Americans are avoiding the news. What can journalists do?

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NEW YORK, NEW YORK - MAY 25: A man reads a newspaper at a table outside White Castle in Sunnyside, Queens during the coronavirus pandemic on May 25, 2020 in New York City. Government guidelines encourage wearing a mask in public with strong social distancing in effect as all 50 states in the USA have begun a gradual process to slowly reopen after weeks of stay-at-home measures to slow the spread of COVID-19. (Cindy Ord/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NEW YORK - MAY 25: A man reads a newspaper at a table outside White Castle in Sunnyside, Queens during the coronavirus pandemic on May 25, 2020 in New York City. Government guidelines encourage wearing a mask in public with strong social distancing in effect as all 50 states in the USA have begun a gradual process to slowly reopen after weeks of stay-at-home measures to slow the spread of COVID-19. (Cindy Ord/Getty Images)

About 40% of Americans actively avoid the news, according to a Reuters Institute study. Among them is journalist Amanda Ripley.

So what needs to change? Ripley has an answer, and it begins with giving people hope:

"There is some overlap between what journalism does and how humans actually process information, but not a huge amount," Ripley says. "There's a lot you would do differently if you were going to design news for human consumption."

Today, On Point: Americans are avoiding the news. What can journalists do?


Joe Segal, On Point listener.

Amanda Ripley, investigative journalist and the host of Slate's "How To!" podcast. Author of "High Conflict: Why We Get Trapped and How We Get Out." (@amandaripley)

David Bornstein, co-founder and CEO of the Solutions Journalism Network. (@dnbornstein)


Part I

TYLER: Topic is 40% of Americans avoid the news, and you wanted to know why.

CHAKRABARTI: This is On Point. I'm Meghn Chakrabarti. And this is Tyler, who listens to the show from Greensboro, North Carolina. He takes in the news less and less every day.

TYLER: A little disheartening. Still want to do better and to want to try to help. And in doing so, consuming certain media, certain news outlets, only to be discouraged and beaten down, essentially, by the hateful rhetoric and being misled.

CHAKRABARTI: Tyler says his news diet is now mostly public radio. And I have to say, that's kind of bittersweet for me. I'm grateful that Tyler still finds value in what he gets from public radio. But it is disheartening to hear that Tyler doesn't think there are many other news sources out there for him.

TYLER: I personally avoid it as much as possible and keep myself in as much positivity as I possibly can with my friends, and music and just anything positive. And the news is not that.

CHAKRABARTI: Tyler is one of the 40% of Americans who say they avoid the news, according to the Reuters Institute 2022 Digital News Report. It's a startling number in a nation where, ideally, news and reliable information should be fundamental pillars of democracy.

So why are more and more Americans trying to avoid the news? Now, I can already almost hear you through the radio saying, "Hey, you know, Meghna, take a look in the mirror, pal. You guys are part of the news media, too, and part of the problem." Duly noted.

So let's start with Joe Segal. He's a kindred spirit. He used to listen to On Point from Northridge, California. On July 5, though, he sent us the following tweet:

"I have enjoyed listening to this show for some time now, and found it intellectually stimulating in the depth of its discussions, and our pressing societal problems. However, due to an almost total lack of discussion of what we can do about these problems, I'm no longer listening."

CHAKRABARTI: Well, Joe's with us now. Hi there, Joe.

JOE SEGAL: Hello, Meghna. Thank you for having me on this terrific and important program.

CHAKRABARTI: I am really glad that we could coax you back here, at least for today. But I do want to know. Back when you were a regular listener of On Point, what was it that made you start listening, and at least at that time, want to stay with the program?

SEGAL: Well, in a word, it was you. It was that I could tell that you are a person who deeply cares, not just about the issues affecting our country, but about people. So I could hear your compassion in the way that you interviewed people.

CHAKRABARTI: Well, I have to say, I deeply appreciate that, Joe. Also, by the way, I should fact check myself. I think I pronounced your last name incorrectly. It's Joe Segal, right. Did I get it right that time?

SEGAL: That's right. That's okay.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. My apologies. I am flattered and honored to hear you say what you said. But I feel like I'm that same person today. Or, you know, when you sent that tweet in July. So what changed?

