Solutions Journalism

Good News Never Gets Old

The other day I was going through some files and happened upon a study I hadn’t looked at in a couple of years: Solutions Storytelling: Messaging to Mobilize Support for Children’s Issues.

Like the first I time read it, I found its findings refreshing and inspiring and filled with excellent guidance for those of us on the lookout for evidence of what works in social change communications. Especially uplifting was the study’s underlying message that people pay attention to “good news” and they want to hear about solutions to problems that are working.

By way of background, this research was conducted on behalf of Child Advocacy 360, a group founded by a former publishing executive Hershel Sarbin. Sarbin’s goal is to “use the power of good news journalism and success stories to effect community, state and national change in social policy.”

Sarbin, who spent most of his professional career running Ziff-Davis Publishing and Cowles Business Media is no stranger to effective communications. He’s also a strong believer that if people had more information about the good things being achieved on behalf of children, more people–individual citizens and policymakers alike–would be more inclined to support solutions for kids that are working.

It’s not much of a stretch to take that underlying premise–that news about effective solutions can be a galvanizing force for work on behalf of children–and apply it to a range of social change programs that are focused on making the world a better place.

For the study, Topos Partnership, working with Douglas Gould & Company, conducted online survey interviews with 2,006 registered voters nationwide. They also held six focus group sessions with voters in three states, and TalkBack Testing, in which 240 participants were tested on their ability to repeat the core of a message and pass it on to others.

Here’s what the study revealed about how to communicate effectively, including what to do and what to avoid:

  • Don’t dwell on problems. While discussing problems has some benefits, “it can also backfire.”  As the research discovered, “Problem-focused stories increase support for government action, but at the same time increase cynicism about  the ability of government and citizens to solve these problems.”
  • If you want action that leads to better outcomes tell stories that describe solutions.  “People want to know who’s doing what that works.  Give good news a chance.  Instead of focusing on charity, emphasize the fact that collective responsibility and the power of people working together for change, yields solutions.”
  • Make it clear who benefits. In communicating about what works and what needs to be done, keep communities “in the forefront” as beneficiaries of what’s working.
  • Help people see the “big picture.”  “Briefly discussing a number of very different programs is one straightforward way of focusing less on a particular case study, and more on the general principle that we can and should be taking greater responsibility” solving problems in our communities.
  • Be more aggressive in making the case for necessary programs. “When people have a concrete picture of how a program helps, they are more likely to see it as important” (and necessary).
  • Don’t leave people guessing about what they should do—give them examples. “Communicators should specifically incorporate model examples of the behavior we want to encourage. Modeling behavior helps people visualize the ways they could make a difference.”
  • Show proof of effectiveness, but don’t obsess over what will be convincing.  Researchers found that “people’s standard of ‘proof’ isn’t particularly high, as long as they have a sense of how an intervention helps.” It’s always best to use hard statistical proof, if you have it. But if not, anecdotal support can sometimes be just as effective.

In the final analysis, this report contains a lot of what we all have believed. It also underscores the importance of what many of us spend our time doing—trying to connect people to stories that demonstrate what works. But now, along with guidance to help shape our messages, we have some assurance that these approaches work.

Posted: August 12, 2014