Substantive local news is a rare commodity in many communities across the United States. In areas with high levels of violence, crime, and poverty, a history of stigmatization can further compound this absence. Often the only local news available is negative.
This report explores potential impacts of local solutions journalism, particularly for underrepresented and stigmatized communities. Solutions journalism explores responses to systemic social problems—critically examining problem solving efforts that have the potential to scale.
Proponents of this genre of journalism believe these types of stories offer a pathway to engaging audiences. Preliminary research suggests readers of solutions-oriented stories are more likely to share articles and seek related information.
However, little research has explored solutions journalism at the local level or in stigmatized communities. This study attempts to address that gap. In follow-up to a community-based media project in South Los Angeles, six focus groups with forty-eight African-American and Latino residents examined how participants responded to the solutions journalism format.
The study’s findings illustrate how residents navigate and critically interpret mainstream local coverage, often using alternative digital sources to cross-check stories and seek other information. Its results also suggest that these residents would respond positively to solutions journalism—though participants’ enthusiasm may be tempered by larger concerns regarding structural inequalities. Focus group participants said they would be more likely to seek out news and share stories if solutions journalism were more common, and many noted that our sample stories helped them envision a way to become personally involved in community problem solving.
PDFs and printed copies of this report are available on the Tow Center’s Gitbook page.
Why So Much “Bad News”?
“In local news the only thing they report on are bad things, only negative things …They are not showing us how to change the community.”
“What I have to do is just block myself away from that. Shut the news up because it ain’t nothing but an ignorant box anyway.”
-South Los Angeles focus group participants
In a journalistic environment where the mantra “if it bleeds, it leads” continues to resonate—and is amplified ever more by the clickbait web—there is a professional bias in favor of reporting on violence, crime, police brutality, and other negative tropes. But how do audiences process and react to stories about their communities presented within negative frames? How would stories that address these systemic problems—while also exploring their solutions—impact readers?
Looking at research about how audiences process negative information helps to contextualize negative journalism frames. Political science studies have found that negative stories largely have a greater influence on audiences’ perceptions of candidates and voting behavior.2 Readers are more likely to click a hyperlink to a negative political story than a link with a positive headline.3
Several studies in psychology complement findings of a “negativity bias,” which suggests that people devote more attention to processing negative information,4 are more likely to think it’s true,5 and to remember it.6 Researchers argue that the strength of bad over good makes evolutionary sense and that humans are actually hardwired to be more psycho-physiologically aroused by negative news.7
However, bad news is only influential when people are willing to consume it. A 2008 study of young people’s media habits by the Associated Press found that many complained about the negativity of news. They reported turning to satirical “fake news” outlets like The Daily Show with Jon Stewart as an antidote to their “news fatigue.”8
Negative framing has also demonstrated itself to be a risky strategy in the realm of political, humanitarian, and social change campaigns. Research on the impact of negative political messages shows mixed results. While some defend the efficacy of negative messaging,9 others have found that negative messages cause audiences to stop seeking information.10 In the field of humanitarian campaigns, researchers document compassion fatigue—when messages trigger a sense of hopelessness—or even a boomerang effect—when audiences resent being subjected to messages that evoke guilt.11 Boomerang effects have also been associated with climate change communication, where dire messages about global warming appear to make people more skeptical about the phenomenon.12 In health communication, audiences that consumed media which framed health issues negatively were found to have lower perceptions of their own efficacy or behavioral intent around seeking preventative care.13
The outcome is ambiguous. Negative storytelling may be highly salient to audiences, but what audiences do with this information depends on a more complex web of factors.
Can News Be Good?
