Chapter 11 Appreciative Inquiry Interviewing by Mike Fancher

From Interviewing: The Oregon Method, edited by Peter Laufer with John Russia. University of Oregon school of Journalism and Communication, 2019.

For the nearly 40 years that I was a professional journalist I favored “why” as the most provocative, revealing journalistic question. “Who, what, when, where and how” just didn’t seem to compare in bringing meaning to the news. 

In recent years I have come to think that journalism needs a sixth “W” – What’s possible now?

The driving reason for adding the sixth “W” is the erosion of public trust in professional journalism and the need for journalists to engage with the public to regain that trust.

I believe one cause of this erosion of trust is the sense that the professional journalist’s definition of news is rooted too deeply in problems, conflict and negativity. It is a paradigm that limits journalism’s capacity to help and inspire people. It can present an incomplete and even distorted sense of reality, an incomplete version of the truth, by failing to explore and report what’s working and what might be possible.

Take the story of an urban neighborhood experiencing rapid gentrification. As newcomers move in, longtime residence can be forced out by rising prices for housing and food. High-end boutiques, grocery stores and restaurants replace other businesses that have served the community. Old and new residents are out of touch and often resentful of each other.

The important story of gentrification has been told by news organizations in cities throughout the country, as have stories about crime, failing schools, unemployment, race relations, the environment, etc. In each case, news coverage predominantly focuses on “the problem,” what is not working.

“The traditional approach to change is to look for the problem, do a diagnosis, and find a solution. The primary focus is on what is wrong or broken: since we look for problems, we find them. By paying attention to problems, we emphasize and amplify them,” writes change management consultant Sue Annis Hammond.

When editors and reporters identify a problem as the basis for a story, “they have already passed judgment on the situation. They have filtered out a lot of information,” says Peter Pula, founder and CEO of Axiom News, which uses a concept called Appreciative Inquiry to guide its work. AI shifts the focus from problems to possibilities, which leads to what Pula calls “generative journalism.” Generative, according to Pula, because the work gives birth to something new. 

What if journalism embraced a new philosophy about interviewing and storytelling that fully explored what’s possible? This essay will offer ideas for how Appreciative Inquiry might be useful for interviews that shift storytelling from what’s not working to what might work.

To be clear, this is not advocacy journalism. It is not a call for reporting that steers the public toward a predetermined outcome. It attempts to interview and report in ways that help people enrich their own possibilities and achieve their own desired outcomes, while promoting public knowledge and enhancing civic life.

Much of what follows flows from my work with Journalism That Matters, a nonprofit network that supports people who are shaping the emerging news and information ecology. And it flows from conversations with my friend and colleague Peggy Holman, executive director and a co-founder of JTM, who contributed greatly to this essay. Peggy is not a journalist, but she has thought as extensively as anyone I know about how journalism might help people navigate through these uncertain times.

She posed the question, “What’s possible now?” in the closing chapter of her 2010 book, “Engaging Emergence: Turning Upheaval Into Opportunity.” She wrote:

“It’s a funny thing about cultural stories. We seem to tell more of them that reinforce our belief in collapsing systems than ones that inspire a belief in renewing systems. We find them in newspapers, in magazines, on TV, in movies, and on the Internet. We know that ecosystems flourish, collapse, and arise anew over time. So do social systems. They rise up, become “too big to fail,” and weaken, even as something new takes shape. New beginnings are all around us. Yet they become visible only when we ask questions focused on possibility.”  

Those ideas are at the heart of Appreciative Inquiry, which is a philosophy and methodology for change originated by David L. Cooperrider and colleagues at the Department of Organizational Behavior at Case Western Reserve University. Cooperrider and his frequent co-author Diana Whitney assert, “Human systems grow in the direction of what they persistently ask questions about.”

Appreciative Inquiry operates from a premise that in every system something works. Change can be addressed by identifying strengths and doing more of what works, not by simply fixing weaknesses. AI holds that building something new is fundamentally different than fixing something old; creating is often quite different than solving. 

In Appreciative Inquiry theory, asking appreciative questions produces immediate changes because path of the story becomes discovery; what is working and what is possible in the community. Reporting can then explore how and why it is working. 