SEGAL: Hmm. What changed was how sad I was at seeing so very many people I know and talk with every day, hearing the pain and despair in them over the constant flow of only half of the news coming to us. Only half the news about the problem. The most apparent tip of the iceberg. Damage that's been done to society and the world. Leaving out the rest of the story and basically teaching learned helplessness, so that people like the listener you played, opt out and disengage, just when we need people to be engaged in solving the problems of society the most.

CHAKRABARTI: Well, in May, you also sent us a tweet where you said:

"With our world spinning into more and more dire chaos and calamity, media can and should pivot to embrace discussions of how we fix the problems that media has been reporting on. So we can all have a better chance to survive together."

So, you know, I hear what you're saying, because I'll be perfectly honest. I also, especially over the past couple of years, find myself just having to shake my head and like literally almost sometimes physically shake myself into remembering that not everything is 100% depressing and dire. So not talking about solutions or different angles on the news is having an impact. But, you know ... first of all, let me ask you, how would you like this program to change to bring you back as a regular listener?

SEGAL: Hmm. Excellent question. I think what I'd like is to see the program adopt something akin to the Hippocratic Oath. Of first, do no harm. To always give people a path to hope, and to help. And shine a light on the people and organizations that are engaged in the business of repairing the damage done to society, without just reporting on the damage.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay, Joe, can you hang on here for just a second? Because I want to bring Amanda Ripley into the show, because I'd love to hear her view on what you're saying and hear if she's got any questions for you. So, Amanda's an investigative journalist. She's the host of the Slate podcast "How To." And she recently wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post. It was headlined "I stopped reading the news. Is the problem me or the product?" Amanda, welcome back to our On Point.

AMANDA RIPLEY: Hi, Meghna. So good to be back with you.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay, so what would you like? Where would you take this conversation with Joe now?

RIPLEY: I am loving this. First of all, the fact that you invited Joe onto the show and that he came is awesome. And I love Joe, how you put it. Only half the news is coming to us. This is such a key point, right? That we make a thousand decisions every day in any newsroom about what to cover and not cover and how to frame it. And those are subjective decisions, right? And most of them are based on how we've always done it.

And I guess I'm starting to feel like we haven't evolved enough for what we know about human psychology, what humans need, and also for the way that technology has made news sort of aerosolized, like it's everywhere all the time. So we don't actually need the news to tell us who, what, when, where, like we can get that instantly from a thousand different sources. But we do need things like hope, agency and dignity. So, Joe, I'm curious if I could ask, Have you found other outlets or other ways of consuming the news that are not as bad for your health?

SEGAL: First. Thank you, Amanda. Thank you for the wonderful and important article that you wrote. I very much enjoyed it. I've been sharing it widely. So have I found other outlets for solutions journalism type of news? What I do is whenever I listen to On Point, and Meghna, I still do listen to On Point, because I love you and your show and the issues are very important. And I always listen until the last moment, hoping that there will be a turn towards solutions.

So I listen to shows, and I then go and research who's working on solutions for the problems that are being reported. And so it just takes being proactive. And within a few moments on Google, I could find organizations and individuals who are engaged in their communities working on improving whatever that story is about. And then I share whatever I find through my Twitter account or on social media.

RIPLEY: So you actually are doing your own reporting and broadcasting? (LAUGHS)

SEGAL: Essentially. Essentially, yes. I took it into my own hands to proactively go out and find the news I was hoping to find, and then to share it with others.

RIPLEY: And this goes to the point that it's out there, right? It's not that hard to find hope.

SEGAL: It is not that hard to find hope. And that's what I try and do every day through my social media. My Twitter account, anyway, is to encourage people and share hope. And it's something that's desperately in need today.

CHAKRABARTI: Joe, can I just jump in here and ask a question? So you are already very vigorously practicing your own agency. You're turning around and taking hopefully the useful information you hear on On Point and looking for solutions that you want to amplify.

So I'm just wondering, do you still think it's the job of journalists to also do the same thing? Because I am conflicted about sort of how much, as Amanda said, we go through this process that is at times imperfect, of like choosing what to amplify. Why focus on some solutions, you know, over others when listeners can actually do that for themselves?

