How to Cover Wicked Problems

In Jay Rosen’s keynote to the UK Conference of Science Journalists, he differentiates between tame problems and wicked problems. 

Tame Problem:

Here is a problem that anyone who has lived in New York City must wonder about: it’s impossible to get a cab at 5 pm. The cause is not a mystery: taxi drivers tend to change shifts around 4 to 5 pm. Too many cabs are headed to garages in Queens because when a taxi is operated by two drivers 24 hours a day, a fair division of shifts is to switch over at 5 o’clock. Now this is a problem for the city’s Taxi and Limousine Commission, it may even be a hard one to solve, but it is not a wicked problem. For one thing, it’s easy to describe, as I just showed you. That right there boots it from the category.

Wicked Problem:

It is hard to say what the problem is, to define it clearly or to tell where it stops and starts. There is no “right” way to view the problem, no definitive formulation. There are many stakeholders, all with their own frames, which they tend to see as exclusively correct. Ask what the problem is and you will get a different answer from each. Someone can always say that the problem is just a symptom of another problem and that someone will not be wrong. The problem is inter-connected to a lot of other problems; pulling them apart is almost impossible. In a word: it’s a mess.

But it gets worse. Every wicked problem is unique, so in a sense there is no prior art and solving one won’t help you with the others. No one has “the right to be wrong,” meaning enough legitimacy and stakeholder support to try things that will almost certainly fail, at first. Instead failure is savaged, and the trier is deemed unsuitable for another try. The problem keeps changing on us. It is never definitely resolved. Instead, we just run out of patience, or time, or money, or political will. It’s not possible to understand the problem first, then solve it. Rather, attempts to solve it reveal further dimensions of the problem. (Which is the secret of success for people who are “good” at wicked problems.)

Know any problems like that? Of course you do. Climate change! What could be more inter-connected than it? How the hell do we define it? Is it the burning of fossil fuels? Is it modernization? Capitalism? Externalities? The whole system of states? Man’s false dominion over nature? Someone can always say that climate change is just a symptom of another problem– our entire way of life, maybe — and he or she would not be wrong. We’ve never solved anything like it before, so there’s no prior art. Stakeholders: everyone on the planet, every nation, every company.

Another Wicked Problem: that public schools in the U.S. don’t work.

Keep reading to find out more. But if you want to skip straight to his 10 ways of imagining how a “wicked problems beat” might work, see these:

1. It would be a network, not a person.

2. The beat would be pattern-based.

3. A classic narrative stands at the heart of the beat.

4. The beat would be global because wicked problems are a global phenomenon.

5. The wicked problems beat can’t rely on experts.

6. The “stars” of the beat would be people all over the world who seem to be good at wicked problems.

7. The beat would treat denial as a news story.

8. The wicked problems beat would be a learning machine.

9. The beat would have a goal, a mission.

FJP: The article is worth wrapping your mind around, especially because Rosen’s imagined beat depends a lot on networked thinking and looking in less than likely places for sources. It can’t be dependent on “authorized knowers” says Rosen, which, in an entirely different way, is similar to the transition regular old journalism is going through as well—this search for sources through networks, and unlikely public voices and experts.

But of course, another wicked problem: how to fund and sustain a vigorous public service press (that can tackle both tame problems and wicked problems).

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