A chat with NY Times’ David Bornstein about ‘solutions’ journalism

David Bornstein

David Bornstein

David Bornstein is what many would consider a rare bird — an optimistic and forward-looking journalist.

Bornstein is also one of my favorite writers on aid and development issues, for the New York Times Opinionator column and as an author of a number of important books including one on the anti-poverty scheme known as microfinance, The Price of a Dream, and his more recent book How to Change the World, a look at the social enterprise movement.

On Thursday, it was announced that Bornstein and his NYTimes colleague Tina Rosenberg were among the winners of 90 new grants, each of which starts out at $100,000, from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s Grand Challenges Explorations program.

That wasn’t quite right: Bornstein later responded, after the awards were announced, that he and Rosenberg will not receive any of the grant money and are only collaborating on the Gates-funded project at Marquette University.

“We are cooperating with Marquette. But they prepared the proposal and they will be doing all the work and receiving the full grant.”

Here’s what the Gates Foundation said in announcing the grant winner: “The Institute for Transformation of Learning at Marquette University, USA, will partner with David Bornstein (How to Change the World) and Tina Rosenberg (Pulitzer prize-winning The Haunted Land) to build the first Wiki-style platform that packages solutions-journalism (specifically NYTimes Fixes columns) into mini-case-studies for educators around the world to embed in, and across, the curriculum.”

I missed the nuance there. Sorry about that.

Bornstein, who contacted me after this post was published, said the NY Times prohibits them from accepting grant money (for work done at NYTimes) and they are unpaid collaborators with Marquette, allowing them to repurpose their columns and to help them think through the process.

The Grand Challenges Exploration program was created by the Gates Foundation mostly to fund ‘wacky’ (aka high risk) scientific projects and that’s mostly still what it has supported among its 800 projects funded to date.

One example pictured at right: Agenor Mafra-Neto and his colleagues are building inexpensive laser bug sensors that accurately count and identify flying insect pests from a distance. Because it’s always good to know exactly how many and which types of bugs there are.

Anyway, you can read more about the latest round of wacky scientific winners at the philanthropy’s website.

I’m going to focus on Bornstein, as an example of how the Grand Challenges initiative has expanded its scope to include funding communications efforts that show “Aid is Working.”

Bornstein was in Seattle a few weeks ago for a conference on Changemakers. I had breakfast with him to talk about his work aimed at promoting a very specific kind of ‘solutions-oriented’ change in media practices, in journalism, aimed at shifting the media away from sensationalism and negativity — and more toward contributing to the efforts aimed at making the world a better place.

I hadn’t been able to reach David earlier this week (he lives in NYC, so that’s not surprising) to ask about the Gates grant but we talked about many of the same questions at breakfast. The title of the Gates grant program “Aid is Working” will likely raise a red flag for many journalists. It sounds a bit promotional. Many of us have the same concerns with ‘solutions’ journalism.

Q I’m all for increasing the capacity of journalists, of the media, to use our talents to make the world a better place. But isn’t it going too far to say journalists should have to suggest possible solutions to the problems they identify?

DB: “No, I don’t think so. The idea behind solutions journalism is sort of like the TV show CSI. The narrative is located in the pursuit of solving a problem as opposed to just identifying who’s failing and how. Another way to say it is that solutions journalism has more in common with a Harry Potter novel, a quest or struggle, than the traditional journalism narrative.”

Q Well, most of would rather be Harry Potter or a CSI sleuth if we could, but on what basis would we assume that a journalist would even be qualified to point toward a solution to any problem?

DB: “I don’t think the journalist has to know what the solution is, or even should think he or she knows the solution. What I’m talking about is reporting on these issues with a different intent. So much of what we do as journalists is aimed at holding powerful people accountable and identifying failure, which is very important and valuable. But if we stop there, with just identifying failures and the bad actors, it becomes frustrating to people. It’s a broken narrative.”

*David asked to further clarify this point: “We never say that journalists should propose solutions to problems. We don’t believe that is the role of journalists. But journalists should use their judgment to select creative responses to problems that show evidence of effectiveness … just as we use our judgment to (decide) which problems to focus on.”

Q But how do you avoid slipping into advocacy for a particular solution?

DB: “Solutions journalism, done right, can sharpen investigative reporting. I would say that there’s this worldwide movement, or perhaps a renaissance, toward creative problem-solving today. The notion that a lot of the best ideas are coming from the ground up, from creative individuals rather than government, universities or big business. What I’m talking about is getting journalists to think like these innovators.”

Q Still sounds you’re asking the journalist to risk looking like an advocate. The Gates Foundation, for example, funds a lot of media and also says it wants to see more success stories. Doesn’t that kind of thing worry you?

DB: “That can go too far, yes. But I think the risk of a journalist looking like an advocate is less than the risk of journalists today making themselves irrelevant given this increased demand for storytelling that goes beyond just saying everything’s all screwed up. What I’m trying to do is make the case for the value of journalism within this movement of creative problem-solving.”

Q Okay, I get that and I agree that our goal as journalists should be to have a positive impact. But I still think it’s unclear where you draw the line between remaining an independent observer and emphasizing solutions. Another thing that’s unclear to me, which we don’t have time or space to explore, is what people mean by ‘social enterprise.’ It’s big in Seattle. Is it clear to you what’s meant by social enterprise?

DB: “Not really. I think different people mean different things by it. Very simply, it means using a market-based solution to solve a social problem. But what’s that mean? Others say the organization needs to be structured more towards achieving a social impact first and a profit second. That’s a bit more focused on what I think it means. But I think we do need to define it better.”

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About Author

Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at]humanosphere.org or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.