Best practices for social change and environmental action

Archive for the ‘Media’ Category

Can “solution journalism” save the news?

In Communication, Media on August 10, 2011 at 1:25 am


The quiet rise of solution journalism calls to mind Mark Twain’s famous aphorism:  “Everyone complains about the weather, but no one does anything about it.”

Consider the usual “distressing news of the week.” The media presents it, often in fine, professional detail several days in a row…and then moves on to cover the next disaster, scandal, or national disgrace.  In moments of self-reflection, editors will bemoan all the misery, failure, and mayhem but – let’s face it – that’s what keeps them in business.  In compensation, audiences also get treated regularly to the random puffery everyone likes to ridicule.

We all know that this is no way to run the news business, even if the industry seems on the brink of disappearing. But at least it’s been selling subscriptions and ads to keep the lights on.

Now, however, there’s a nascent movement toward something a little more substantive and, perhaps, a little more meaningful.  It’s based on the premise that coverage of events and issues should indeed depict developments with all of the ugly details if necessary…but that coverage can also contain the seeds of possible responses, answers…and fixes.   Logically, its called solution journalism.

The move toward this new model of journalism is especially welcome in an age of 24/7 news cycles, competing information streams, and disinformation pandering to audience biases.  Even so, it will not likely catch on overnight. Irrelevant journalistic traditions, outdated practices, and old-fashioned resistance-to-change will surely hinder its adoption.

Yet, if there is any sense left among the news media, the practice of solution journalism should reach its full measure much sooner than later.  (Maybe then we won’t have to endure all that sappy soft news they feel compelled to foist on us out of guilt.)

To learn more about solution journalism, check out one of its major proponents:  Dowser.

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The Finland Phenomenon

In Culture, Education, Education reform, Government, Media on May 6, 2011 at 6:31 pm

In the seemingly endless quest for meaningful education reform, positive examples naturally get lots of attention. Educators, experts, and policymakers all want to know the schools that serve their students well.  When they find examples, they usually set about analyzing what makes them successful.

The assumption is that the approaches applied in successful schools would likely work elsewhere, but there’s seldom much consideration applied to culture, context, and economies.

This is what makes the renowned education system of Finland such an intriguing case.  As a society and a nation, Finland is not like the United States … or Germany … or China. Yet, there is an abiding sense that there is much to learn from the Finnish system, widely considered to be the best in the world.

That’s the premise of a new documentary film currently making its debut – The Finland Phenomenon: Inside the World’s Most Surprising School System.

Last night my wife and I attended the Boston premier of the film at MIT, hosted by Social Venture Partners Boston.  After the showing one of the producers, Harvard researcher Dr. Tony Wagner, led a panel discussion of experts from academia, public policy, and business.

The film goes to Finland and right into the classrooms to interview students, teachers, parents, administrators and Finnish government officials. It provides some excellent insights into the methods, philosophies, and policies that have helped Finland create a public education system that has consistently achieved top scores on the world’s most rigorous standardized tests for more than a decade now.


Between the film, the panel discussion, and comments from the audience, there was a lot to think about and more than a few unanswered questions.  One issue in particular looms large for me and my wife, who is an experienced, well credentialed educator.  Right at the outset of the film, an educational leader from Helsinki describes how Finland focused on a national mandate for a single high-performance public education system to serve everyone across all levels of society.  This policy has created a public system in which every citizen has a stake and from which everyone expects high standards.

There are some private schools in Finland, but they are few in number and they are not considered any more “elite” than the public schools. As a result, excellence is the public norm, starting with rigorous requirements for teachers, who are – not surprisingly – held in great esteem across Finnish society.

As we listened to the panel discussion  – which even included a business leader who made a point about sending her kids to a “prestigious” private school – we were struck by two major differences between Finland and the US.

The first is that Finland has relatively even levels of wealth across its society while the US is afflicted by a severe and rapidly growing economic gap between the wealthy and the middle class. The second difference seems related to the first. In Finland, education is seen as a pillar of democracy and the foundation of economic fairness…but in the US, an emphasis on so-called “elite” schools underscores an attitude that treats education with the zero-sum mentality that accepts (and even praises) the idea of economic winners and losers within society.

If the US is ever to achieve the level of excellence seen in Finland, it will probably have to cure its national obsession with “elite” schools – starting with the silly competition to get kids into certain preschools…and right up to the multitude of biased, destructive and often misleading “college rankings.”   It’s all part of the same ludicrous continuum.

See The Finland Phenomenon and draw your own conclusions.

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Animated thinking

In Best practice, Communication, Media, Online on May 2, 2011 at 5:29 pm

The Net is at its best when it gives us ways to understand the world and consider new ideas. That’s why TED is so successful and the GEL Conferences have gained such large audiences. Even if we cannot attend an event, we can get the presenters and their visuals right to our desks through the simple digital grace of streaming video or podcasts.

Now the RSARoyal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce) has raised the bar with its RSA Animate format.

The concept is deceptively simple: RSA selects some of the most popular presentations from its conferences…and then commissions an artist to illustrate the concepts in a whiteboard-style concatenation of images and words that takes shape as the video progresses.  It adds clarity, insight and wit. Read the rest of this entry »

Three cups of trouble

In Best practice, Communication, Media, Nonprofit management on April 20, 2011 at 7:38 pm

Crisis communication is a staple of corporate management, especially for organizations with diverse stakeholders. Unfortunately, the same does not hold true in the nonprofit and NGO worlds, where leaders often assume that good will and good intentions can help them rise above the fray.