SEGAL: Hmm. Well, that's a good question. For one thing, you have a much greater platform and therefore can make a much greater impact in society than Joe Segal can with his Twitter account. And also, if the role of journalism is to tell the fullest ascertainable story of the truth, which is the best definition I've heard so far. Then we need to include the story of the people and organizations working to solve the problems the news reports on. Otherwise, like I said earlier, you're only reporting on half of the truth. And half the truth is not the truth.

CHAKRABARTI: Hmm. Well, Joe, that is a persuasive argument to me. So, Joe Segal, thank you for not completely abandoning On Point. And thank you for coming on the show today.

SEGAL: My pleasure, Meghna. Keep up the great work.

CHAKRABARTI: Amanda Ripley, hang on here for just a second, because we have a lot more to talk about, about your thoughts on how to make the news more human, or built for human consumption. So we'll do that when we come back.

Part II

CHAKRABARTI: We're talking about what's driving Americans away from the news. That startling statistic recently put out by a Reuters study that said that 40% of Americans are avoiding the news. Maryanne called us from Nashville, Tennessee, and she says she's been listening to public radio less and less over the years, because:

MARYANNE: There's too much 'help us understand' from interviewers. We all have Google, not enough cross-examination of sources. Nothing surprising comes out. I feel it's scripted, too many formerly deep diving talk shows and savvy hosts have been replaced or watered down with fluff.

CHAKRABARTI: And this listener from Georgia had an even broader critique.

LISTENER: This is Max in Atlanta. In relation to the news, I feel like journalists and media outlets, in an attempt not to be branded one-sided or politically motivated, have given too much credence to opinions that are politically motivated themselves.

CHAKRABARTI: Max also added that he believes media silos are another major problem. It's just too easy for people to engage exclusively with news coverage they like or agree with.

MAX: I was just thinking during the last show about the fact that Republicans have essentially decided that they're not going to view the Jan. 6 hearings, not because any of the facts are in dispute, but rather because they all believe that there's this sort of mass conspiracy against them and that everything generated by, quote-unquote, the media is poison.

CHAKRABARTI: Amanda Ripley is with us. She's an investigative journalist, host of the Slate podcast "How To." She's also author of several books, including "High Conflict: Why We Get Trapped and How We Get Out." And she wrote this recent op-ed in the Washington Post that got a lot of attention. It's headlined "I stopped reading the news. Is the problem me or the product?"

Now, Amanda, I want to eventually get to your solution set for this startling number of people who are avoiding the news in America. But I thought it might help to drill down a little bit into the 'why's,' right? Because you said the 'why's' and the 'how's' are important. And that last listener really reflected something that came out of the Reuters analysis, because I read it quite thoroughly the other day.

And they found that the United States has amongst the most highly polarized news audiences when compared to, say, Japan, Germany or the U.K., for example. So I just wonder, like there's a chicken and egg thing here, that there's already a polarized audience. Does that make it easier to avoid news that people don't like or don't agree with?

RIPLEY: Yeah, it definitely is a kind of a diabolical feedback loop, right, that we're in. And there's a lot of different factors there, but we are a country that is truly stuck in conflict right now, in dysfunctional conflict. So it is interacting with the hopelessness and the despair. Right? And it's very hard to separate what's what. But I think that's an important point. And when I look at the Reuters data from around the world, you definitely do start to see a correlation between distrust and avoidance. Right? So the U.S. has a higher avoidance rate than about 30 other countries. And the countries that have low avoidance rates have more trust. Like Germany, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, Finland, Japan.

But it is important to just point out, speaking of hope, agency and dignity, that Germany has increased trust in its institutions over the past couple of decades. So that's a good example to think about. Like, wouldn't that be an interesting story? You know, how did they do that, and what can we learn from that? So the despair and the distrust are interacting, but that doesn't mean that they will never change, or that there's nothing that can be done about them.

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. And there is, as you said, this, like, vicious cycle, because in addition to the polarized audience, the Reuters analysis also noted that there aren't, as many say, trusted news sources perceived to be in the ideological center in the United States, as there were in other countries. It's really, so like we are definitely part of the problem in creating that problem.

So we heard from so many listeners. And we asked them if they're avoiding the news, which I'll note, at least they were listening to On Point, which again, I am very grateful for. But I want to run through a couple of other reasons why people told us they just can't consume as much as maybe they used to.

So first of all, and for the listeners who said things are too scripted, this is a scripted moment, I got to get to my notes here. There is a listener who called us from Los Angeles. This is Joan, and she takes issues with the way reporters, especially in political stories, even ask the questions.

