Possibility Journalism: An Emerging Trend?

As I reflected on Journalism that Matters-Silicon Valley, it struck me that my favorite subject – the power of story to inspire and engage, was a very quiet theme at this particular gathering. It got me thinking about the need to say something about what is emerging is this arena.
It began for me with three threads of the Journalism that Matters-Memphis session:

  • Geneva Overholser, Hurley Chair in Public Affairs Reporting, University of Missouri, introduced herself saying:

“I had been depressed. A couple of years ago, I resolved to find hope. When you open yourself to possibility you are willing to experience stuff you haven’t experienced before.”
What a fabulous discovery: finding hope is a choice. Could Geneva’s comment be indicative of an emerging trend?

  • Then I saw a quote from Martin Luther King, Jr. at the National Civil Rights Museum:

“But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough, can you see the stars. …”

What a profound insight when so much coverage is about the dark! Why not also look at the stars in the story?

  • The capper was witnessing two veteran reporters interview the mother of Josh Wolf — the video blogger who went to jail for refusing a federal grand jury’s request to turn over video he shot of a burning police car during last year’s G8 protest. The interview prompted me to ask her a question that struck me as a way to see the stars:

“Given all you’ve experienced, what the best possible outcome you can imagine?”

I was stunned by her powerful and cogent response — that she hoped Josh’s situation provided clarity about the application of first amendment rights to emerging types of journalists — because it shifted the interview’s tone from frustration and defeat to hope and possibility.

It made me wonder what would happen if the essential questions of journalism added something to

who? what? when? where? why? and how? — namely,
What’s possible now?

And then Stephen Silha and I interviewed Journalism that Matters alum Sarah Stuteville and one of her partners, Jessica Partnow about the Common Language Project, a startup that took shape at Journalism that Matters-Kalamazoo. CLP puts a human face on international stories.

To my surprise, Jessica told us that asking “what’s possible now” has become central to their style of reporting. Sarah then told us this story:

The first time I used “what’s possible now” was reporting in little Pakistan in Brooklyn. I was hearing about the experience of families of deportations, mostly young men. I was talking to that community and to the non-Pakistani community who had very different feelings. People felt strongly on different sides of same issues. I think the first time I asked “what’s possible now”, may have come out of frustration. It is hard to have conversations and not get anywhere. I threw my hands up and said ok, “what is your ideal solution?” And everything changed. (the interview)

Sarah then offered a second story:

We – Jessica and I – were in the Middle East, talking with a Palestinian about frustrating, polarizing material. He kept repeating the same ideas over and over so we asked that magic question: “given what’s happening, what’s possible now?” It shifted the interview completely, as our contact began envisioning the situation in a completely new way. (the interview)

The stories we tell ourselves shape the way we see the world. And that shapes our behavior. A trend towards asking “what’s possible now?” follows the energy towards our hopes and aspirations. Sounds to me like a trend worth amplifying!!!

A coda to this story: Josh Wolf attended NewsTools 2008. Here’s a video interview done by David Cohn during NewsTools. In a second interview, by From the Frontline, Josh describes an interesting idea for a live internet news network that harnesses live video broadcasting tools like Qik, Flixwagon and Ustream.tv coupled with the microblogging tool Twitter and Skype call ins.



Filed under Events, Journalism's Emerging Narrative

6 responses to “Possibility Journalism: An Emerging Trend?

  1. Pingback: An ecology of story for the well-being of community and democracy « Journalism that Matters

  2. ssilha

    Peggy — I thought you’d be interested in these notes from a session on solutions storytelling at Media That Matters:

    Forum Title: Solutions Storytelling

    Convenors: Stephen Silha, Sarah van Gelder

    Who was present:
    Sharon Sjerven, Essential Idea, Sharon@tcities.ca
    Anne Erickson, TellTale Stories, anne@telltalestories.ca
    James John Bell, SmartMeme Studios, james@smartmemestudios.com
    Sally Fox, sally@sallyfox.com
    Grace Stahre, Versant Media, gstahre@gmail.com

    Stephen described his experience working for mainstream media, why he left after one summer at the Minneapolis Star and went to The Christian Science Monitor.

    From the Monitor’s way of approaching Solutions storytelling:
    1) Tell the story so that it could be told 5 days later
    How plane crashes could be avoided?
    2) Give people “handles” on the news, e.g., how you can learn more or get involved
    3) Reporting from a futures perspective

    But still – they believed in two sides (every story has two sides), when Stephen thought there should be conscious ways to represent more sides.

    Years later Stephen met Sarah van Gelder- who understood solutions storytelling They
    worked together on a transition issue of Yes! Magazine.

    Sarah: We are stuck in old paradigms of what is possible
    Yes! is trying to show that there are other options – and that you can be involved
    The old way is falling apart
    What is that new thing that is emerging?
    How can we contribute to fresh imagination by reframing our storytelling? What would it mean if we reported on the new ways that are struggling to be born with as much attention and rigor as most media focuses on the old ways that are dying?

    Three levels of Solutions Storytelling
    There are three ways to think about any solution-oriented story telling:

    1) The immediate story – with specific implications: Understanding of a specific issue: e.g. impact of NAFTA on the Mexican food system. Information about how farmers are resisting and building alternatives. Models that can be replicated (e.g. fair trade co-ops) and supported. Specific ways that the reader can be involved.