If humans are biased toward negativity, it follows that journalists are more likely to construct and curate negative news stories. Journalism often centers on documenting the problematic and acting as a watchdog, particularly the field’s “fourth estate” responsibility to keep citizens informed and hold government accountable.14 While some journalists question traditional concepts of objectivity, news norms throughout the ages have remained relatively fixed. What is determined to be news generally does not include the “normal,” the “good day,” or positive stability.15
Journalists, for good reason, can be resistant to efforts that deliberately showcase “good news” stories. Positive human-interest stories are often derogatorily labeled as puff pieces. These are tolerated—but are not regarded as serious journalism. Positive stories are frequently scrutinized as the potential outcomes of public relations initiatives16 or advocacy journalism, which remains “a dirty word for legacy journalists.”17 A series of movements, however, have come to fore in an attempt to push journalism toward not only highlighting problems but promoting solutions.
A group of scholars and journalists emerged in the 1960s and 1970s to challenge the conventions of news construction, and its reliance on negative references and conflict as a news value. Sociologist Johan Galtung, the driving force behind the movement, advocated for the practice of “peace journalism,” as opposed to the status quo that he called “war journalism.”18 Galtung called for a shift in framing toward a model more akin to health reporting—where journalists are encouraged to explore causes and strategies for prevention of disease.19 While peace journalism as a genre has many qualities in line with traditional ideas of responsible reporting, it does in some cases contain interventionist elements—for example, encouraging stories with an agreement-orientation versus only focusing on points of difference.20 Critics of peace journalism suggest it subverts fundamental tenets of objectivity and places undue responsibility on journalists for correcting global ills.21 But proponents of this and other strains of advocacy journalism say that objectivity is actually an obstacle which prevents journalism from playing a more constructive role in public life.22
Civic or Public Journalism
In the 1990s another movement emerged that sought to place journalism as an active player in the functioning of democracy. Civic journalism (or public journalism) advocated a “bottom-up framing of the news,” which prioritized non-elite sources setting a “citizens’ agenda.”23 One of its founding theorists, Jay Rosen, called upon journalists to:
- address people as citizens, potential participants in public affairs, rather than victims or spectators;
- help the political community act upon, rather than just learn about, its problems;
- improve the climate of public discussion, rather than simply watching it deteriorate;
- make public life go well, so that it earns its claim on our attention.24
This movement renewed a historical journalistic debate between Walter Lipmann and John Dewey over whether the journalist was just an observer, or rather an engaged actor who could shape public discourse. Civic journalism took the latter approach, arguing that reporters had a responsibility to craft their coverage so that the communities they represent engage with issues that impact them. A number of news outlets undertook civic/public journalism initiatives, and researchers noted cases that achieved success in sourcing greater numbers of non-elite and more diverse sources. Still, integrating civic/public practices into the mainstream of journalism remained a challenge.25
Solutions journalism builds on some of the concepts developed in peace and civic/public journalism. The Solutions Journalism Network, which was created in 2013 and has become a leading player in advancing the approach, defines solutions journalism as “rigorous and compelling reporting on responses to social problems.”26 Solutions journalism stories—which can cover a range of local, national, and international issues—are not advocacy pieces or “good news” stories. Nevertheless, they are in sync with calls from journalism scholars like Herbert Gans that we broaden definitions of “newsworthiness” to include “solutions for the country’s problems—advanced by people outside the mainstream.”27
The strongest solutions journalism stories use the rigor of investigative reporting to explore systemic, underlying reasons for social ills, and then critically examine efforts to address them. These are not stories about a problem that tack on a quick ending note as an afterthought about what could be done. Neither do they follow the formula identified by Gaye Tuchman, wherein media outlets present a solution as a way to “soothe the news consumers even as they reify social forces” by ensuring the public that “legitimated experts and authorities are doing everything they can.”28
In recent years, a number of media organizations have adopted regular segments that either explicitly set out to create a platform for solutions journalism, or (at least) to highlight social entrepreneurship and problem solving efforts.1 The Solutions Journalism Network has championed this genre, spearheading collaborations with mainstream outlets, including The Boston Globe, the Detroit Free Press,29 and The Seattle Times.30