JOAN: These days when I hear reporters ask for comment. It sounds like they're trying to instigate an argument rather than provide insight. The questions I hear are more about emphasizing contrast and conflict, and too often reports seem one-sided. Sometimes the phrase 'informing the public' doesn't really sound like that's the genuine intent.

CHAKRABARTI: So part of the deliberately argumentative, polarized concern there, from Joan. This is Fallon Cox, who called us from Savannah, Georgia. And she said she's really selective about what kinds of news she consumes.

FALLON: The news now is not as in depth, I don't believe, as it should be. So there are a lot of different subjects that are covered topically, but it's extremely difficult to find a source, especially the regular news that gives more details and more nuance that will enable listeners to really understand what the issues are. And so I have shifted to books, and I do podcasts and that's actually how I heard the question today.

CHAKRABARTI: So that's so interesting. I mean, in a sense, it's the other problem with the atomization of news. Amanda, right? It's everywhere, but also not in depth enough that Fallon felt like she was getting anything from it. Here's one more, and this one might resonate with a lot of folks. This is Sam from Eugene, Oregon, and this is why he thinks people aren't consuming the news as much.

SAM: The number one reason people don't want to follow news is because it's mostly depressing news. I actually feel better the less I follow the news. Rarely is positive news or good news stories reported on. A 30-minute nightly newscast might have one segment at the end that is positive, after 20 minutes of bad and depressing news, along with 9 minutes of commercials. Who wants to experience that day after day?

CHAKRABARTI: Who does? So, Amanda, you keep mentioning hope. Hope, agency and dignity as a completely different way of approaching the news that would address these issues. Let's talk about hope first. Tell me what you mean.

RIPLEY: Well, because I felt this in myself. I felt what all your listeners are saying, and it took me a long, longer than maybe it took them, but it took me a while to come to the realization that it's not just me. There's not just something wrong with me. There are things wrong with me. But it's not just me. And so I started realizing that it's also in the way we are framing the news and how we think about the news and that it doesn't have to be this way.

So I spent the past year trying to figure out what news designed for 21st century humans might look like. And talking to people, behavioral scientists who understand how humans process risk and information, psychologists who've been treating patients for headline stress disorder, which is a thing. And so I learned a bunch of things. But one of the things that really stuck with me was that we now know that humans actually need hope to get up in the morning.

It is a biological need, and hope is associated in the research with lower levels of depression, chronic pain, sleeplessness and cancer. Whereas hopelessness is linked to anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and death. So, you know, it is a need. And I don't think as a journalist, I ever thought about it that way. Right? I thought you needed to know. You know, most of all, I want the story to be interesting. I think that's the thing we want most of all. And that's still true. But I thought you needed to know about threats to your safety ... which you do. Right? But I didn't really think about hope as being a need-to-know ingredient of the news.

CHAKRABARTI: But, I mean, you didn't think about it because we didn't need to know about it all the time. Right? I'm still stuck on your really strong word choice of the atomization of news. Like we are surrounded by it. You can't escape it unless you literally turn off everything in life. Which, by the way, I do that regularly on vacation. So at least for several weeks of the year, I am a news avoider, I'll admit. But I guess --

RIPLEY: And what do you notice, Meghna? If I could ask? Like how do you feel?

CHAKRABARTI: I feel amazing. (LAUGHS) It feels incredible. But the reason why I point that out is because, again, is it so much the news that's the problem or the mechanics in the ways we are consuming it? And I point the finger at technology here. Right? Because for young folks in the Reuters report, in the Reuters analysis, this is globally, not specifically the United States, but they said, you know, 40% of 18 to 24 olds were using social media as their main source of news.

They were also the lowest trusting age group. And also one of the groups that said that news most often had a negative effect on their mood. So, again, it's like, I don't know if it's the news necessarily. It's how they're getting it, those distorting, polarizing outrage-generating algorithms of social media.

RIPLEY: Yeah, yeah. I think it's not one or the other. Right? Like I think it's several things and it is the technology shift. Right? And the incentives around, you know, how to make tweets and other things clickable. But that's not that's not all it is. Like I do think that we have to acknowledge that journalists are captured by the conflict we're in, like we are human too. Right? And so I feel like, you know, because I consume still, I'm old school, right?

