Knight News Challenge: Positive-Deviant Health Data Journalism

A map of the change in physical activity from 2001 to 2011 in each US county. Kentucky emerges as a “positive deviant.” (Image Credit: IHME)

The Solutions Journalism Network is thrilled to announce that we have been selected as one of seven winners of a Knight News Challenge focusing on the question: How can we harness data and information for the health of communities?

The Knight News Challenge “accelerates media innovation by funding breakthrough ideas in news and information. Winners receive a share of $5 million in funding – and support from Knight’s network of influential peers and advisors to help advance their ideas.”

We are also excited to be a winner of the California HealthCare Foundation’s “Big Data on a Local Scale” competition, which was available to applicants of the Knight News Challenge. CHCF is extending additional support to partner with news outlets in the Golden State.  You can see the announcement here.

With the support of the Knight Foundation and the California HealthCare Foundation, we will be partnering with newsrooms around the country to identify stories that reveal how communities are improving health outcomes. You can see our full proposal here.

The reigning myth of journalism is that it is a reporter’s job to uncover problems.   Given a database, a journalist will typically hone in on the negative outliers, the worst performers, and pounce.  But this model of journalism gives a misleading picture of the world around us.  Journalism is more credible and engaging — and society is stronger – when reporters also rigorously consider responses to problems and what we can learn from them.

In conjunction with the Institute for Health Metrics & Evaluation (IHME), a health data provider and long-time SJN partner, we hope to change this norm.  We will be introducing journalists to the “positive deviance” approach of journalism — that is, highlighting places where data outcomes are better than expected — and supporting newsrooms to research stories using this method.

Why is this approach needed? Good solutions journalism is simply good journalism: reporting on what’s going on and what effects have emerged.  However, since problems scream and solutions whisper, there is always more attention directed to the former.  Journalists need to become more proactive, skilled and comfortable reporting on responses to rebalance the view of the world they produce.

There is no need to overclaim, to pick winners or to speculate.  But journalists often hesitate to write about solutions.  They are afraid that such a story would be labeled advocacy or PR; they are particularly afraid that they will write a story calling a program a success and turn out to be wrong.  For reporters, excessive cynicism is a misdemeanor, but excessive gullibility is a felony.

But using databases as the foundation for solutions stories removes much of the risk. The data show that according to an independent evaluation, something is working – the journalist need only investigate why and how.

You can see some nuggets of “positive deviance” stories in our blog series with IHME, including some hypotheses about Kentucky’s improvement in physical activity.

We hope that, as a direct result of this work, journalists will use data to tell stories of places that are doing better than expected, and of initiatives that have evidence to back their success.

We are grateful to the Knight Foundation and CHCF for this opportunity!