Greg Mortensen, author of the best-selling Three Cups of Tea and co-founder of the Central Asia Institute can probably tell you why such thinking is dangerous. He’s learning first hand.

Greg has been much in the news this week…for all the wrong reasons. First there was the recent investigative report on 60 Minutes alleging fabrications in his popular book and mismanagement in his charity, all amplified by testimony from some people who seem credible. Then came the story syndicated by the Associated Press and a follow-up report by the New York Times. None of it looks good for Greg and his organization.

There may be no legitimacy to the allegations (and like many people, I hope there is not.) Perhaps Greg is true to his claims that he is not always great with details and money. The facts may well bear out his side of the story in the end, but the hard truth is that neither he nor his organization have handled this crisis effectively.

For starters:

  • Even though they knew of the CBS investigation, they simply did not “get out in front of the story.” They seem completely – and inexplicably – caught off guard by it.
  • They tried to ditch the media when it did finally show up at a book signing. The CBS cameras rolled anyway, and the world was treated to the spectacle of Greg dodging questions, dashing from the room, and not following up later as promised. A much-admired philanthropist inadvertently made himself look uncharacteristically suspicious. Greg certainly didn’t deserve that, but given the modern rules of media engagement, he sort of asked for it.
  • The lack of specific answers made Greg look like he was fudging the facts…which the public eye often perceives as “hiding something.”

It’s not a pretty scene. Moreover, it highlights the need for a charity to avoid the “cult of personality” by which the fortunes of the organization are reliant on the reputation of a single individual.

The moral for nonprofit leaders: educate thyself and thy staff on the basics of crisis management and communication. Here are a few places to start.

Strategic Communications for Nonprofit Organizations: Seven Steps to Creating a Successful Plan – An outstanding workbook-style text used in graduate nonprofit management courses.

Crisis Management: Planning for the Inevitable  – A classic in the field – updated and as relevant as ever.

The Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) – The field’s premier organization and an excellent source of expertise and professional development programs. There’s an active group devoted to the issues of non-profit management.

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Put the Earth to work

In Communication, Mapping, Media, Online on March 31, 2011 at 9:29 pm

Geography can mean many things to a cause-oriented NGO or nonprofit: organizational framework, operational constraints, strategic opportunities, cultural boundaries…to name just a few.  Now, thanks to the enterprising folks at Google, geographic knowledge can be a brilliantly effective communication tool for conveying the scope and detail of an organization’s work.

Google has a rather extensive nonprofit outreach facility for the popular Google Earth application. It has the potential to become an ideal channel for global initiatives in particular because it supports visualization of key issues geographically, often in remarkable detail. But it can also be an engaging way for local and regional organizations to tell their stories.  It’s all a matter of scale, a concept that has almost become synonymous with Google Earth and the growing array of online mapping tools.

While there is much to consider and learn about this channel, it is quite feasible to develop and implement the following potential applications.

  • Images and information overlays illustrating  geo-political issues, regional initiatives, crisis points, trends, and human interest stories.
  • Placemark-based perspectives that illustrate concepts using snapshot views.
  • Narrated “tours” based on specific themes and concepts; the viewer can “fly” from one point to another automatically, or at the click of a mouse.
  • Embedding of these features within websites, blogs, and presentations.
  • Collaboration features that enable group work, enhancements and additions to all of these.

This is a low or no-cost way to add functionality to an online presence. Yet, its real value is in its potential to make the full scope of the organization’s work and outreach more accessible, understandable, and engaging for multiple audiences.

Google has an abundance of  resources to help make the most of this tool.  The showcase gallery should give you a sense of the possibilities.

Google Earth Outreach

The information that matters

In Communication, Media on February 25, 2011 at 9:47 pm

Information is, generally, a good thing.  But these days, everyone knows that there’s just too much of it. Even worse, it is often unorganized and not authenticated.

In fields that address the world’s major challenges, this has created a chaotic environment that confounds understanding and impedes effective action.

  • Information overload is especially acute in times of conflict, disaster, or crisis, and it recurs chronically at points on the calendar when leaders and experts convene for significant events
  • Decision makers often must deal with large amounts of field research, data, background information, and analysis that slow and sometimes even misdirect the policy, funding, priority-setting, and problem-solving processes.
  • In the interests of deadlines and the 24 hour pace of the internet, journalists and analysts often  must arbitrarily choose the information, sources, and experts most “visible” at a given time, thus missing a vast amount of background, insight, analysis, and references  that might make their articles and reports more accurate, meaningful and valuable.
  • Funding agencies, foundations, philanthropies, and corporate social responsibility programs must often make their decisions on basic metrics without understanding the full context and scope of issues.
  • Researchers, academics, students, advocates, and engaged citizens usually must rely on an unfocused diffusion of results to begin their research into major global issues.
  • Policy makers and government leaders often must rationalize decisions and allocate resources in response to current events, advocacy campaigns, and short-term lobbying, rather than factual  information based on research, field experience, and best-practices.
  • There is a growing need to reach broad concensus regarding best practices for solving critical social and global problems.

The abiding challenge is to  bring focus, context, and relevance to those big issues issues and their best-practice solutions. That’s what this journal is about.