They stop short: journalists reporting stories about serious problems in the US, in even the most respected outlets, who often stop at the problem rather than explore possible solutions. Significantly, many possible solutions can be found in Europe and other advanced nations.
While I greatly appreciate the depth and professionalism in which the journalists cover complex and important topics, I would urge them to go further. Americans absolutely need to know how other countries deal with – and actually solve – many of our seemingly intractable social problems, and it is the responsibility of the media to put that information in front of us.
Here I will focus on stories presented by National Public Radio (NPR) and the PBS Newshour (listed chronologically), which I hope will illustrate my point.
On addiction treatment of inmates. Emily Corwin of NPR submitted “When Time Behind Bars Cuts Addiction Treatment Short” on May 11, 2016. The problem is well laid out: incarcerated drug addicts (many in prison solely due to drug offenses) relapse repeatedly when their methadone treatments are discontinued in prison. Many also die. Corwin notes, “But in the United States, the only people likely to receive methadone or other opioid- replacement drugs, such as buprenorphine, while incarcerated are pregnant women.” She further noted, “The World Health Organization recommends that incarcerated people like Burghardt [the subject of the article] continue methadone treatment. And if Burghardt lived in most other Western nations – or Iran, Malaysia or Kyrgyzstan for that matter — he likely would be able to do so.”
In this piece, the reporter at least mentioned WHO and other countries, briefly, and stated that they treat addicted people differently (and more humanely and realistically) than we do. What Americans would be helped by knowing might be the following: 1) Why do certain countries continue giving incarcerated people methadone treatments? What are some of the philosophies behind these practices? 2) How did the citizens and politicians of those countries get to the point of passing legislation about them? 3) How is the treatment paid for? If American citizens and elected officials had some of this information, we might be able to make more rapid progress on the issue.
On gun violence. Ailsa Chang of NPR submitted “Will Senate Democrats’ Talk-A-Thon Get Movement On Gun Legislation?” on June 17, 2016. There were many stories on gun violence and gun legislation following the horrific mass shooting in Orlando on June 12, 2016. Very few of them provide the shocking statistics about the US in comparison with our peer nations when it comes to guns. Of course statistics would do little by themselves anyway in suggesting solutions. What reporters could do for American readers and viewers might be the following: 1) What are some of the laws in generally peaceful nations that govern gun violence, especially homicide? 2) What are the freedoms that are impinged upon by these laws (to respond to the complaints by the NRA and the American right wing that gun control infringes on the Second Amendment)? 3) What are the opinions of Europeans toward their own laws? Toward gun violence in the US?
On disciplinary problems in preschools. Cory Turner of NPR submitted “Why Preschool Suspensions Still Happen (And How To Stop Them)” on June 20, 2016. Turner laid out the disturbing fact that “black students – from kindergarten through high school – are 3.8 times more likely to be suspended than white students,” and that the trend starts in preschool. He pointed out that some of the reasons center on the underfunding of programs and poverty, and he explored new approaches being attempted, including banning suspensions in preschools.
However, there was no reference in the article to European or other nations that have much less poverty and violence than we do. As became apparent in Michael Moore’s recent documentary, Where to Invade Next, and elsewhere, education is very different in other nations than it is in the US. Moore’s visit to an elementary school in France was astounding: the children (a mixture of many races and backgrounds, by the way) were not only extremely well-behaved but were also eating delicious, healthy food and drinking water, not soda – and enjoying it. In addition, Moore visited high schools where educational results were excellent but students did not have homework on a regular basis! Wouldn’t Americans benefit more from the NPR story if the journalist had also examined how a sampling of European schools are run, what their priorities are, how well-educated the students are, and how administrators deal with behavioral problems?
On political discussions in the workplace. NPR’s Yuki Noguchi submitted “In 2016, Talking Politics Can Make Things Uncomfortable At Work” on June 20, 2016. She pointed out that comments at work around race, gender or religion could lead to harassment or discrimination claims. She further pointed out that “Employees at private companies do not have a constitutional right to free speech or expression at work,” and that discussion of minimum wage, equal pay, and paid leave might be protected by federal labor laws.
Would it not be fascinating to compare these situations with those in our peer countries, where some of the problems we’re grappling with have been dealt with for decades? Some possible angles to explore, which would give Americans a certain amount of hope that another stance might be productive, could include the following:
- Political races and elections in other countries can get very heated and controversial, just like ours. Are there laws in those nations that regulate political discussions in the workplace? If so, what prompted them, and how popular or unpopular are they?
- If the US had living wages, equal pay, and generous paid leave, as our peer nations do, would the nature of political discussions in the workplace change and possibly improve?
- How do Europeans and others deal with race, gender and religion – topics that often lead to violence in our country, even in our workplaces?
Posing these questions could lead to intriguing revelations for Americans: that laws in other nations require gender equity in governing bodies, which in turn influences the types and nature of laws that are passed; that the general absence of Christian Fundamentalism in most other countries creates a different level of discourse on some controversial topics; and that some countries and cities have mounted highly successful deradicalization programs to combat terrorism and reduce violence.
On the cost of child care. Kristen Doerer reported “How much does it cost to leave the workforce to care for a child? A lot more than you think” for the PBS Newshour on June 21, 2016. Doerer presented good statistics and points on the ongoing American conundrum of child care, and the piece includes a link to information on other countries’ generous paid leave policies. That story, in turn, included very important comparative information, but it also made the argument, yet again, that paid leave can hurt smaller businesses. The linked article concluded, “most Americans say they support paid family leave. But no one wants to pay for it.” Neither that article nor Doerer’s, unfortunately, delved into how European countries have dealt with paying for leave (and the fact that the vast majority of employers and employees there support it). As I have noted elsewhere, Steven Hill discusses this extensively in Europe’s Promise.
Here, then, are some suggestions to media outlets and their journalists that might help educate Americans about steps that successful peer nations have taken to solve problems that still plague us.
- As you begin the research process on the topic at hand, find 3-5 countries that have high quality-of-life rankings and have (or may have) solved the problem you’re looking into. (View Moore’s Where to Invade Next for ideas.) Interview persons in authority in those countries who know something about the problem and how it’s been solved, or at least dealt with. Learn from them what they did, at all levels of government and with all constituencies, and how long ago. Ask them if they think their solution/s could be replicated or at least attempted in the US (and if not, why not).
- Examine these countries’ quality-of-life statistics, as compared to ours, and bring that data into your story.
- Bring the information you’ve obtained to the American experts and subjects you’re interviewing. Ask the interviewees, first, if they know about the other countries’ programs and approaches; if not, educate them. Next, if they do not think other nations’ ideas will work in the US, push them as to why not. At least you will have informed the American public about alternatives.
We do not need to copy other nations’ ideas exactly – but it would certainly behoove use to learn from them. If the media do not bring this information to the American public, who will?