Deviance Could Be a Good Thing for Journalism

Positive deviance. It sounds like an oxymoron but – brace yourselves – it’s a practical theory. Positive Deviance (PD) is all about unleashing and amplifying the power of ordinary people.

PD expert Arvind Singhal explains it as looking for the people others call crazy — the ones who are doing and succeeding in the face of all odds, with no particular advantages over their peers.  In an age where no one seems sure-footed about what should be going on in newsrooms, PD might just help journalists move forward.

McLellan touches on this idea in her recent blog about unlocking the middle to create culture change in news organizations. Very few employees will throw themselves at new technology and routines with complete comfort. There’s another small group who will go down screaming and fighting trying to convince everyone around them the new way of doing things is bullshit. But in that “middle” McLellan refers to, there are probably a few who, although not early adapters, are managing just fine in changing newsrooms.

As McLellan identifies (and communication guru Ev Rogers discovered) once you win over the middle, you win the battle. Perhaps by identifying the “crazy” actions that allow some journalists to adapt to a new environment the media evolution can be reframed from a fight into a journey.

Jenkins recognizes that “the power of the grassroots media is that it diversifies; the power of broadcast media is that it amplifies”. A partnership between the two could create the groundwork for the most powerful journalism yet.

Profit-driven news organizations choose ratings over social impact because higher ratings equate to more advertisers and more money. However, the very unwieldy nature of the Internet allows every day citizens to gain exposure. A study just released in The Economist found that popularity, or in this instance number of eyes, doesn’t always add up to more influence – something even advertisers are starting to recognize. The power of interaction on the Internet may very well trump the overall visibility of mainstream media.

Given appropriate time and resources, journalists can continue their role as key players in a social democracy by amplifying diverse messages, being open to new ideas, creating well researched and balanced stories, and helping others do the same.

Seeing someone else “do” makes it difficult to say it can’t be done.



2 thoughts on “Deviance Could Be a Good Thing for Journalism

  1. I love the idea of looking “for the crazies” or those who manage to succeed against all odds or adapt new practices and ways of thinking without coaching. I wonder though who is responsible for finding “the crazies” or the positive deviants…is it a leadership initiative, or does it come from those in the newsroom. Do newsroom managers need to be more open-minded and interested in driving change? or does it come from the newsroom employees..producers, reporters, etc who see the value and are willing to stand up and fight for change. I think one of the biggest barriers in newsrooms comes from leaders who are not interested in experimenting or seeking out ideas from their own staff.

  2. PD could be suggested by newsroom staff, but unless newsroom management was willing to help implement change it wouldn’t work. Anecdotally, many people who I talk to in the industry complain higher ups don’t recognize what the possibilities are, never mind try to put them into action. Yesterday, Wilf Dinnick — who used to report for stations like CBC, CNN, and ABC and is now working on a participatory journalism site, — came to speak to my students and said he left mainstream media because he was frustrated by the lack of innovation. If traditional organizations are going to survive in this new market, and keep the most talented journalists, they’re going to have to rethink the way they do news.

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