A new journalism, past fear-mongering

Reporting solutions is a form of resistance in its own right.

 

Most people who pass through Raton, New Mexico, on I-25 are bound for elsewhere. Ever since Raton’s coal mines went bust, there hasn’t been much to draw tourists or new residents. Yet as the Santa Fe New Mexican reported recently, Raton is bouncing back: Local leaders are exploring new business opportunities, funding for infrastructure is rolling in, and entrepreneurs are opening shops. Raton’s future looks brighter today than it has in decades.

If you listened to Donald Trump on the stump this year, you might consider Raton’s optimism anomalous. Trump’s election was a victory for many factions, from alienated Rust Belt voters to the insidious alt-right. Most of all, though, it was a triumph for failure. Throughout his campaign, the president-elect portrayed America as a failed state besieged by ISIS abroad and immigrants at home, hollowed out by manufacturing’s collapse and Obamacare’s costs, plagued by crime and political correctness. Fossil-fuel towns, like Raton, were purportedly the bleakest places of all.

There was, of course, some truth in Trump’s grim appraisal. America has grown more unequal, and economic recovery has disproportionately benefited society’s wealthiest strata. In other ways, though, things look pretty good. Violent crime has plummeted, the labor market continues to grow, and gas prices remain dirt-cheap. This summer, delegates at the Republican National Convention were almost universally optimistic about their own region’s economy, even as they insisted that the country as a whole was on the brink of collapse. The Atlantic’s James Fallows spent three years visiting rural towns and small cities, and observed the same disconnect.

“(A)lmost every place you went, people felt, boy, it’s really a troubled time for America,” Fallows said recently. But from Allentown, Pennsylvania, to Ajo, Arizona, folks also felt that “things were moving at least in the right direction” in their own communities.

We truly are a nation divided — and the starkest line runs between “here” and “everywhere else.”

The reasons for this division are complex, but the media’s fixation with disaster surely shoulders some blame. It’s no wonder Trump’s dour narrative struck a chord: It’s the same story voters encounter every time they turn on the TV or collect their newspaper. When people in rural areas consume news about cities, they’re bombarded with violence, civil unrest, and the condescension of cultural elites. When city-dwellers read about their country counterparts, they’re treated to meth addiction, guns and rural blight. Each side views the other as the source of social rot.

Since April, I’ve been working with the Solutions Journalism Network and the LOR Foundation to demonstrate that reporting on solutions, rather than merely problems, can bridge our deepest social chasms. In partnership with seven newsrooms, including newspapers, magazines, and television and radio stations, our project, called “Small Towns, Big Change,” produced more than 50 stories about prospective fixes to seemingly intractable challenges. How can towns protect themselves against wildfire while safeguarding their water supplies? Can group therapy sessions help combat opioid abuse? Is it possible for community-run libraries to help fill the void left by underfunded schools? And how do natural resource economies, like Raton’s, escape the boom-bust cycle? 

There is a perception that positive news is inherently fluff. Yet solutions-style reporting can be as investigative as antagonistic journalism. One project story focused on Española, a New Mexico community ravaged by substance abuse, where an array of interventions haven’t overcome the poverty and unemployment that underpin addiction. Solutions reporting doesn’t gloss over inequity; neither does it surrender to it. Our victories have been modest but real: A story about an education initiative for migrant students inspired a university professor to recruit the program’s graduates. A package of articles about jobs and the economy led Taos residents to host a community forum about countering the town’s brain drain. Those stories mattered.

Donald Trump’s presidency will pose unprecedented dilemmas for journalists. Reporters will be tasked with exposing the lies and depredations of a man who has shown a historic disregard for the truth and disdain for the press, and whose business entanglements suggest the potential for massive corruption. Journalism will be more important than ever.

But covering Trump, and closing the rifts he’s exposed and helped widen, will also require telling new stories — stories that refute the claim that America’s institutions, policies and communities are shattered. We have problems, yes, and big ones. Yet we have as much reason to hope as to despair. Trump campaigned not only on the country’s brokenness, but also on the promise that he alone could fix it. By reporting on solutions, we can demonstrate that America is already under repair — a form of resistance in its own right.

Ben Goldfarb is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News. He is a correspondent for the magazine.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at betsym@hcn.org.