I still consume a lot of print media, and I notice it there as well. So it's not just in social media. But I think journalists, after Trump was elected, especially sort of mainstream national journalists, I think there was a sense of powerlessness that a lot of journalists felt. That people weren't listening to them the way they wanted them to. And it's incredibly destabilizing to your identity to feel like all this hard work doesn't amount to a hill of beans when it comes to a major national election. Now, I know that's an exaggeration, but that's, I think, how it felt for myself and a lot of my colleagues. Right?

So when that happens, you have a couple of choices. And one thing is to fundamentally revisit and reimagine what you're doing, and try to rebuild your relationship with the audience. Another way to do it is to get more and more convicted and louder and louder, right? Because you want to be heard. And I feel like that's part of what I'm seeing. Not, you know, it's hard to generalize, but, you know, I think there is this belief that if we can just get people's attention about how terrible things are, then things will change. And that's not working, right, because people are tuning out.

So for me, this isn't about fundamentally changing my norms as a journalist, because every story I've ever reported and by the way, I've covered a lot of horrible stories, that's kind of like my beat. Like I cover disasters, terrorism, crime, political violence. Every story I've ever covered in 20 years, there have been flickers of hope, agency and dignity. But I don't always include them in the story. Right? Because I have a certain idea in my head about what makes a good story. And I think that's the piece that I want to evolve.

CHAKRABARTI: Totally. Okay. So we're going to come back to the agency and dignity parts a little later in the show. Because in a sense, I actually find, especially dignity, the most fascinating and compelling of your triumvirate of a way to rethink journalism. But before we do that, I want to bring in David Bornstein into the conversation. He is the co-founder and CEO of the Solutions Journalism Network. David Bornstein, welcome to On Point.

DAVID BORNSTEIN: Thank you. Hi, Meghna. Thanks for having me.

CHAKRABARTI: It's great to have you. You must have cheered a little earlier when our listener Joe Segal was talking about, "We need to have better solutions presented in the media in order to get the whole story." Can you just tell us quickly a little bit about the idea that led to the founding of the Solutions Journalism Network?

BORNSTEIN: Yeah. Sure thing. And actually, the whole story happens to be our tagline, our hashtag. So it was great to hear that. We started this about nine years ago. It grew out of a column that I was writing with Tina Rosenberg at the New York Times that was called "Fixes," that was looking at solutions to social problems. And we just saw through the response that we got from readers is very much in line with what Joe and Tyler and others are saying today,

That there's really a yearning for news, but rigorous news, not advocacy, not feel-good news, but rigorously reported stories that help people understand how people are responding to problems and what we could learn from success or failure. There's rarely perfect successes in any response. And so we saw that this was really a big opportunity for news. And, you know, we could see all of the trends that have been talked about here.

Declining trust in institutions, news that makes people feel depressed and hopeless. These were apparent, you know, eight or nine years ago, as well. They've just gotten worse. So we just thought that there was an opportunity, you know, to help legitimize the idea that it's actually okay for journalists to interrogate solutions as part of the news mix. It's not advocacy or puffery or any of the things that journalists often imagined it would fall into.

... We've worked with about 600 news organizations to date, and we have thousands of examples of really good journalism that follow this pattern. And it's really well received by audiences. It's actually the No. 1 content request.

CHAKRABARTI: Oh, okay. So I'm wondering, though, what you make of how Amanda has fashioned one of her ideas around the concept of hope. Because ... is that the same thing? It's not necessarily the same thing as sort of a rigorous interrogation of solutions, is it?

BORNSTEIN: Well, yeah, we use the phrase 'hope with teeth' when we want to talk to journalists about it. Because, you know, we have found that, you know, historically journalists are sort of averse to the idea. 'Our job is not to give people hope. The world is a hard place, and we just tell the story as it is.' That's the sort of thing, 'this is not my job' kind of thing. And so, you know, we have shown that there's lots and lots of people across the country and across the world responding to problems.

I mean, you know, if you are not covering that story, if you're not showing that there is care, and compassion and creativity and incredible decency across the country that's never been captured by the story. And you only are looking at the worst thing that happened, the violence, the scandal, the corruption. If that's the measure of your attention, then you will create hopelessness. The opposite is that you will give people a sense of something that is meaningful to them and a reason to actually participate in society.