Problem solving and Appreciative Inquiry travel separate paths, according to Cooperrider and Whitney. Problem solving starts with identifying a “felt need,” moves to analysis of causes and possible solutions, followed by action planning and treatment. Appreciative Inquiry starts with appreciating and valuing the best of “What is,” and moves to envisioning “What might be,” followed by dialoguing “What should be.”

Cooperrider and Whitney offer this definition:

“Appreciative Inquiry is the cooperative, coevolutionary search for the best in people, their organizations and communities, and the world around them. It involves systematic discovery of what gives ‘life’ to an organization or community when it is most effective, and most capable in economic, ecological, and human terms.

“AI assumes that every organization or community has many ‘untapped and rich accounts of the positive’ – what people talk about as past, present, and future capacities – the positive core. AI links the knowledge and energy of this core directly to an organization or community’s change agenda, and changes never thought possible are suddenly and demonstrably mobilized.” 

That definition may not seem to have any relevance to the journalism of the past, but it may be essential to the journalism of the future. Here’s why.

Modern professional journalism began as part of the Progressive Era in the first decade of the 20th Century and flourished through most of the century. The economic model that supported it fractured as the Digital Age emerged in the last decade of the century. Beyond economics, the old distributive model of journalism does not fit well in world where people are not satisfied to passively consume news, but demand to participate in sharing and creating it, as well.

We are living in what authors Charlene Li and Josh Bernoff call the groundswell: “A social trend in which people use technologies to get the things they need from each other, rather than from traditional institutions like corporations.” A clear example for journalism is the number of people who say their primary sources of news begins with Twitter, Facebook or other social media.

Li and Bernoff warn, “This movement can’t be tamed. And like a flood, it can’t be stopped in one place. Often it can’t be stopped at all…And while you can’t stop it, you can understand it. You can not only live with it, you can thrive in it.”  

I have promoted the idea that, if journalism did not exist today, it would not be created in the form that it has been practiced for the past century. The values, functions and purposes of journalism are as important as ever, but the distributive model – we create; you consume – is antiquated. If journalism is to survive, and perhaps thrive in the groundswell, it must be re-invented as an interactive endeavor for a networked culture. 

This re-imagining of journalism will require journalists to appreciate that public service journalism can be better when the public participate as true partners. Or, as the late Cole Campbell, also a co-founder of Journalism That Matters, wrote, when journalists “regard and treat people as experts in their own lives and aspirations.”

So what does that mean for journalism, and more particularly, for interviewing and storytelling? What follows is an interpretation of how AI might inform the process of journalism, not a direct application of the methodology.

AI uses what is called the appreciative interview, a one-on-one conversation among people in the organization or community. I believe the appreciative interview technique can be useful to journalists addressing “What’s possible now?” 

To be clear, Appreciative Inquiry doesn’t propose ignoring problem; it presents methods for not being limited by them. Asking about possibilities gets at problems from the other side. Problems end up being expressed as aspirations that can mobilize people to act. The underlying belief, says Pula, is that whatever you pay attention to is going to happen.

In the case of gentrification, an appreciative approach might start with asking residents to describe a high point when the community was at its best and people were most engaged with each other.

  • What do you like best about your community? 
  • What do you want more of in your community?
  • What do you most value about yourself as a member of the community? 
  • What do you most want to preserve about the community even as it changes?
  • What are your best hopes for our community?
  • What common ground do you see among longtime residents and newcomers? 
  • What resources does your community have to bring people together? 
  • What would it look like if people came together in mutual partnership? 
  • What might you do in your personal life to bring about the change you want to see? 

Pula says these questions should be asked at the grassroots, among people who represent the diversity of the entire community. The stories that emerge should be reported in small increments. Mega stories about problems call on readers to quickly pass judgment on the facts, possibly foreclosing on options before they are known. Iterative stories give readers more opportunity to see and weigh possibilities from different perspectives as they unfold, with impact that is immediate and continual.

Pula gives the example of a story in Canada about people with intellectual disabilities being essentially incarcerated in care facilities. They were restrained physically or with psychotropic drugs. Advocates wanted them to be integrated into the community; other were fearful that closing the facilities would leave the people unable to live on their own.

