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April 14, 2016, noon
Reporting & Production
LINK:  ➚   |   Posted by: Shan Wang   |   April 14, 2016

It’s tough to be in the business of local news. A local outlet’s occasional heartwarming viral hit won’t exactly generate loyal readers, let alone paying subscribers, but not-so-happy coverage can feel relentless.

“In local news the only thing they report on are bad things, only negative things…They are not showing us how to change the community,” one South Los Angeles resident was quoted saying during a focus group conducted during the course of a project on how solutions-oriented journalism impacts African-American and Latino communities.

Solutions journalism’s focus is to provide some possible ways to address the issues raised in what might otherwise feel like hopeless stories alongside all those “negative things.” Its prominent champion is the Solutions Journalism Network, founded in 2013 by David Bornstein and Tina Rosenberg, which highlights that solutions journalism “can include reporting on responses that are working, partially working, or not working at all but producing useful insights.”

A Tow Center report released Thursday relays the findings of a series of six focus groups conducted in South L.A. with a total of 48 total African American and Latino men and women (youngest 21, oldest 59) to understand how this group of participants consumes the news, how they feel about media coverage of South L.A., and whether there was potential for solutions journalism to change these readers’ relationship with their local news.

Some participants read at the outset a version of a story about the lack of outdoor play space for children that offered no solutions; others read a version that also reported on some efforts to remedy this scarcity. All participants then also read the alternative version of the story, and were ultimately introduced to and asked to discuss the concept of solutions journalism.

(This project built on research done over the years by the University of Southern California’s Metamorphosis Project.)

The report found that the participants were generally not happy with media coverage of South L.A.:

[M]any mentioned a gap between their observed experience and what is reported. A few cited examples of what they viewed as newsworthy events, both positive (e.g., a festival) and negative (e.g., a shooting), that they had witnessed firsthand but which never made the news. Some attributed this disconnect to the commercial priorities of media, while others were openly suspicious of the media’s motives. As one man said, “They keep you out of focus on what’s really going on.” Many lamented news’s emphasis on entertainment, though some acknowledged continuing to consume this type of content anyway. Participants were critical of news media’s (and particularly television news’s) “circus”-like quality, its lack of investigation or follow-up coverage, or attempts to hold responsible parties accountable.

These participants, for the most part, “expressed appreciation” for the solutions-oriented story they read:

Those groups that were first asked to read the non-solutions version of the story — which only discussed challenges presented by vacant lots and did not include efforts to address the problem — often, unprompted, suggested the story would have been better had it included solutions. Several volunteered prompts for how they would tell the story differently by including ideas for how to develop the lots to serve community needs.

Solutions journalism generated some measured optimism among participants:

While there was enthusiasm for the particular solutions-oriented story discussed and the larger concept of solutions journalism, we also heard reservations. Residents were quick to situate solutions offered in the context of the larger scope and scale of systemic challenges facing South Los Angeles. As one 56-year-old man pointed out, “That’s just like, one story…where we come from, that’s like a drop in the bucket.”

A critical concern was that solutions-oriented stories must be careful not to neglect a detailed exploration of the problem or to suggest there is not a continued need to press for action. “If all of it is positive, it kind of glossed over the problem,” said a 59-year-old Latino participant. “It kind of also gives you a feeling of ‘oh, no problem…it’s taking care of itself.'”

The full report by Andrea Wenzel and Daniela Gerson, and Evelyn Moreno is available here.

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