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. So, David and Amanda, hang on here for just a second, because I am bound by the strictures of the medium of live radio. So we've got to take another quick break here, but we'll talk more about this idea of hope, agency and dignity being a new way to think about how to cover the news so that more Americans want to hear it or read it or watch it. We'll be back. This is On Point.

Part III

CHAKRABARTI: We're talking today about the growing number of Americans who say they are avoiding the news. About 40%, according to a Reuters analysis. Cathy from Columbus, Ohio, though, is not one of them.

CATHY: The question was, "Are you an avid news consumer who feels helpless to solve the problems facing us?" Guilty as charged. During the Trump administration, I felt as though there was so much disinformation coming directly from the government that I felt compelled to make sure that I remained firmly planted in reality. I now subscribe to more news publications than ever.

CHAKRABARTI: So Cathy tells us she's trying harder than ever to stay informed. However:

CATHY: Staying informed feels like I'm trying to drink from a firehose. I long for the days of getting lost in a good novel without feeling as though my future is at risk. 

CHAKRABARTI: Well, Amanda Ripley and David Bornstein are with us today. And, Amanda, the hope part really has struck a chord with people from all sorts of different directions. For example, we've got a response from a listener on Twitter, Jason, who says, "How can we expect news providers to have the answers? Journalism's culture should be remaining objective and reporting the facts. Teaching media literacy in K-12 will significantly help."

You know what? I'm also wondering, just to circle back to something we mentioned earlier, and David, you also put your finger on this. That Reuters analysis found that only 26%, only 26% of Americans trust the news, generally. I mean, there's an overall institutional distrust in the United States, and fewer than 20% of people thought that news media is independent from political or commercial influence. So how does providing hope, agency and dignity help solve that lack of trust problem that seems to be driving the reduction in news consumption for a lot of people, Amanda?

RIPLEY: Well, you know, one thing I've noticed, so I've been sort of scouring the planet trying to find news sources that are systematically trying to do what I'm talking about here, like deliver news for humans, because there's lots and lots of examples from public radio, from lots of places, individual examples of it. But systematically.

And one that I admire is called the Christian Science Monitor, which I had never paid a huge amount of attention to. It sounds religious, but it's not. And the print edition, each issue, which comes out weekly, has reporting from around the globe, vivid photos, brutal realities, you know, hard stories about real life, war, famine, COVID, everything. But you have this sense as you're reading that this outlet has your back, that they want good things for you because there are these little glimmers of hope, agency and dignity.

And it's actually built in to the structure. So every story has a little blurb that says why we wrote this and explains why they decided to do it. So you don't feel quite as manipulated as you might on some news sites, right? And every story there's a regular feature called 'Points of Progress' that does what David Bornstein and his colleagues at the Solutions Journalism Network have trained so many reporters to do, to rigorously report out small points of progress. Things that humans are doing that is actually making things a little bit better. Right? And so that feeling, I think, does make me trust them more. Right? It does make me feel like, "Okay, they actually do not want me to be paralyzed in despair." (LAUGHS)

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. David, can I turn back to you? Because I'm wondering if you can tell from sort of who the consumers of the stories from the Solutions Journalism Network are. And I ask because, look, the Columbia Journalism Review went so far, this is them, saying that, you know, maybe providing more hope, agency and dignity, as Amanda has framed it, might be a salve for more liberal Americans. But they were saying it doesn't do much to get at the reasons why conservative Americans might be avoiding the news. But has the Solutions Journalism Network found a way to, you know, to cover stories with that 'hope with teeth' that breaks through the sort of the typical red, blue divide that I literally just simplified America into? Exercising a bad old media habit here.

BORNSTEIN: Yeah, well, very much. And we don't publish our own stories. We train news organizations to do solutions journalism. But we've worked with hundreds of news organizations in red counties and purple counties and blue counties around the country, and a lot of local news organizations. And it really does go back to what Amanda said.

You know, someone once said to me, "I don't care what you know, until I know that you care." And what Amanda said, like, you have to telegraph to people that you have their backs. Trust is not just a function of accuracy. It's a function of whether people believe that you care about them. And the best way for a news organization, especially at the local level, to show that they care, is to ask the community what their most pressing concerns are.

