The Basics of Solutions Journalism

“Everything is horrible – worse than we ever imagined – and there’s not a damn thing we can do about any of it. But whatever happens, we can’t give into despair.”

Journalism’s predominant theory of change is that pointing out social problems will spur reform. Journalists act as whistleblowers and expose wrongdoing, but have little role to play beyond that.

This doesn’t work anymore, if it ever did.

Solutions are necessary if society is to change.

“In the past there were many stories that pointed out the problem, but none used what was working elsewhere to remove the many local excuses that were preventing the conversation from moving from what we can’t do, to what we can. The only thing that ever came of previous stories was a politician or two talking about how bad the problem was.”

Brie zeltner, Cleveland plain dealer

People don’t change simply because you point out their problems. They need models for change. So do societies. We need to know that it’s possible to do better – and that places like us, with no more resources than we have, ARE doing better.

That’s what happened in Cleveland, Ohio, when reporters Brie Zeltner and Rachel Dissell wrote a series of stories about lead paint poisoning, focusing on how other cities were better protecting their children.

Problem only journalism gives authorities an excuse. They can say, “it’s not possible to do better.” By showing it is possible, solutions reporting takes away that excuse.

Rhiannon Meyers, a reporter for the Corpus Christi Caller-Times in Texas, wrote a series on diabetes in Corpus Christi – the national leader in diabetes-related amputation. She included stories on how other cities were better at helping diabetics manage their disease.

“The solutions stories… probably got the most feedback and they were the most controversial – I think, in part, because they ruffled the feathers of providers in this community… [They] were probably the meatiest of all the stories in the series. Those were the ones that sparked the most conversation here about what we can do different and what we are not doing now.”

Rhiannon Meyers, Corpus Christi Caller-Times

Solutions are necessary to tell the whole story

Journalists’ job is to hold a mirror up to society. But reporting only on problems creates a very distorted mirror. This is why the Solutions Journalism Network’s tagline is “The Whole Story.” Journalism that fails to cover responses to social problems provides and inaccurate and biased view of reality – one that can actually harm society. By regularly highlighting problems and ignoring responses to them, journalists convey a false sense that people haven’t tried to fix things, or don’t know how to do any better.

One example: billions of people were aware of the Ebola epidemic in East Africa in 2014.

But how many people knew that neighbouring countries, such as Nigeria, Senegal and Mali, were able to control their outbreak with only a few cases?

How many people know there’s a vaccine for the most common variant of Ebola that 100% effective – that, in fact, the vaccine ended the epidemic?

How many people know there are two effective treatments?

Problem-focussed stories alone are unjust

If you don’t know a community personally, your views of that community are largely shaped by journalism – which often focuses on the worst things that happen there. Bad behaviour by a few becomes the way news audiences define all. This false narrative contributes to bias, political polarisation, and racism.

Solutions reporting is good for citizenship

Consuming a steady stream of dysfunction, failure, and corruption depresses civic involvement. Why try to help if nothing works?

Research has found that reading or watching solutions-focussed journalism makes readers want to re-engage and take action.

Solutions reporting engages people with the news

By far the biggest reason people turn off the news is its relentless negativity. We produce a product that’s painful to consume – and then we wonder why people won’t pay for it.

“Readers are clamouring for stories that aren’t just all negative, all problems. It can make them feel helpless and discouraged, as if there’s no point in their community and society as a whole. Offering them stories about programmes that seem to be helping and techniques that seem to be helping a problem they care about serves them most.”

Liz Goodwin, Yahoo! News

“I feel a great deal of satisfaction in those stories because I was not just lamenting a problem in Philly, but offering readers some new ideas. And I the response on social media underscored that people are looking for that type of engagement because it sparks more of a dialogue.”

David Gambacorta, Philadelphia Magazine

“Much of the public will soon be sick and tired about reading about coronavirus all the time because they’ll feel that a lot of the material that is put in front of them is not material that helps them in their lives and makes the anxious, worried, and feel helpless.”

Professor Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, Director, Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism

The Basics of Solutions Journalism – Webinar by Newsquest, UK

For more see:

10 Reasons Why We Need Solutions Journalism (from The Whole Story, SJN’s blog)

Up For Debate: Why We Need Solutions Journalism (Forbes)

Solutions Journalism Beats Brand X (The Whole Story)

What We Know – And Still Don’t Know – About What Solutions Journalism Can Do (The Whole Story)

The Keys To Powerful Solutions Journalism (Center for Media Engagement)

A New Research Study Puts Solutions Journalism To The Test (Knight-Cronkite News Lab)