Six weeks have passed since I joined the media partnerships team at the Gates Foundation — just enough time to understand what we do, what our partners do, and how we measure any progress made in advancing our goals. Last week we hosted our annual media partners convening, which brings together all of our media grantees to discuss a number of issues related to media, social change, and measuring impact. All this week I’ll be publishing a series of short posts that summarize some of the discussions.

Innovative Storytelling & Broccoli Milkshakes

What’s important is not always interesting and what’s interesting is not always important. How do we turn the broccoli of news into mouth-watering milkshakes so that it can compete for our fragmented attention that is naturally drawn to dramatic series like House of Cards, or the latest updates about sports, technology and celebrity gossip?

The first session featured four media organizations that take new approaches in their coverage of complex topics.

Stand Up Planet

Global development is a serious issue that can save hundreds of millions of lives, but the earnestness and sanctity of how development is covered by the media can be off-putting to a generation of millenials that has grown up with the Daily Show and Dave Chappelle. Stand Up Planet, a new series that debuts this Wednesday on KCET and Link TV, uses stand-up comedy in the US, South Africa and India to discuss development by using laugh lines rather than tugging at heart strings:

Planet Money

Robert Smith of Planet Money (not a grantee, but we’re fans) showed the importance of good storytelling with two brief audio clips. The first was your usual two-minute market update: “the Dow was up X percent on new of blah, blah, blah. The NASDAQ Composite fell Y points after Z earning reports showed blah, blah, blah.” These updates are in one ear and out the other. “Don’t try to explain the world with numbers,” advises Robert. “Use stories to explain numbers.” He emphasizes the point by playing a second audio clip, this time from the famed Planet Money episode on the housing crisis. The clip centers around a single number, $540,000. That’s the amount that Clarence Nathan was given in a home loan despite the fact that he had no assets and no secure income.

None of us in the room could remember any of up the numbers from the market update, but we’ll always remember the story of Clarence Nathan. Numbers come alive and gain meaning with stories.

Solutions Journalism and Seattle Times Education Lab

David Bornstein of the New York Times column Fixes made an offhand remark about journalism that I had never heard. At some point, he observed, the journalism industry settled on the consensus that it would be legalistic rather than scientific. It treats the world like a series of court cases rather than scientific experiments. As such, most media coverage of education in the US goes like this:

  • Are the Common Core State Standards good or bad?
  • Are charter schools good or bad?
  • Are teacher rankings good or bad?
  • Are teachers unions helpful or harmful?

Solutions-oriented journalism promotes a scientific approach to journalism. Rather than summarizing the case of he said vs. she said, it identifies a problem (say, low college readiness among high school graduates) and then evaluates approaches that have been taken to address the problem. Not only is the journalism more engaging, but it gets the community to discuss pro-active solutions instead of simply complaining about all that is wrong with the world.

Last year the Seattle Times partnered with the Solutions Journalism Network and launched Education Lab, a solutions-oriented approach to reporting on education in the Seattle metro area. To get started, the reporters dug through troves of education data to uncover those schools that were out-performing compared to neighboring schools, and then investigated  to determine what they were doing differently.

Beyond mere reporting, they have experimented with a number of approaches to involve the communities in discussions about solutions to improve education — from live chats with local experts to Google Hangouts and in-person town hall style events.

Aspen New Voices Fellowship

Bornstein’s observation that the media treat the world like a series of court cases is clearly reflected in their coverage of aid and development. The majority of international media coverage about development can be summed up in three words: “Good or bad?” Or, more likely: “Jeffrey Sachs versus William Easterly.” These binary debates treat development as if it were a single activity and almost always ignore those that should be at the heart of the development discussion: the individuals who implement and are affected by development interventions.

The Aspen Institute’s New Voices Fellowship launched in 2013 to work with development experts from developing countries to help build their influence and presence in international media. Jacques Sebisaho, a 2013 fellow from Idjwi Island on Lake Kivu, which borders the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda, described his experience in the fellowship program. “In Africa, humility and modesty are two of the most important values,” he remarked. Most of the fellows weren’t accustomed to asserting themselves as experts and shied away from the kind of self-promotion that is commonplace among development experts in the US. Throughout the year they took time away from their busy schedules to work with mentors on media training, storytelling and social media. With practice they became comfortable telling personal stories on stage at various TEDx events, or offering quick answers to general questions during TV interviews. As founder of Amani Global Works, which takes a holistic approach to improving wellbeing on Idjwi Island, Sebisaho came to realize the power of storytelling and social media to draw attention and resources to his work. As we listened to his story, I was mystified that pundits like Sachs and Easterly receive so much attention compared to entrepreneurs like Sebisaho.

The majority of today’s media still cite numbers instead of explaining them with stories. They assume that complexity and humor can’t coexist. They allocate more space and attention to problems than solutions. And they flock to the loudest, most extreme pundits while mostly ignoring those who are working on the ground. Our first session profiled four organizations that believe that what is important can also interesting and engaging.

Tomorrow I’ll take a look at Jeff Jarvis’ notion of “journalism as service” and what some media organizations are doing to deepen the engagement of their audiences.

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