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Journalism as Problem-Solving

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In response to a divisive memo by former Google engineer James Damore, another former Google engineer named Yonatan Zunger wrote that Damore fundamentally misunderstood the role of an engineer:

Engineering is not the art of building devices; it’s the art of fixing problems.

I do not quote Zunger because he made a groundbreaking statement. On the contrary, the idea of engineering as problem-solving is a common principle. I’ve heard this formula many times and in many ways, including from mechanical engineers and computer programmers I’ve worked with: You build a machine to solve a specific problem. You learn to code so you can solve problems.

Almost as often, designers will talk about design as problem-solving. To choose one famous example, Steve Jobs said of the legendary designer Paul Rand in a 1993 video interview:

I actually think of Paul as much as a business problem-solver as I do an artist.

And if you believe the anecdote that Jobs tells about hiring Rand to create a logo for his computer company NeXT, Rand thought of himself the same way:

I asked him if he would come up with a few options. And he said, “No. I will solve your problem for you. And you will pay me.”

Like engineering and design, journalism is a house with many rooms, and a craft with many facets. Journalists develop all kinds of skills, from asking questions and analyzing spreadsheets to telling, editing, and presenting stories.

Yet when journalists talk about journalism, we are more likely to talk about it in terms of telling stories or creating the first draft of history or speaking truth to power than we are to talk about journalism as problem-solving.

Journalism has been solving problems for a long time. In the 18th century, Richard Steele and Joseph Addison put out the Tatler to solve a problem: how to let more people in on conversations going on in London coffeehouse. In the colonies, meanwhile, Benjamin Franklin, who was both a newspaper publisher and Postmaster General, allowed newspapers to swap issues for free, helping to foster a national conversation and an American identity. Ultimately, the free-exchange policy helped to solve the problem of British rule.

And in the introduction to the 1999 anthology The Idea of Public Journalism, newspaper editor Cole Campbell quoted Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne, who wrote that

journalism’s role of providing information is only the beginning of its task

Campbell also cites the philosopher Richard Rorty, who argued that

the highest aim of all inquiry should be problem solving.

So why don’t we journalists call ourselves problem solvers?

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Perhaps it’s because problem-solving sounds too much like advocacy. (There is a movement called solutions journalism, which looks at how other people — not the journalists telling the story — are trying to solve problems.)

And many journalists think they are supposed to be objective or neutral. I think neutrality is a delusion, or at least that objectivity gets defined within a community that shares values as well as a definition of and respect for the truth. These perfect conditions are hard to reproduce in an imperfect world, and do not describe America today.

Journalists also want to have an impact on their communities and on society. We want to expose corruption not only because it makes for a good (i.e. an appalling) story but because we want to stop government officials and corporate executives from abusing their power. We report on hurricanes because we want readers in harm’s way to protect themselves — and we want others to understand the scope of devastation and the hardships faced by those in the storm’s path.

In addition to practical problems like corruption and climate change, journalists tackle more abstract problems: ignorance, injustice, secrecy, boredom, isolation. We tell stories because we want our readers and listeners and viewers to feel like part of a community.

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Journalism does not always succeed in solving problems. The approach that solved a problem last time might not work this time. Every story will set out to answer a different problem, and some problems will be more consequential or solvable than others. Two journalists might have different ideas of what constitutes injustice. Sometimes you might figure out what the problem really is only while writing the story.

And however journalists may flatter themselves, the public does not always view their work as problem-solving. Quite the opposite: In that same foreword, Campbell cited a 1994 Pew survey in which

nearly three-quarters of the respondents see the press as getting in the way of society solving its problems.

Justified or not, this attitude is an impediment to solving problems with journalism.

The information ecosystem may be broken, but journalists should worry about themselves first. Once you lose sight of the problem you are trying to solve by telling a story, you fall into the same trap as a designer who makes something look attractive without bothering to understand the underlying ideas, or an engineer who can keep a website from crashing without caring what that website does.

It is easy enough to blame the Internet or Craigslist or Chartbeat, but keeping your focus on the reason you do your work is an old problem — and one of the problems I might be trying to solve by writing this post, by writing regularly for this blog this year, and by teaching Journalism + Design at The New School.

More TK, as we say in the business.