Reframing newsletter

Shining a Light on the Solutions

February 9, 2017

Just after the election, the New York Times published an op-ed that has important guidance for the human service sector as we seek to engage the public’s support to address key societal challenges. “When Reportage Turns to Cynicism,” authored by David Bornstein and Tina Rosenberg of the Solutions Journalism Network, analyzes the impact of a decades-long trend in journalism of focusing on problems and crises without identifying the many ways in which communities are rallying to provide solutions:

We’re talking about a problem at the very core of journalism: the unstated theory of change that might be summed up as: “Society will get better when we show where it is going wrong.” We are presenting what’s wrong with the world as if that’s all there is. (Source: New York Times)

The result is a public that is overwhelmed by these problems and skeptical of the ability of government and other institutions to implement effective solutions.

Journalists aren’t alone in presenting challenges as too big to solve. Human services communications often do the same, using stark language about the size and scope of a problem. While our goal is to encourage the public to prioritize an issue, FrameWorks Institute’s research consistently indicates that we instead have the opposite effect, leaving the public overwhelmed by the problems and doubtful that anything can be done to adequately address the issue.

So what can we as a sector do to re-engage the public?

  • First, remember that the public does not need to be convinced that serious problems exist, they need to be convinced that we can solve them, with their help. When we communicate directly with the public, whether through a fundraising appeal or an advocacy campaign, we should prominently and consistently articulate the policies and programs that are currently working in our communities, or that we know will work if implemented and fully supported.
  • Second, we can focus our media strategies on directing journalists towards the many ways that communities are addressing challenges. When journalists reach out to us wanting to know more about a challenge the community is facing, avoid the temptation to provide extreme examples with the-sky-is-falling language. Instead, point to affirmative actions that community groups and leaders are taking to address the problem. As Bornstein and Rosenberg put it:

Every major problem presents opportunities for reporters to show how people are responding. Whether an effort fails, is marginally successful or work works well, it provides information crucial to democracy. It shows that people care. It helps new ideas circulate. It shows that incremental system change is possible. (Source: New York Times)

FrameWorks’ multi-media learning module, The Wide Angle Lens, provides good guidance on working with the media to tell a more complete story that includes the solutions.

These strategies, along with using the research-based Building Well-Being Narrative, will provide the public with a more complete understanding of the role and value of human services, as well as the opportunities that exist for the public to ensure that their communities are realizing the full benefits of what human services have to offer.