Solutions journalism is also a potential revenue generator—offering something fresh for negative-news fatigued eyes hungry for positive innovation. The executive director of J-Lab, Jan Schaffer, who was previously a leader in the civic journalism movement,31 suggests that solutions-oriented stories can engage audiences and offer possible new business models:
If one shifts the periscope from new business models for journalism to new journalism models for news, I see the convergence of several trends that are beginning to provoke a new conversation about whether journalists can—and should—craft a more deliberate suite of tools that inspire movement and action. And if these tools were effective, would citizens begin to pay as much for news as they pay to go to, say, a TED conference?32
The Solutions Journalism Network believes solutions journalism can sell: “People are likely to pay for news that helps them understand how the world works.”33
At the heart of solutions-oriented journalism is an assumption that a solutions news frame will encourage greater audience engagement. J-Lab’s Schaffer points to examples of community participation in stories that focused on the redesign of streetscapes in Milwaukee and efforts to aid preschool enrollment in Chicago.34 The Knight Foundation posed the question: “The real challenge is, how do we move people from informed to engaged?” It thinks solutions-oriented journalism may offer the answer.35 Solutions Journalism Network co-founder David Bornstein sees journalism as “a feedback mechanism to help society self-correct” and believes that knowing about the problem alone is unlikely to generate corrective action. “People need to know what they can do—and how,” he said.36
There has been limited empirical research into how audiences respond to solutions journalism. Preliminary research conducted by the Solution Journalism Network and the University of Texas at Austin’s Engaging News Project revealed that readers of solutions-oriented stories felt more informed, and were more likely to share what they read and seek more information.37 However, there is a lack of research on how solutions journalism can be applied at the level of local and ethnic media—a level at which community members learn about issues closest to home and have the greatest chance of affecting change.
Why Local News Matters
Local-level news is the focus of this study, primarily because communication theory suggests it is critical to the maintenance of healthy communities. A lack of media discourse reflecting the concerns of local residents poses barriers not only to residents’ access to information, but also to their sense of community belonging and engagement.38 According to communication infrastructure theory, strong communities have strong storytelling networks—that is, residents, local and ethnic media, and community organizations are connected to each other and share an understanding about what is happening in their area. Researchers have found that residents’ connection to a shared storytelling network can predict higher levels of belonging, collective efficacy, and civic participation.39 However, in communities like South Los Angeles, these networks become problematic when the link between organizations and media is weak, the networks are ethnically bounded, or the content of the stories circulating is overwhelmingly negative.40 Residents who connect to such storytelling networks tend to be less engaged and lack a sense of belonging.
This study aims to contribute to the development of a model for healthier local storytelling networks. It responds to concerns about a dearth of constructive local coverage around both community problems and systematic efforts to address these challenges. The project explores how audiences process stories that have both been developed with input from community organizations and employ a solutions-oriented lens, as well as how the same audiences process local coverage of similar issues that use more traditional formats.
Research questions include:
- How do South LA residents process media coverage of their communities?
- How do South LA residents process stories that use a solutions-oriented journalistic format?
Our project builds upon research the Metamorphosis Project41 has been doing on the communication needs of residents in South LA and other diverse communities since 1998. It follows an attempt by the Metamorphosis Project to strengthen the South LA storytelling network in two ways. First, the project brought community organizations together with local and ethnic media for a series of workshops, which helped all the participants to overcome communications barriers that have plagued the story “pitching” process by giving them a shared language and greater understanding of their intersecting community interests. Second, the workshops facilitated the production of a series of stories leading up to the fiftieth anniversary of the Watts riots (“Watts Revisited”) and ensured that these stories were solutions-oriented.
To understand how South LA audiences responded to the stories that came out of this collaboration and how residents would process the solutions journalism format more broadly, a series of six focus group discussions centered around a story2 …adapted from the “Watts Revisited” collaboration.42 Two versions of the story were edited to offer examples of either A) a solutions-oriented story or B) a non-solutions version of the same story.3… While both stories examined the issue of vacant lots and the lack of outdoor spaces where children can play in South LA, only the solutions version looked at efforts to transform vacant lots into parks (see the Appendix for sample text).
