Getting a boost from evidence- and science-based solutions

By Adam Vaughan

Why bother doing solutions journalism?

There is qualitative evidence that readers want it. “One of the top five complaints I regularly read from readers and supporters is that the news is too grim and that we should do more to show the positive side. I always point these readers to the Upside, and they are always grateful,” says Mark Rice-Oxley, executive editor at The Guardian.

There are mixed opinions on whether traffic alone is a reason to produce solutions journalism. Some academic studies have suggested the format is more popular than traditional and more likely to be shared. The Guardian has found that’s not the case, says Rice-Oxley. The newspaper has found solutions journalism’s audience size depends more on the subject, rather than the format. For example, a piece on wildlife returning to Venice in the pandemic had a huge readership. More complex but arguably more important pieces, such as one on microloans in low income countries, might struggle. New Scientist has seen similar. Traffic for a feature on how to decarbonise concrete and steel reached a much smaller digital audience than one on the health benefits and risks of cold-water swimming.

Solutions journalism tends to have a longer life span, especially compared news stories that do most of their traffic on day one. Germany non-profit RESET, which produces solutions journalism, has found it gets spikes whenever subjects come back round in the news. Marisa Petitt at RESET gives the example of their article on digital activism becoming hugely popular last year during Black Lives Matter protests. We’ve found similar at New Scientist, and also use social media to resurface archive stories when evergreen subjects roll round.

Solutions journalism and COVID-19

One of the big ways the pandemic has affected science journalism has been to massively speed up the academic publishing process, which is great for getting information into the public realm quickly but removed a lot of the quality control and safety nets. Many researchers been going straight to publishing preprints, with dozens being published daily, rather than waiting for journals such as The Lancet, Science, PNAS, PLOS One, Cell, and Nature. That immediately removes two checks. One is they not been peer-reviewed – challenged and reality checked by experts in their field. The other is it takes away the embargo system for science journalism, which is imperfect but does give reporters time to find the best 3 or 4 people in the world to give an independent, third party sense-check on a paper. The urgency of covid has meant some journalists have been under pressure to report straight off single preprints without having time to do that sense-checking before publishing. One way to cope with that in solutions journalism during the pandemic has been to focus on evergreen and analytical pieces, which is what we’ve done at New Scientist.

A good example is masks, which were presented as solution to transmission early on. Many preprints were coming out around March/April 2021, with completely contradictory findings. They were a mix of lab experiments and computer modelling, and also examined issues around behaviour, such as mask-wearing making people less cautious. We were getting background briefings with the government saying there just wasn’t enough data. All in all, the picture on this potential “solution” was just unclear. One of the first pieces we ran was an analysis concluding there was small benefit to wearing one, but the evidence was very weak. A lot of the mask papers were a good reminder of looking at sample sizes in papers – how much data do people really have? It was also one where you needed to watch out for conflating correlations with causations, because there were some many confounders (such as more risky behaviour) that could explain links with masks instead.

Contact tracing apps were another good example. This was another one presented early on as a silver bullet. We took a similar approach to masks. One key lessons here were waiting for and finding some evidence on people trying to use Bluetooth for this specific purpose – detecting proximity and possible transmission – and drilling down into the mechanics of how the proposed solution would work. The second was drawing comparisons with other countries where there was data available. The potential downsides to this solution were legion: from high take-up required to be effective, privacy and data security concerns, effectiveness of Bluetooth, false positives and false negatives.

Another example to mention was there was a lot of hype in summer 2020 about breakthroughs on treatment. This was a case of looking for vested interests serving their own ends with Remdesivir, the drug the US had bought in huge quantities. A lot of the most promising research was linked to the manufacturer Gilead. Meanwhile, other trials showed no clinical benefit. We made clear to readers the thing to watch for were the results of a WHO study, which we were hearing via backchannels were showing disappointing data. That was later confirmed publicly.

Lessons from Fix the Planet and the past

Readers welcome solutions journalism. When I was at The Guardian I was heavily involved in the Keep it in the Ground campaign in March 2015 calling on the Wellcome Trust and Gates Foundation, two major philanthropic donors on health, to divest from fossil fuels on the grounds they were undoing their own good work with their investments. It was very high profile but one of the main criticisms from readers was its stance and tone was too negative. So part two of the campaign, in October 2015, was a series of case study reports on the solutions, from the economics of solar power to tree-planting in South Africa.

My more recent example would be Fix the Planet, a New Scientist email newsletter we launched just over a year ago which now has 16,000 subscribers, scrutinising examples of mooted climate change solutions. The idea was it would provide antidote to drumbeat of doom and gloom climate science papers we cover in news. However, the subjects often feed into news stories in mag too. Subscriber numbers and dozens of emails I get a week – sometimes 50+ if controversial subject – are validation that there is appetite. Wired magazine launched their own climate solutions newsletter, Chasing Zero, in early May.

My tips

Resist getting too caught up with the solution you are reporting on, and “going native”, losing your usual journalistic objectivity and slipping into advocacy. That can be a big risk when you’re reporting on same subject regularly and know sources intimately. For example, with climate change it could be blindly adopting views of green NGOs, on opposition to nuclear power, or with a local solutions journalism it could be adopting the perspective of a sympathetic individual campaigner.

