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Sarah van Gelder's evolutionary journey to the practice of "solutions journalism"


Extracted by Bill Densmore

RELATED LINK: Solutions journalism discussion at a JTM conference in Seattle, Jan. 8, 2010

Sarah van Gelder is co-founder and editor-in-chief of Yes! Magazine, published by the non-profit Positive Futures Network on Bainbridge Island, Wash. She is among leaders of a new movement to promote so-called "solutions journalism." In a regional TED talk in Bellevue, Wash., in September, 2013, van Gelder described how she came to support the idea. The 10-minute YouTube video can be watched from HERE. Here are excerpts of her remarks, which she entitled, "How to Get Inspiration Into Your Daily Media Diet"

(She talks about a trip to India as a young adult.)

"Every day when I walked outside, I would be surrounded by swarms of beggars. I couldn't understand why in a country as ancient and beautiful as India people my own age were going hungry. That sent me on a life-long quest for answers -- why hunger, why poverty? What could I do? The mainstream media wasn't giving me much help. It was saturated with images of people rich and powerful or wanting to be rich and powerful. Poverty was addressed in a superficial charity mode."

Van Gelder cites George Gerbner, the late dean of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. "Who tells the stories of a culture really governs human behavior," Gerbner wrote. "It used to be the parent, the school, the church, the community . . . Now it's a handful of global conglomerates that have nothing to tell, but a great deal to sell." Gerbner also believed that the more we are exposed to images of violence, wrongdoing and corruption the more fearful we become, says van Gelder.

"Fearful people are more dependent, more easily manipulated and controlled, more suseptible to deceptively simple, strong, tough measures and hard-line postures," said van Gender. So what if we showed creativity, leadership and connectedness in the media? van Gender asked in the TED Talk. We need to understand the science of climate change,and the people creating the solutions. "We need to know about people dividing us, and bringing us together," she says, adding: "We need to know how buying too much stuff can undermine our own well being and the well being of the planet . . . we don't have the trash the planet to be healthy."
So van Gelder set out to work in media, telling stories of what people are doing not only when they are at their worst, but when they are at their best, too. She sought to illuminate radical solutions and ideas.

What is solutions journalism or appreciative journalism?

The kind of journalism van Gelder seeks to practice asks these sorts of questions:

  • What's possible now?
  • What matters most?
  • What's working?
  • Who's leading?
  • How do we get to the root issues?
  • What would happen if this change took hold?

Yes! Magazine does this under van Gelder's leadershi by publishing examples on things like jobs and livelihood. The magazine seeks to step outside the regular political dialogue, van Gelder says. The magazine's editorial philosophy, says van Gelder, is that "we the people have the answers no matter how tough the challenges" and that "good things happen are when we the people take control . . . there is a reason the word encourage has courage in it . . . it is those stories of courage that encourage us to take action. And it is our action that embodies the hope of our world."

Find and share appreciative, solutions journalism

Van Gelder's request at the end of her TED talk: For one month include one piece of appreciative, solutions journalism in your diet, and share it with a friend. "See if you are feeling less of the mean-world syndrome," she says. "And ask if you are seeing new opportunities to make the world more just and sustainable." Because, says, van Gelder: "The stories we pay attention to forms our sense of what's possible, what choices we have and it is the choices we make that will change history."