Focus group participants, recruited with the assistance of community organizations, included a total of forty-eight African-American and Latino South LA adults (twenty-three women, twenty-five men; ages twenty-one to fifty-nine) who had lived in the area for a minimum of two years and reported at least occasionally reading news articles. Participants were assigned to groups clustered by ethnicity and language—three African-American groups (English-language) and three Latino groups (one Spanish-language and two English-language, in accordance with participants’ language preferences). Moderators for each group were Los Angeles natives and shared the participants’ ethnic background.
Upon arrival, participants in four of the six groups read the solutions version of the story before beginning the discussion. The other two control groups first read the non-solutions version. After volunteering their own media practices and attitudes toward how outlets cover South LA, the groups discussed the stories they read. After this, they were given the alternate version of the story to read and discuss, before being introduced to and invited to reflect upon the concept of solutions journalism. All focus groups were videotaped and transcribed. Transcripts were then thematically coded and analyzed.
Preliminary analysis of our findings offers insights into how residents of a stigmatized community navigate and interpret local coverage, and the opportunities and limitations of solutions journalism to engage these audiences.
Coping with Media Stigmatization
While many U.S. residents are distrustful of the media,4 the cynicism of South LA residents is grounded in a history of media portrayals that depict the high-poverty area as rife with violence, crime, and civil unrest. Focus group participants revealed how this media coverage impacts their interpretation of the news they consume.
Overall, participants expressed dissatisfaction with how South LA is covered.5… Many pointed to a disconnect between media portrayals and their experiences. As one woman explained, “You’re looking like, well, dang isn’t there anything positive in South LA? I know there’s a lot going on positive over here. Why are we not seeing that on the news? Why do we always see the bad stuff?”43
This is not to say there was no interest in or value placed on negative news. Several participants spoke of using news about crime or violence to judge if there were particular parts of their neighborhood they should avoid due to safety concerns. For example, one woman referenced an incident in the summer of 2015 when threats and rumors circulated on social media and mainstream news about “one hundred days and one hundred nights” of retaliatory gang violence. “I appreciate that you’re informing me about that situation so I know,” she said. News reports warned her that some of the neighborhoods she frequented might have been affected by violence: “It stopped me from walking into an ambush. I stopped going, and that way I didn’t have to put myself in harm’s way.”44
However, many mentioned a gap between their observed experience and what is reported. A few cited examples of what they viewed as newsworthy events, both positive (e.g., a festival) and negative (e.g., a shooting), that they had witnessed firsthand but which never made the news. Some attributed this disconnect to the commercial priorities of media, while others were openly suspicious of the media’s motives. As one man said, “They keep you out of focus on what’s really going on.”45 Many lamented news’s emphasis on entertainment, though some acknowledged continuing to consume this type of content anyway. Participants were critical of news media’s (and particularly television news’s) “circus”-like quality, its lack of investigation or follow-up coverage, or attempts to hold responsible parties accountable.
For these residents, dissatisfaction with local news is about more than a lack of quality coverage. Several participants spoke of local media as harmful, and as a contributor to racialized representations. One man explained:
It’s a lot of weight coming from negative exposure to media …It can have a heavy, negative mental or psychological effect on you. You have stuff going on in your own life, but then you hear about something bad that’s happening and it’s not even related to you. It can make it feel even worse.46
Others spoke of how the negative coverage stigmatizes residents to outsiders: “It makes us look like mostly criminals live around South LA,” said a twenty-year-old Latino participant.47 Another focus group member referenced watching television with his grandmother: “I’ll hear her say things like, ‘Lord, have mercy’ … I see the pain that she feels for people she doesn’t even know.” A young African-American man said while watching TV he felt moved by the racialized nature of news coverage:
I get filled with a bunch of emotions when I see the biased opinion of the media—when, say, a white guy goes out and starts shooting at places, they probably wouldn’t even show his picture. But if it was an African-American male, he would be blasted all over the media as an infamous person.48
Several participants lamented the lack of articulate community members representing them in the news. A fifty-six-year-old man recounted an incident where a reporter was looking for someone to react to an event in a park. “He picked out the cat that’s been sleeping on the bench all day to describe what just happened. And I’m standing right there. I’m fresh, I’m pressed … I’m literate,” he said, adding that the media perpetuates negative representations by “picking the worst grape” of the bunch.49 Others suggested this phenomenon is worsened by those reporters covering South LA, who tend to be outsiders to the area; they’re reportedly distant from the community, don’t take issues seriously, and at times even exacerbate local tensions by appearing to favor one group over another.
