Focusing On Problems Instead Of Solutions

Author David Bornstein says that when it comes to covering social innovation, the media is doing it wrong. Instead of showing what’s wrong in the world, how about showing how smart solutions can bring about change?


When it comes to journalism about social change, writer David Bornstein thinks the media isn’t doing it right. Instead of showing the positive effects that innovative ideas can have, most coverage involves bad news. “I’ve been covering social innovators for 20 years now,” he says. “It’s occurred to me that the theory of change behind journalism is wrong.”

“Theory of change” is a term of art in the nonprofit world that refers to the mechanism by which you believe what you’re doing is going to make a positive difference. If your theory of change is based on self-empowerment, you might organize farmers to lobby the government; if it’s economic development, you might loan them money to buy fertilizer. “If you take journalism for what it produces, you would conclude that journalists believe that the world gets better if you remind people that the world is broken every day.”

Bornstein decided two decades ago to focus instead on solutions. His 2005 book The Price of a Dream tells the story of Mohammed Yunus, the grandfather of microfinance; How to Change the World and Social Entrepreneurship chronicle the global rise of a new breed of world-changer, the charismatic social innovator with fresh ideas and businesslike methods.

“At this point in history there is a very vibrant and diverse landscape of new models,” he says. “And for the most part they’re hidden, and therefore not able to realize their potential.” On his New York Times Opinionator blog, and on, a new blog he runs with a team of student reporters, Bornstein highlights some of these new models, instead of just a litany of intractable problems: a new way to finance college through human capital contracts, say, or a sustainable local ice cream shop run by women in Rwanda. “We look for examples that give us some insight on how to solve a problem, to make a good substantiated argument about what model is likely to be more successful.”

[Image: Flickr user ElvertBarnes]

About the author

Anya Kamenetz is the author of Generation Debt (Riverhead, 2006) and DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education, (Chelsea Green, 2010). Her 2011 ebook The Edupunks’ Guide was funded by the Gates Foundation.