Favorite

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.

Favorite

From the ArkTimes store

Comments

Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

More by Jay Barth

  • The crisis

    In American history, it has been rare that life expectancies have dropped year to year. Even during wartime, when premature deaths occurred at high rates, medical advances have nudged this key marker of progress upward. Last year, however, for the second year in a row, American life expectancy dropped in the United States.
    • Feb 15, 2018
  • Jimmy who?

    It is anyone's guess whether Donald Trump will be at the top of the Republican ticket in 2020.
    • Feb 1, 2018
  • Trump's 'Actual malice'

    While his words away from cameras in the Oval Office the following morning will have a more immediate impact on the futures of DACA recipients and America's reputation around the globe, President Trump's statement on libel law in the United States last week represents a more thorough assault on the country's fundamental values through its disrespect for the rule of law and lack of understanding of the nation's history.
    • Jan 18, 2018
  • More »

Most Shared

  • A mayor stands up against freeway widening. No. Not in Little Rock.

    Another booming city, Indianapolis, fights ever wider urban freeways. Meanwhile, back in Little Rock .....
  • In the margins

    A rediscovered violin concerto brings an oft-forgotten composer into the limelight.
  • Donald Trump is historically unpopular — and not necessarily where you think

    My colleagues John Ray and Jesse Bacon and I estimate, in the first analysis of its kind for the 2018 election season, that the president's waning popularity isn't limited to coastal cities and states. The erosion of his electoral coalition has spread to The Natural State, extending far beyond the college towns and urban centers that voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016. From El Dorado to Sherwood, Fayetteville to Hot Springs, the president's approval rating is waning.
  • Arkansans join House vote to gut Americans with Disabilities Act

    Despite fierce protests from disabled people, the U.S. House voted today, mostly on party lines, to make it harder to sue businesses for violating the Americans with Disabilities Act. Of course Arkansas congressmen were on the wrong side.

Latest in Jay Barth

  • The crisis

    In American history, it has been rare that life expectancies have dropped year to year. Even during wartime, when premature deaths occurred at high rates, medical advances have nudged this key marker of progress upward. Last year, however, for the second year in a row, American life expectancy dropped in the United States.
    • Feb 15, 2018
  • Jimmy who?

    It is anyone's guess whether Donald Trump will be at the top of the Republican ticket in 2020.
    • Feb 1, 2018
  • Trump's 'Actual malice'

    While his words away from cameras in the Oval Office the following morning will have a more immediate impact on the futures of DACA recipients and America's reputation around the globe, President Trump's statement on libel law in the United States last week represents a more thorough assault on the country's fundamental values through its disrespect for the rule of law and lack of understanding of the nation's history.
    • Jan 18, 2018
  • More »

Event Calendar

« »

February

S M T W T F S
  1 2 3
4 5 6 7 8 9 10
11 12 13 14 15 16 17
18 19 20 21 22 23 24
25 26 27 28  

Most Viewed

  • Donald Trump is historically unpopular — and not necessarily where you think

    My colleagues John Ray and Jesse Bacon and I estimate, in the first analysis of its kind for the 2018 election season, that the president's waning popularity isn't limited to coastal cities and states. The erosion of his electoral coalition has spread to The Natural State, extending far beyond the college towns and urban centers that voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016. From El Dorado to Sherwood, Fayetteville to Hot Springs, the president's approval rating is waning.

Most Recent Comments

  • Re: Out of control

    • And Olphart - hey, That is a witty reply - good for you!

    • on February 17, 2018
  • Re: Out of control

    • Oh for god's sake - read the play - just read the play before going…

    • on February 16, 2018
  • Re: Out of control

    • Aloysius, Not even a large man with a bodyguard detail acting in a way intended…

    • on February 16, 2018
 

© 2018 Arkansas Times | 201 East Markham, Suite 200, Little Rock, AR 72201
Powered by Foundation