One participant felt that, as a young African-American man, some news personalities are disrespectful to people like himself. He said he tried to avoid news reported by journalists whom he felt “would dismiss me on the same topic.” He cited an example of television news he was watching about violence between African-American and Latino gangs. At the end of the story, the reporter, who was Latina, “made a comment that was, like, really offensive … something about leaving a ‘black eye on the community,’ ” he said. Given the reporter’s own ethnic background, he interpreted this as a racial slur and suggested insensitive comments by journalists could “create barriers.”50
Accounting for the problematic nature of local media coverage, residents have developed various strategies for finding out about the happenings in their communities. While some said their distrust causes them to limit their news intake and thus minimize the “stress” of negative coverage, others spoke of seeking out alternative sources. A few mentioned alternative weeklies and ethnic newspapers, particularly as ways to connect to positive community events. Several described how the Internet allows them to access a greater array of sources, which are largely seen as more trustworthy than local television news. For example, one woman said she avoided television because she thought it was too “sensationalist”:
I know that if I go [onto] the Internet I will find more veracity. I will not run only into one agency, but I will find many. For example, my brothers send me links and tell me, “Go here and go there.” So then I go … find a different opinion from the other news—that news is manipulated to interest the people.51
For her, the Internet also offers a way for trusted, interpersonal connections to mediate news sources—vetting them and giving them more authority. For many, interpersonal sources accessed both through face-to-face interaction and social media were considered the most reliable methods for learning about local information and verifying other sources. Those participants who consume legacy media described doing so with oppositional readings. For example, one man spoke of laughing through television broadcasts viewed as incomplete or disingenuous—and then calling his friends or family to find out what was “really” going on.52
Critical Optimism and Solutions Journalism
In contrast to general perceptions of media coverage, most respondents expressed appreciation for the solutions-oriented story introduced in the focus group. A number of participants said the article about abandoned lots and efforts to transform them into parks made them think about how they themselves could get involved with the issue. “What came to my mind is how I could volunteer,” said one person.53 Others looked beyond the particular case presented to other possibilities for community action: “You can look forward to changing something yourself if you have the same goal in mind.”54
Those groups that were first asked to read the non-solutions version of the story—which only discussed challenges presented by vacant lots and did not include efforts to address the problem—often, unprompted, suggested the story would have been better had it included solutions. Several volunteered prompts for how they would tell the story differently by including ideas for how to develop the lots to serve community needs. Meanwhile, some participants pointed out that even the non-solutions version of the story was more valuable than the “typical” South LA news piece focused on crime and social ills, because at least it incorporated articulate voices from community members affected by the issue. According to these participants, the non-solutions version of the story did not function as an average baseline of typical coverage. While they welcomed solutions journalism, they acknowledged that even negative coverage would be an improvement over the status quo if it were more in-depth and inclusive of community perspectives.
Solutions journalism’s problem solving orientation resonated with what several participants offered as the ideal role of news. They suggested that the purpose of news should be to go beyond traditional notions of journalistic objectivity. Some said news has a responsibility to facilitate positive community change and civic engagement. One participant noted that “news needs to be an actual participant in what’s happening rather than just reporting on it …it needs to be a part of the change.”55 A few expressed seemingly contradictory ideas. For example, one group reached a consensus that it was the job of the media to do no more than “tell the truth”—while at the same time the media also had a responsibility to “make us aware and give us a solution.”56 Participants reflected many of the controversies and contradictions embedded within strands of journalism. Overall, though, their ideas regarding a journalist’s role resonated more with solutions journalism, civic journalism, and peace journalism camps than with traditional schools of objective journalism.