Related to that, one thing to watch for is over- or under-playing the potential of a solution. I have a quite simple metric for my Fix the Planet newsletter – how many tonnes of CO2 is this solution saving/removing, and how much could it save in the future? World emitting almost 40 billion tonnes of CO2 a year, so a machine removing 4000 tonnes of CO2 is very small. The late Hans Rosling’s Factfulness book has great reminders on this, on never presenting single numbers alone, and providing context. Other factors on my beat include looking at technology readiness, or how far is it from lab to being commercialised – it’s often somewhere in the middle. Some subjects need more reporting than others to show how far off a technology or company is from solving the problem – e.g. fusion power and solar power from space. Other subjects may be more difficult to measure, but find your metrics, whether it’s unemployment rates or something else. Key here is just reporting as you would with any other subject, getting as much independent comment from experts as you can – in my case that’s often academics, people at thinktanks, non-profits, government advisers. Your other ally here is data visualisation and simple graphs or maps, to show whether something is very small. If you can, interrogate the data by downloading it and drawing your own charts, so you truly understand the data. Finally, resist editor pressure to make something a solution when it isn’t. If economics, technology, politics or societal factors are a barrier to something, say so.

Particular caution should be given to claims of solutions by companies, and making clear when a solution is really a red herring for a better solution. Burger King’s low methane burgers were a good example – it turned out the lemongrass additive in their food was costly was too costly and cow microbes adjust to diet changes after a while. Also ask yourself: is this is really a solution at all? Is fiddling at edges of meat’s greenhouse gas footprint the answer, or is eating less meat and dairy the answer?

A few other questions to bear in mind with solutions surrounding science and the environment journalism. Is a claim published in a peer-reviewed journal? Is it a single preprint? How well-cited and experienced are the researchers? Have you seen the study and spoke with the authors, rather than just reading the press release? Have you found experts in the right specific field to give you an independent view– e.g. not getting modellers on covid-19 infection rates to comment on vaccine safety.

And advice from other journalists

Solutions journalism may be about important subjects, but don’t turn readers off by being too worthy or unengaging. “It’s a fine balance between bombarding people with ideas and informing them – and remaining engaging while also imparting important information,” says Marisa Petitt at German non-profit, RESET. This is a tightrope I’m often conscious of with my Fix the Planet newsletter. You have to have the numbers, but without making for unreadable copy.

Start with problems, not solutions, says Rice-Oxley. “Look for paragons and exemplars. Which nation has the lowest net carbon emissions? Which city has the cleanest air? What are they doing, and could any of it be replicated.”

And make sure you see data, says Rice-Oxley. “Don’t do anything without data. There has to be some evidence of success, that what is being touted actually works. So build data in to your approach from the start. Traditional journalism involves mining new datasets for stories about what might be going wrong. We can do the same for things that might be going right: ie, an ONS release might highlight a nationwide rise in the suicide rate. He says generally it is best to avoid PR pitches, as they tend to over-promise – posited as a silver bullet to a problem – when usually they are a “tiny part of the jigsaw.”

Sophie Yeo, a freelancer journalist who runs the newsletter Inkcap Journal, says you should convey the scale of solutions. “I think it’s always important to give a sense of scale around how much a solution can help, and any limitations to the solution – whether that’s financial, psychological, political etc. I try not to fall into the trap of suggesting that something could be a silver bullet when its scope is fairly small or limited by external factors.” She also reminds us to check if the solution is really new. “I think it’s important to check if there have been any similar attempts or projects, to give a sense of the extent to which the solution is genuinely new or if it’s building on previous work.”

And she says, remember the big picture. “With climate change in particular it’s important to remember the broader narrative: there can be a lot of money in solutions, and so it’s important to remember who’s making it. Nature-based solutions, in the wrong hands, can be an excuse to continue with business as usual, so it’s useful to maintain some scepticism about the wider context while reporting.”

Jocelyn Timperley, a freelance journalist who runs the Chasing Zero newsletter for Wired, says apply basic journalistic steps for a reality check. “I think it’s really important to try to think through the implications and potential downsides of the solution you are writing about. Obviously a good way to do this is to talk to an expert who is not involved in the project or idea to ask what its limitations in the area could be. Especially for environmental solutions, sometimes schemes can seem like a good idea but when you consider their impact at scale or in a different situation they have major hiccups. I think biofuels and offsets are good examples.”

One of Timperey’s practical tips are to not get too caught up in the benefits of a solution you are covering. “Remember that your job is to analyse, not promote, the solution, and this includes looking for holes or downsides.” But that doesn’t mean trying to shoot it down. “You can also then assess how these downsides could be limited, or the project changed to fit other circumstances. “ She gives an example of a story she wrote about a wooden ‘emissions-free’ ship for the BBC. Her other tip, and one I always try to do with Fix the Planet, is: “Explain the practical details of how a project works – so to make sure your article is not a bunch of quotes of people saying how wonderful something is or isn’t without getting into the mechanics of how it actually works.”

Adam Vaughan is Chief reporter at New Scientist and Former energy correspondent & environment editor at The Guardian