Axiom News used an “asset-based” community development story process, what Appreciative Inquiry calls the 4 Ds. Peggy Holman describes them this way:

  • Discovery – Mobilizing a multiple stakeholder inquiry into the positive core of the system
  • Dream – Creating a result-oriented vision in discovered potential and questions of higher purpose.
  • Design – Creating possibility-oriented design propositions of the ideal organization or community. Articulating a design capable of drawing upon and magnifying the positive core to realize the newly expressed dream.
  • Destiny – Strengthening the affirmative capability of the whole system. Enabling it to build hope and sustain momentum for ongoing positive change and high performance.

Pula says Axiom News interviewed the people affected, their families and others working in the system to discover what assets existed in the system and community and what outcomes the stakeholders hoped might happen. Axiom followed and narrated the story incrementally as people re-integrated into the community, learning what was being done, how it was working and how it might work better. As results became known, public attitudes and policies changed over time.

Peggy Holman of Journalism That Matters says this example illustrates “the activating effect of possibility. People create what they can imagine. When stories stimulate our imagination by helping us envision possibilities that attract us, it mobilizes us to get involved.

“So if journalists want to make a difference, it takes journalism that doesn’t just inform, but also engages and inspires. Done well, a natural consequence is that it activates people to get involved. If journalists want to evoke action that addresses problems, then Appreciative Inquiry or solutions journalism is a path towards having an impact. It’s a way of activating, not advocating,” Holman says.

This activating without advocating by asking questions that expand the range of possibilities is consistent with the first principles of journalism The American Press Institute says, “the foremost value of news is as a utility to empower the informed. The purpose of journalism is thus to provide citizens with the information they need to make the best possible decisions about their lives, their communities, their societies, and their governments.”

New theories are emerging: journalism as conversation or a relationship with people; journalism as process, not product; journalists as connectors and curators. These new models have varying names: restorative narrative, generative journalism, and solutions journalism. All of them introduce possibility as a key element of reporting, whether in covering endemic social issues or disasters.

The Solutions Journalism Network explains it concept:

“Solutions journalism is critical and clear-eyed reporting that investigates and explains credible responses to social problems.

It looks at examples where people are working toward solutions, focusing not just on what may be working, but how and why it appears to be working based on the best available evidence, or, alternatively, why it may be stumbling. It delves deep into the how-to’s of problem solving, often structuring stories as puzzles or mysteries that investigate questions like: What models are having success reducing the dropout rate and how do they actually work?

“When done well, the stories provide valuable insights about how communities may better tackle important problems. As such, solutions journalism can be both highly informing and engaging, providing a reporting foundation for productive, forward looking (and less polarizing) community dialogues about vital social issues.”

These new models are not substitutes for traditional methods of journalism. They are complements that should be studied, challenged, improved upon and taught as rigorously as watchdog journalism, accountability journalism or computer-assisted reporting, etc. They should be tested to see whether they generate greater public engagement and trust in journalism.  

For journalism educators, students and practitioners intrigued the notion, here are some appreciative questions might speed the adoption of the sixth “W” as a journalistic standard:

  • “What’s possible in journalism now that hasn’t been possible before?”
  • “What’s possible when journalists and the public work together?”
  • “How can journalism help people and communities find strengths, assets and best practices?”
  • “What are your best hopes for journalism?
  • What might you do in to bring those hopes to life? 

Questions like these are more than an interviewing technique; they part of an emerging philosophy about the future of journalism.

After all, the questions we ask become the reality we live.


Peggy Holman, Engaging Emergence: Turning Upheaval into Opportunity, Berrett-Koehler Publishers, San Francisco, 2010.

Peggy Holman, Tom Devane, Steven Cady, The Change Handbook: The Definitive Resource on Today’s best Methods for Engaging Whole Systems, Berrett-Koehler Publishers, San Francisco, 2007.

Diana Whitney, Amanda Trosten-Bloom, David Cooperrider, Brian S. Kaplin, Encyclopedia of Positive Questions: Using Appreciative Inquiry to Bring Out the Best in Your Organization, Second Edition, Crown Custom Publishing, Brunswick, OH, 2013.

Sue Annis Hammond, The Thin Book of Appreciative Inquiry, Second Edition, Thin Book Publishing Co., Plano, TX, 1996. 

Charlene Li, Josh Bernoff, Groundswell: winning in a world transformed by social technologies, Harvard Business Press, Boston, 2008.

Tony Wharton, editor, Journalism as a Democratic Art: Selected Essays by Cole C. Campbell, Kettering Foundation Press, 2012.