Columns » Jay Barth

Can 'What's Working' work?



Last semester, one topic was the source of an especially rich conversation in my first-year seminar course collaboratively taught with a film studies colleague. Together, two of the films we used in the class — the Jimmy Stewart classic "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" and the 1999 dark comedy "Election" — nicely exemplify a key trend in American society over the decades: the demise of trust in democratic and social institutions in the United States. While the downward shift in social trust has been noted for years, recent surveys by both the Pew Research Center and Harvard University's Institute of Politics show even lower levels of trust in other citizens and in key social and political institutions among millennials, the generation of the first-year students sitting in that classroom. From their lack of trust in their neighbors (only 19 percent think they can generally trust people) to their lack of trust in key institutions (from a "high" of 47 percent for the military down to only 11 percent for the media, according to the Harvard survey) to their own lack of interest in engaging as change agents (only 29 percent see public service work as appealing), the numbers highlighting millennial mistrust are consistently brutal.

"Why?" was the simple question that drove the lively classroom discussion. Unsurprised by the data, the thoughtful students in that class had an array of explanations for the depressing numbers with potentially devastating consequences for American democracy over the decades to come. They pointed to the history of falsehoods on issues of life and death such as WMDs in Iraq by past presidents and a perceived overpromising by the current occupant of the White House, political leaders' unwillingness to either talk about the issues of most importance to them or to listen to their solutions, and the failure of civics education and any legitimate input into what happened in their schools growing up (the wickedly funny school assembly scene in "Election" resonated with many of them in this regard). A final culprit, of course, is a media obsessed with scandal and with highlighting the malfeasance and failings of institutions.

Ironically overshadowed by the sad and frustrating exaggerations and apparent lies of NBC anchor Brian Williams (just the sort of story that will push the numbers in these surveys lower) last week was the creation of a new media strategy by the popular news source Huffington Post with one of its goals being the rebirth of faith in political and social institutions to produce tangible, positive results for citizens. Huffington Post's founder Arianna Huffington calls the project "What's Working" and explains it as an attempt to consciously create a more fulsome — and, therefore, more truly "fair and balanced" — take on the news by emphasizing those things that are "working." The publication argues that it is not an attempt to balance more negative news with one-off "warm and fuzzy" stories, but instead with analyses of strategies and programs that are having a sustained impact in correcting societal ills.

The concept behind the project is that once readers consistently see such legitimately positive stories, they will begin to demand national, state and local change and to see the society around them in a different light. While Huffington Post doesn't explicitly say it, we would expect those troublesome survey numbers noted above to begin to head in a different direction. As Arianna Huffington said, "I believe that human beings, all of us, are a mixture of good and evil, if you want. And that the more we can encourage the better angels — it's like strengthening a muscle — the more that will be the dominant behavior."

"What's Working" makes perfect sense at a theoretical level. The key question is whether it can work as a business model. Previous efforts not unlike "What's Working" received high praise from media observers but have failed to sustain themselves. For instance, in 1992, several North Carolina newspapers — led by the Charlotte Observer — used "consumer-oriented coverage" throughout the election season in the state. It meant that the papers avoided "horse race" coverage of the election — centered around polling results and gaffes — and instead focused on the issues that readers said were most important to them. "What's Working" may see the same fate as such innovations of the past, but Huffington has partnered with the University of Southern California's journalism school to ensure that the project regularly receives high-quality material for a limited cost. Huffington's publishing acumen has been doubted before; we all may benefit if she gets this one right.

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