And it very often is the mental health of our teens, the economy, the addiction, you know, the environment. And then to go out and do some really good reporting, to look at those problems, and then to do some really good reporting, to look at what their options are, to ask the question, "Who's doing better? Is anyone doing better? Are there any other counties? There's over 3,000 counties in the United States. Is anyone doing better against a problem that we have, with something that's really important to our audience, to our community?" And then tell the community, "You asked us, you told us this was important to us. We went out. We've done some reporting on this. Let's talk about some of these ideas. Are they right for our community? Perhaps we should do more reporting." It's not advocating or pressing for any particular solution. It's helping people understand their options to respond. And that does consistently increase trust and engagement around news.

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. So just to be clear, you're working mostly with local media, then?

BORNSTEIN: We work with local, national and global media. But we have many, many partners with local news organizations, many of them in very small rural counties, as well.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. So that's interesting to me because, again, that Reuters analysis found that amongst the various types of media, it was local TV news that people most often reported trusting. I feel like there's a really important touchpoint between news media and people through their local journalism. So, yeah, I'm going to put in a plug here, please, if you're listening to this, support your local public radio station.

But the reason why I ask that, though, is are the incentives aligned to advance this type of news coverage? Both the Solutions Journalism Network model and the hope, agency and dignity of framing that Amanda's got here. Because at least, well, actually both on the local and the national level, I feel like the incentives are all misaligned to achieve that, David?

BORNSTEIN: Well, that's what we're finding is kind of a bit of a misunderstanding. I mean, at the kind of, at the level of journalists and editors, the challenge that they're really dealing with is, you know, journalists' most important mission, most would say, is accountability. And the question is how do we hold our institutions accountable without leading to hopelessness and disengagement? That's a big question. How do we do it? We want to maintain that watchdog thing and keep the teeth of the watchdog sharp.

And what we've actually found is that solutions journalism actually increases accountability. It shows what's possible. It shows levels. It benchmarks success for a community in a way that it makes a current level of performance unacceptable. So it's actually an accountability mechanism. So that's the way it aligns with the journalists' incentives. When it comes to the actual institutional incentives, like news increasingly is having to stand on its own two economic feet around the country.

More and more news organizations have to try to get funding directly from the communities in the form of subscriptions, or memberships or local foundation grants from community foundations in many cases, or sponsorships. So the community has a real interest saying, "What's the value of this news product? Can you genuinely show me that this news is helping our community to become the community that we aspire to become?"

And it's hard to argue if you're only pointing out the problems for the 50th time that you're doing that. But if you are bringing in information that helps people understand what their options are and doing it in a rigorous way, you can make the case that this is a feedback system that's telling. You know, as Joe said, the whole story. We're doing the diagnosis and we're also looking at, "What are potential treatment options?" And we don't have a horse in this game. We're not advocating, we're not trying to pick winners. We're sampling some of the ideas that are out there in the world. There's many others.

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah, but, you know, and Amanda, I'll turn to you on this because you've written entire book about it. The idealism of journalists themselves is one thing, but, you know, corporate news, business models built on conflict, built on exactly the kind of news that people say they can't tolerate anymore is another thing entirely, right, Amanda?

RIPLEY: Yeah. Although I'm weirdly optimistic on this. And it's funny, I say weirdly, because I'm not like one of these super optimistic people in general. I'd like to be, but I'm not. (LAUGHS) And so I feel like there is some hope here. And I'm not just saying that to, like, to buttress my own case here. I mean, you know, let me give you some examples. So Univision's New York City station. So going back to TV news, local TV news, which you're right, is the last trusted media outlet in America. It redesigned its late-night newscast to feature longer, more substantive stories.

And a year later, it won the ratings race for adults ages 18 to 49, beating out all competitors regardless of language. Right? That is the coveted, the young audience is, right? That is a very coveted audience. So, you know, there is some evidence that if you do it well, and that's a huge caveat, as David knows, if you do it well, this kind of reporting is more engaging, not less. Now, it requires leadership in the newsroom. It requires rethinking, reimagining what you do. But it absolutely can be done. And I think if I have this right, David, the Solutions Journalism Network commissioned a big study in 2020 by Smithgeiger, that does a lot of media research.

