered its first core solutions journalism workshop for local journalists. Staffers came from New York to Philadelphia Media Network’s headquarters to get into the specifics of how to write about solutions with rigor and integrity.
“A lot of it comes down to focusing on the how,” Friedman- Rudovsky explained. “We as journalists think a lot about who, what, when, where and why, but if you really look at how someone is responding to a social problem, that is often the key to not making it just a fluff piece.
“You have to be critical, you have to not just reiterate what they tell you, you have to find data that backs up the fact that this is actually an effective strategy. So there’s a lot of ways that solution journalism can be done wrong, and a lot of ways that it can be done right.”
SJN’s trainings are meant to delineate that difference, and help journalists avoid “all the little traps,” as Friedman- Rudovsky said.
In addition to that training, Friedman-Rudovsky said the Philadelphia SJN just secured a first round of funding for a collaborative reporting project on the solutions to reentry from prison.
So far, the list of media partners includes Philadelphia Media Network (Inquirer, Daily News,; Philadelphia magazine; The Philadelphia Tribune; Al Día; and WHYY.
Other activities might include a speaker series or panel discussions that would bring together journalists who are coving a particular issue and real-world practitioners.
“A part of what we try to do is build those bridges between journalists and practitioners,” she said.
“We focus a lot on community engagement and not having the media just be in their own echo chamber.”
Whatever else happens under the auspices of Philadelphia’s SJN, it will certainly broaden the conversation.
“We’re not saying that every story should be a solutions story,” Friedman-Rudovsky said. “We’re just saying that we need to balance the scales a little bit — it’s tipped way too much in favor of the negative, and we need to be reporting on the other side, too.”
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