    2) The larger trends – the objective forces that are shaping our times.
    For example, Globalization and its many impacts around the world. – global justice resistance movements, the relationship between resistance and building alternatives. The large environmental, economic, social justice, technology, and war&peace dynamics that influence nearly every story.

    3) The big stories –the belief systems (or “memes”) that make sense of events. The subjective side. The struggle over the story of an event, for example 9/11, has huge influence on what happens next. The story about why working people are struggling, why the climate is changing, The subjective side of it – what do we believe about what is going on in the world and what power/rights/responsibilities we have to affect what happens?

    For example, one belief: TINA: There Is No Alternative to global corporate capitalism, and all that goes with it (coined by Margaret Thatcher). The implication: don’t even try to change this system.

    We can show with our stories that in fact the seeds of a new society are being created every day. And that activism and the building of alternative and autonomous spaces is having a huge impact – many peoples are taking an entirely different direction.

    Another belief set: The Liberal story – focuses on the oppressed and the victimized, shown as passive objects but rarely as the subjects of the story. The implication is that some beneficent person, organization, or social system may help, but that the oppressed will remain the passive beneficiaries or victims.

    We can show that many poor and marginalized people are also taking a stand for their own liberation, and for the liberation of all, and are the active creators of the future. Implication: poor people, marginalized people are allies who are already a powerful force for change.

    The Conservative story set: If you are poor– you are less worthy, because, in the Calvinist world view, those who work hard and act righteously are rewarded with wealth (and are loved best by God).

    We can show that wealth concentrates in fewer and fewer hands because of an economic system that has concentration built in, and a political system that is most responsive to economic power.

    In the Yes! story, victims become the protaganists
    Solidarity is good strategy.
    One of the big stories, even in liberal press – is “you can’t take action” –“this is too complex” We show that people are plenty smart enough to take on complex questions.

    Readers get a sense of hope in reading Yes! magazine. Grievances aren’t enough to start social movements. Grievances, piled on grievances can lead to despair. But grievances coupled with hope, with connection to others, and with examples of others who are changing their circumstances can start social movements.

    If you are able to “see” the dominant belief system, and to recognize it as one of a number of possible belief systems – it is already on the way out.
    People who immerse themselves in other cultures often see that the narrative and belief system of each culture is different, and thus, are more able to reflect on their own.

    Today, the belief systems, especially in North America, may be changing more quickly than the institutions that structure our lives. There is extraordinary inertia in these institutions, and they are holding back progress.

    We then split into two groups to examine specific stories and see if we could shift their frame to a solutions-oriented approach.

    Sarah and Stephen suggested these areas of inquiry:

    Is the reporter assuming the story is polarized to two sides? Or might there be perhaps more sides? Is the reporter assuming that the various stances are the familiar ones, e.g. jobs versus environment, and is that accurate?

    Is there an assumption that everyone is representing pre-ordained values set: e.g. environmentalists, loggers, fundamentalists? Or are there other breakdowns that are more accurate?

    Who is the protagonist? Who is passive and who is active? Is the reporter reinforcing power relationships by overlooking the strengths and active role of the oppressed, or failing to show the ways that the powerful can be affected by others?

    What questions bring out the wisdom and creativity of the story subjects, such as this one: “What’s possible now?”

    What can be appreciated in even the most difficult situation? How could we pay attention to the strengths within a tragic situation, and how does doing so change the story?

    What are we assuming about our audience — who they are and what they are looking for? What in our stories can the reader/listener/viewer use? What can support them in being the creators of their own future?

    What are the deeper objective systemic issues involved, and how does the story help to illuminate them?

    What are the deep stories, mythologies, cultural assumptions?

    What is possible, building on people’s strengths and aspirations, and the historical moment?

    Sally and Stephen looked at the Glacier Mining story on Maury Island. A big a-ha came when we considered changing the protagonist of the story from poor islanders threatened by Japanese mining corporation to the ecological balance of Maury Island.

    A second group looked at a small town facing a water privatization plan, and how they were able to reframe the story as about a community that loves and is committed to its watershed (rather than a story about being anti-corporate or careless about job creation). Also, we looked at how the multiple sides of a story allowed unexpected and powerful coalitions to form among people who were not accustomed to working together.

  3. wpdensmore

    The idea that journalism should — or at least can — be focused explicitly on improving the human condition can be parsed in many ways. One example of “possibility journalism” might be the work of the Understanding Government (http://www.understandinggov.org)

    The non-profit defines The concept of “preventive journalism” as . . . “reporting that identifies inept leaders, wrong-headed policies and bureaucratic bungling before they lead to disasters like the
    bad intelligence about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and the travesty that was the response to Katrina. The 501(c)3 offers a $50,000 price for published articles which:

    (1) investigate a problem at an early stage, before it can become a crisis, or

    (2) inform the public about new and effective solutions to persistent public problems.


  4. Pingback: Cultivating Story Fields | Cruxcatalyst: The Heart of Change

  5. Pingback: Cultivating Story Fields « The Zeitgeist Movement Malaysia

  6. Pingback: Cultivating Story Fields | The Zeitgeist Movement Malaysia

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