While there was enthusiasm for the particular solutions-oriented story discussed and the larger concept of solutions journalism, we also heard reservations. Residents were quick to situate solutions offered in the context of the larger scope and scale of systemic challenges facing South Los Angeles. As one fifty-six-year-old man pointed out, “That’s just, like, one story … Where we come from, that’s like a drop in the bucket.”57
A critical concern was that solutions-oriented stories must be careful not to neglect a detailed exploration of the problem or to suggest there is not a continued need to press for action. “If all of it is positive, it kind of glossed over the problem,” said a fifty-nine-year old Latino participant. “It kind of also gives you a feeling of ‘oh, no problem … it’s taking care of itself.’ ”58 This concern resonates with Tuchman’s critical assessment of positive story elements—or the assurance that authorities are doing “everything they can” as a way of undercutting action or discontent from audiences.59 The participant cautioned that stories need to offer a mix of both positive potential solutions and analysis of more negative social problems:
You gotta be able to handle bad news. You can’t be like, “Oh, I don’t want to hear that because I might get depressed.” It’s not realistic to expect everything to be sunshine and lollipops in life. Anybody who’s grown up around here should know that already, but you gotta get the information out no matter what the impact is.60
Residents also had ideas about how solutions journalism could go further to critically challenge assumptions about South LA. After reading just one story, a selection of participants did not feel its impact would be sufficient as a standalone model. Instead, they suggested including more follow-up coverage and integrating community input.
Despite seeing a need for improvement, most panelists suggested they would be more likely to read or watch solutions-oriented stories if given the opportunity. They also said they would discuss solutions journalism stories with friends and families: “It offers more of a platform not to just discuss it, but … to tell them of how we can get involved to try to change it or trying to make something different.”61 Some even suggested that solutions journalism, and efforts to solicit community input on solutions, could help to strengthen connections in otherwise fragmented communities. “It would actually bring the community … back together.”62
Recommendations and Conclusions
This series of discussions offers an opportunity to learn from residents in an underprivileged area whose voices are rarely heard reflecting constructively on how their own community’s story is told. Those interviewed gave advice for how the media could better cover their South LA neighborhood and reflected on their particular media preferences and practices. From these conversations, we can offer the following recommendations for media outlets, as well as those organizations working with media:
- Adopting the Metamorphosis Project model of strengthening “storytelling networks” between community organizations, local/ethnic media, and residents is a primary way to develop local, community-based solutions journalism. These network connections are critical to long-term impacts on civic engagement and local involvement.
- Expanding engagement opportunities for resident involvement in various stages of story development and dissemination is one method for strengthening this model. Residents and organizations should be given opportunities to learn how to connect with media. Community foundations should invest in workshops that train community members around the best ways to communicate with journalists, and journalists to effectively listen to communities. This should create critical feedback loops that are cultivated over the long term.
- In underserved communities of color where audiences feel neglected and even harmed by traditional media coverage, solutions journalism offers a pathway to rebuild constructive and mutually beneficial relationships of greater trust. Even while looking for positive outcomes, reporters should take care to include thorough analysis of social problems as part of their coverage.
- Journalists seeking local sources in traditionally stigmatized communities should consider whom they ask to speak for that community, and, when appropriate, seek articulate and knowledgeable representatives. Reporters should be careful that while pursuing “characters” for a story they do not uncritically reproduce negative stereotypes.
- Local solutions journalism requires an investment in local reporting resources to enable follow-up coverage and the development of lasting relationships with communities beyond one-time stories. In addition, to cultivate trust within underrepresented areas, media must seek to develop reporters who come from the communities they report on—or, at minimum, enable reporters to embed themselves within communities in a way that allows them to be responsive to local sensitivities and concerns regarding representation.
Complementing these recommendations, additional research on local solutions journalism could further our understanding of the format’s potential. Future research might benefit from comparing the cumulative consumption of media diets that have either a greater number of solutions-oriented stories or more traditional stories in a longitudinal study. Such research may include a second control group—making for a total of three types of stories:
- a non-solutions, problem-oriented, or “bad news” story; and
- a “good news” story that highlights exceptional individuals doing positive things, usually without critical analysis or discussion of systemic change.