And they found that consumers of all ages and political preferences preferred rigorously reported TV news stories about efforts to solve problems over more traditional stories. And, again, regardless of their political leanings. So I do think when conflict is cliche, this kind of work, complexity, curiosity, surprise, wonder, hope that kind of work is breaking news.

CHAKRABARTI: Hmm. Well, you know, in fact, I'm going to have to let David Bornstein go, the co-founder of the Solutions Journalism Network. David, it was great to have you. Thank you for joining us and thank you for the work that you're doing.

BORNSTEIN: Thank you so much, Meghna. And thanks, Amanda.

CHAKRABARTI: And the reason why I wanted to create a little bit of space here at the end of the show, Amanda, was I want to put what we've been talking about in practice. I want to demonstrate to folks how the hope, agency and dignity model might look like out there in the wild. And so can I use you as my example?

RIPLEY: Sure. It's only fair, right?

CHAKRABARTI: (LAUGHS) So we have a clip of a recent interview, a reporting that you did at an abortion rights rally. But you went to this rally in Washington, D.C., and you talked to counterprotesters who were at the rally. But before we play the clip, can you tell me how would you have approached that kind of interview, field interview in the old days before you've been thinking about hope, agency and dignity?

RIPLEY: Yeah, totally differently. I've never gone to a protest with this mindset before, and it was a little bit scary because it was so uncertain, but it was also really liberating. So traditionally, I would go with almost like I'm hunting for something. Like there's a mindset of like, I need a story, I need a surprising quote, I need some conflict, I need the adversarial, you know, us vs. them. I need something that is going to grab people.

Maybe an anecdotal lead about somebody, you know, who drove 75 hours to get to the protest and deep sadness, or longing or rage. Right? Those are the kinds of things we traditionally would look for. I think for a good story that's going to grip you and hold you to the end. In this case, and it's a privilege. I realize most reporters can't do this. I'm able to just go and like literally, I just asked people open-ended, deeper questions and listened aggressively to what they said. And then tried to distill what they said into the most elegant language I could muster and play it back for them.

And see if I got it right. And I'm really trying to understand them. And in this case, I was interviewing the counterprotesters with whom I personally disagree. Right? So I'm working across a divide here and trying to understand these people rather than persuade or caricature or catch, you know, in some kind of a contradiction, or what have you.

CHAKRABARTI: Well, so let's listen then to the interaction that you had with the counterprotester.

RIPLEY: So is making abortion illegal something you'd like to see? And if so, what other changes would you like?

COUNTERPROTESTER: Yes. So I want abortion to be illegal, but also I want it to be unthinkable. So the way we make it unthinkable is by providing like more laws and regulations, in terms of providing better health care to people. And providing like a full reformation of the health care system, and also providing like better wages and better working conditions and making that required and providing better maternity-paternity leave.

I think America is rated like one of the lowest in terms of maternity and paternity leave, if it's even provided. So I think we need to provide that and also better systems financial support for women, especially people in emergency pregnancies or more mental health support, especially in the cases of rape and incest, in general.

RIPLEY: So you'd like to see sort of a whole suite of services that would make it easier to be a parent?

COUNTERPROTESTER: Yes. Yes, of course. Made easier to be a parent and just make it in general, be able to support yourself financially. Especially because it's becoming harder to like live with everything going on.  

CHAKRABARTI: So, Amanda, we've just got just a minute left here, but what did you get from that interaction? And then more importantly, what did your listeners and readers get from it that they wouldn't have gotten before?

RIPLEY: Well, I'll tell you, Meghna, I left the protest, and it was weird. I was commenting on it later to my husband. I'm like, I've never felt more fulfilled after leaving a protest, talking to a bunch of people I totally disagree with. So I don't know. I felt like I understood the variance within the group better. Like you could tell, like, she's not fitting into a simple category, right?

And that is interesting and important. And the producer I did this with, Starts with Us, which is a nonprofit working on America's divides. The producer said to me afterwards, she's like, you know, this kind of ruined all protests for me going forward. Because we had to let go of our conviction and outrage. And that's in some ways a little harder, but a lot better.

This program aired on July 26, 2022.


Headshot of Dorey Scheimer

Dorey Scheimer Senior Editor, On Point
Dorey Scheimer is a senior editor at On Point.


Headshot of Meghna Chakrabarti

Meghna Chakrabarti Host, On Point
Meghna Chakrabarti is the host of On Point.



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