#WhereAreTheChildren? Refocusing Social Media Activism on Solutions with Constructive Journalism

Anita Varma and Tanja Aitamurto

Over Memorial Day weekend, uproar arose about the US federal government not knowing the whereabouts of 1,475 immigrant children. An opinion column in azcentral, affiliated with USA Today, titled “The feds lost — yes, lost — 1,475 migrant children” sparked outrage from activists, citizens, celebrities, and other notable public figures across social media, many of whom reshared the article on social media and voiced dismay that “this is not what America stands for.”

By Sunday, counter-narratives and competing perspectives began to arise: some contended that America has a long history of separating immigrant families, and noted that the institutional racism that allows these policies to persist should not be ignored. Others argued, more specific to the particular case of the 1,475 migrant children, that the claim that the federal government “lost” these children was a distortion, and that these children were unaccounted for but not necessarily lost. In some cases, one argued, sponsors do not respond to a government check but this does not mean the children are necessarily in danger, nor would it be better for government tracking to intensify.

As these complexities arose, some celebrities retweeted threads and reshared new posts from immigration advocacy groups and experts, and acknowledged that these perspectives led them to revisit their earlier stances.

By the end of the holiday weekend, thousands of posts had been written and reshared, but a key question remained unanswered: What, if anything, can be done to help immigrant children who are not with their parents?

How might we channel the energy behind #WhereAreTheChildren into supporting efforts to address problems with immigration policy and specifically the lived experiences of immigrant children in the United States?

The answer, we argue, begins with journalism — which, like many cases of “hashtag activism,” provided the spark for #WhereAreTheChildren. Constructive journalism, also known as solutions journalism, shifts focus from problems to covering existing and proposed solutions, and would have recast the terms of the debate about immigrant children.

Based on our research this year into new and renewed movements within practices of American journalism, practices of constructive journalism resituate journalism as a positive force for society. The main benefit of constructive journalism is that it fosters public awareness of social issues, but also equips readers with actionable solutions for how a social issue could be addressed.

With an underlying ideal of social progress and hope for a better future, constructive journalism means that news stories explain problems and what is being done to remedy them — which charts a course forward for transforming public outrage into public support for initiatives that are already working.

In the case of #WhereAreTheChildren, a decentralized version of constructive journalism is what ultimately unfolded: after a rising pitch of outrage at a (partial) account of the problem, voices within immigration advocacy interjected to add nuance and complexity — and a snapshot of what is already been done to help the children in question. Far from apologism or suggesting that all is well for immigrant children in the United States, these perspectives added nuance to the discussion — which is often sorely missing when journalism sticks to simplistic formulations of victims and villains.

Arguably, the role of journalism is to equip people with information. But once people are equipped, what can they do with this information? In a case like #WhereAreTheChildren, the answer is unclear — though an immediate action was to retweet the hashtag.

By the end of the weekend, though, attention promptly shifted and the dust settled as activist communities continued the conversation but widespread outrage dissipated — with the existing system left intact. Without clarity about what can be done — and even what the problem is, precisely — many people moved on to new topics.

What remains astounding about #WhereAreTheChildren is the speed with which the hashtag spread, and the undercurrent of impassioned outrage across major social media platforms in the US. This shows that people are listening carefully, and are neither disengaged nor apathetic as a whole. Instead, people across the country — and globe — swiftly sought to raise their voices in solidarity with marginalized communities. This suggests that people are ready to engage — but need better guidance about how to do so in effective, sustained ways.

Journalism’s capacity to help channel this solidarity into actionable energy begins with constructive approaches to reporting, which would move away from strictly monitoring wrongdoing to explaining what can be done about social problems. Sunlight alone is no longer a sufficient disinfectant — but providing paths for change can be.