This would allow for an exploration of the hypothesis that readers of both “bad” and “good” news stories are likely to become or remain disengaged when they come away with a sense that there is nothing to be done. This research would require care to insure significant variance between good news and solutions-oriented stories, and additional resources to hold more focus groups. Lastly, the research could include study of local television and Internet sources to assess the broader potential for local solutions journalism, and potentially the circulation and validation of stories within social networks.
Studies such as the current one could be duplicated in multiple areas of the same city (for example, in a more affluent area such as West LA) to see how residents from different ethnic and class backgrounds respond to stories which are in close proximity but concern the “other.” Research might explore how residents react given that they are likely implicated in the power dynamics of the story (public resources may have historically been diverted to their neighborhoods; they may have greater resources to contribute to problem solving, etc.).
Finally, researchers should take care not to assume that questions developed for studies of national or international news can be applied without substantial adaptation to local contexts where audiences have firsthand experience with subject matter, and place-specific histories and power relationships with media.
Solutions-oriented journalism does not offer a magic bullet for engaging audiences as either media consumers or civic actors. We believe, however, that particularly in communities with a long history of overwhelmingly negative coverage stories featuring community perspectives that take a critical look at responses to social problems offer an opportunity to strengthen connections between residents, media, and community organizations. At the end of our discussion sessions, participants asked us how they could learn more about the issues raised in these stories. Many wanted to get involved. We hope our study showcases a few insights for media, other researchers, and community organizations as they explore how local news can become a more constructive actor in engaged and informed communities.
The following has been adapted from Deepa Fernandes’s story “Groups Work to Turn South LA Lots into Children’s Playgrounds,” broadcast on KPCC on April 30, 2015. The story was edited for length, and names of community members involved in the original piece have been changed. What follows was presented to focus group participants as an example of a solutions journalism story.
Sample Solutions Story
Empty space in South Los Angeles
For decades, an odd-shaped lot on King Boulevard in South Los Angeles sat vacant. Though fenced off from trespassers, trash collected inside its borders and the weeds grew brown and brittle. The property is one of thousands of parcels landowners have abandoned or left vacant, some in the wake of the Watt riots of summer 1965. Almost 3,000 lots sit vacant in South L. A. In comparison, West L.A. has 134 vacant lots and the Wilshire Miracle Mile district has 310 vacant lots.
Some community organizers are turning these abandoned spaces into play areas for young children and their families. Organizers Loretta Coleman and Alex Rosario met up recently at one of their projects: Serenity Park located next to railway tracks in Watts, where moms and dads can exercise on outdoor fitness equipment while their children enjoy state-of-the-art play structures. Coleman and Rosario want to see a similar metamorphosis at the King Boulevard lot. Last December, organizers turned it into a pop-up soccer field, with a concert stage in one corner and a kiddy play area in another. These day-long takeovers have been a hit with local residents, and fired up a growing movement to reclaim vacant lots for community betterment.
Tanya Kielser manages projects for The Public Land Alliance, the land conservation nonprofit that Watts residents sought out to help tackle the lack of park space in their communities. Kielser said Watts is a classic case of a “park-poor neighborhood.” “In an ideal world, everyone would have a park within a 10-minute walk of their home,” Kielser said.
“Within a half mile of the Watts Serenity Park, there were zero acres of park space per thousand people,” Kielser said. “The minimum standard for park acreage is four acres per 1,000 people.” Working with the community, Kielser and her team identified a suitable vacant plot and tracked down the owner. They got the plot appraised, wrote a state grant and bought the land for $875,000. Six years, and almost $5 million later, the blighted lot was transformed into Serenity Park.
