Journalism and Democracy

David Bornstein
Source: Ashoka

Ashoka Fellow David Bornstein: "I covered the murder of a woman when I was writing for New York Newsday. And I remember reporting that story — it was really heartbreaking — and my editor calling me up at 5 a.m. the next morning to tell me what a great job I had done, because I'd gotten these really extraordinary details. And I actually just felt the opposite. 

"I thought, yeah, maybe it was a good job reporting, but what had I really sent out into the world? And that story really tipped it for me. I thought, you know, what I really have to look for are different kinds of stories to tell: how do you help people see the world through the lens of possibilities? What are the options available to people to build a better world, as opposed to what the news generally gives people, which is a sense of what you should be fearful of; what you should judge.

"I think, in general, the news has been harmful in many ways to democracy. It has overwhelmingly told people stories about what's broken; about what you should be afraid of; about who you shouldn't trust. Solutions journalism is simply rigorous reporting that looks at how people are responding to problems, and really what we can learn from it.

"If you're an editor of a newspaper and you've covered, let's say, the opioid crisis in your community, and you've done 20 stories about it, all about the pain and suffering, it begs the question: have you given your community a sense of what their options are to do better?

"There are other communities that are doing smarter things to prevent overdoses or to to help people who have had addictions, and if you give people only one side of the picture, you're not actually activating people to be powerful members of a democracy. In some cases, you're making them feel powerless, and in other cases you're making them feel hopeless.

"We've really been the leading organization advocating or advancing for solutions journalism to be integrated into the news in a more systematic way, because that's what people want to do. We're wired to try to fix things. I mean our brains are adapted to solve problems. Journalism should feed that capacity.

"So I think that there's a huge opportunity to improve journalism, and in so doing to strengthen democracy."