On a recent morning, Marian Carter and her two toddlers were out enjoying Serenity Park. Carter lives in the Nickerson Gardens, a sprawling public housing complex nearby. “From our side of the community, from like Compton Avenue and Central, this is the nicest thing we have,” she said. Carter said she visits Serenity Park every single day. She works out on the fitness equipment while her children, Brianna, 3, and Kayla, 1, bounce between the swings and the sand pits. It’s a gated park and small enough that Carter can see her kids playing as she exercises. “I even tell my friends, I’m not going to 24 Hour Fitness. I’m not going to Bally’s. I’m going to the park in the neighborhood. It’s absolutely free and the kids can play closed in,” she said.
Research behind outdoor play
A growing body of scientific literature suggests that children like Brianna and Kayla will benefit from exposure to the outdoors.
Researcher and writer Richard Louv catalogues evidence in his book “Last Child in the Woods.” Louv said the literature finds an “impact on ADD, on obesity, on creativity, on the ability to learn, on cognitive functioning, on mental health in particular” in children who did not have regular outdoor play. “I think children, no matter where they live, have a human right to the positive benefits of experiences in nature,” Louv said.
Those benefits, he said, include a healthier immune system from playing in—and ostensibly ingesting—dirt. There has even been research that shows bacteria or infectious diseases, commonly shared between toddlers and preschoolers, are lessened when children are outdoors more.
Playing outdoors generally means children are more physically active. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends 90 to 120 minutes of moderate to vigorous-intensity physical activity for preschoolers during their typical eight-hour day in child care. The American Association of Pediatrics promotes this CDC guideline and preschools are expected to follow. But in South Los Angeles, few children attend preschool or child care, which means many children under 5 hang out at home given the dearth of parks.
Karen Deaver, former executive director of the Children’s Environmental Center, warns that in addition to physical health, a lack of unstructured outdoor play may have a negative effect on children’s development. “Nature provides all kinds of materials that are not uniform in size which fires up different parts of the brain,” she said.
Two decades ago, Deaver said, parents didn’t question the need to send a child outside to play, and run out their excess energy. “We know now that it’s much more than blowing off steam. It’s absolutely crucial for development because we know now that the children who are not getting those experiences are not doing as well and are not as ready for school,” she said. “Having outdoor experiences is on par with having food, water, shelter and safety,” Deaver said. Organizers say concerns like these add to the urgency of redeveloping vacant lots in South Los Angeles—so more children and families can benefit from spaces like Serenity Park.
Many thanks to the Tow Center for Digital Journalism—and, in particular, Claire Wardle and Pete Brown—for the support and thoughtful feedback. The project would not have been possible without the collaboration of Dr. Sandra Ball-Rokeach and the researchers of the Metamorphosis Project at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, who devoted considerable time and resources to conducting focus groups. Thanks also to our South Los Angeles community partners, including the Coalition for Responsible Community Development, Community Services Unlimited, Esperanza Community Housing, All Peoples Community Center, Community Health Councils, Community Coalition, and Trust South LA. Thanks to our media partners, including KPCC, Hoy, La Opinión, the Los Angeles Sentinel, Southwest Wave, and Intersections South LA. Finally, thanks to the Solutions Journalism Network for sharing input on its research to date and our project design.
i Some of these would fall short of strict definitions of solutions-oriented journalism (i.e., they may occasionally mix in good news stories focused on exceptional individuals rather than systemic change): https://www.csmonitor.com/World/Making-a-difference; https://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/category/fixes/; https://www.wbez.org/series/global-activism; https://www.huffingtonpost.com/news/whats-working/.
ii The original story from which we adapted our sample solutions-oriented story: https://www.scpr.org/news/2015/04/30/50927/groups-work-to-turn-south-la-lots-into-children-s/
iii This A/B story model was adapted from the Solutions Journalism Network and Engaging News model. Thanks to both the SJN and Engaging News staff members for offering input on sample stories as we attempted to ensure the stories met a similar standard apart from the solution versus non-solution formatting styles.
iv A November 2015 Pew survey found that 65 percent of respondents believed the national news media has a negative effect on the United States: https://www.people-press.org/2015/11/23/beyond-distrust-how-americans-view-their-government/.
v Names of all focus group participants have been changed.
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