[Editors note: We are republishing an article by Alex Sabadan that explores the behind-the-scenes of solutions journalism, and whether it does indeed bring the solution to the issues it rises.]

Media often get stuck focusing on negative news and reporting problems. “If it bleeds, it leads.”

This approach can make audiences feel powerless and succumb to apathy. Many simply choose to stop following the news. 

But new ways to report have emerged, with studies showing there may be better ways to satisfy audience needs. One of them is “solutions journalism.” 

 “You can’t just cover problem after problem, lead people into despair and passivity, and wave goodbye,” says Tina Rosenberg, a co-founder of the Solutions Journalism Network. “You owe the audience more than that.”

How much of the whole “solutions journalism” trend is just empty hype and how much is an actual, novel approach that benefits both newsrooms and audiences? What does it take to write a good solutions journalism piece? The Fix looked into these and other questions.

News still brings a lot of traffic, do people really need solutions that much? 

It’s true that publishing emotionally coloured, negative topics is still the easiest way to grab readers’ attention — many outlets bet on it. But recent readers surveys show that audiences are increasingly unhappy with the products they are getting.

People have stopped reading the news altogether. According to the RISJ Digital News Report 2019, 32% of readers across the globe say they actively avoid the news. This rate has risen by 3% since 2017. The main reasons for news-avoidance among UK readers are “because it has a negative effect on my mood” (58%), “I don’t feel I can do anything about it” (40%), “I can’t rely on it to be true” (34%). 

Trending news is often about crises and problems — the refugee crisis, wildfires in the Amazon and Australia, Ebola and the coronavirus… As some topics fade and others arise, the social responses and aftereffects are barely covered. 

Basically, newsrooms are putting too much emotional and psychological burden, often unnecessarily, on their readers.

There is a clear demand for more integral reporting. An audience survey by BBC World Service showed that 64% of people under 35 years-old want news to provide solutions to problems, not just inform about certain issues.

So what is solutions journalism anyway?

There is no universally recognized definition of solutions journalism. Most rotate around the idea of linking the description of a problem with an overview of possible or existing solutions to it. 

“The idea of solutions journalism is to show how people are responding”, says Lucie Černá, program coordinator of Solutions Journalism CEE in Prague-based media/ development organization Transitions Online

Solutions journalism can raise communal issues — like the Seattle Times covering challenges in local public education — but it can also cover problems of national scale (e.g. new approaches to decrease suicide risk in Czechia).

Journalists often reach out to audiences to assess their awareness of a problem or gather their experiences on how to respond to a problem. This can make a story more engaging for readers. 

Solutions journalism has its roots in “peace journalism” from the 1960-1970s and “public journalism” from the 1990s. The first challenged traditional journalistic approach to conflict as a two-sided struggle, trying to find non-violent solutions to problems. The second criticized the belief that a reporter’s job is to expose wrongdoing and pushed for engaging people on matters of public importance.

What does it take to write a good solutions journalism story? What are the risks involved?

The evident danger for solutions journalism is to end up in advocacy and start supporting particular people or organizations. To avoid this risk and maximize added value Lucie Černá of Solutions Journalism CEE recommends to adhere to the following principles. The program seeks to raise awareness about the approach in Central and Eastern Europe and provides training, mentoring and support for journalists.

Feature not just a person, but a response to a problem and how it happened. People are drivers of change, rather than heroes in solution journalism stories. The accent should be placed on what they did, consequences of their actions, and whether their approach is replicable. 

Provide evidence of impact, look at the effectiveness of a suggested solution. Intentions are not enough. The value of solutions journalism lies in applicable knowledge. The best shot is to cover success stories highlighting their applicability to different contexts. Stories of failures can also be valuable, as it is important for the audience to know that some people tried and what lessons we can extract from their endeavors.

Seek to provide insights that can help others respond — not just inspiration. Give more practical details on how to apply the suggested solution or where to seek answers. 

Discuss limitations or caveats of a response. You are not expected to provide a perfect solution for everyone, as such solutions simply do not exist. It makes a story more credible if you discuss limitations and risks.

How does solution journalism benefit the newsroom?

According to a study Center of Media Engagement (University of Texas in Austin), if a story has all five core components of solutions journalism (problem, solution, implementation, results, insights), it is likely to:

  • Improve readers’ perception of article quality.
  • Make readers more likely to “like” a similar article on Facebook.
  • Increase readers’ interest in and knowledge about the issue.
  • Increase intentions to read more articles about the issue.
  • Boost readers’ positivity. 
  • Lead readers to believe there were ways to effectively address the issue.

However, later parts of reporting (implementation, results, insights) work well only if the problem and solutions were comprehensively reported.

The approach also does not require a full switch — media can integrate solutions journalism into their daily operations. It can work as a separate website section — the Seattle Times’ “Education Lab” or BBC’s “People Fixing the World” program. 

Solutions journalism can also be a good tool to boost audience engagement, even if used just once or twice, suggesting it may be — at least partially — a solution for struggling journalism itself.

The article was based on the interview with Lucie Černá, Transitions Online (Czech Republic), 2019 Digital News Report by Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism and “The Keys to Powerful Solutions Journalism” Study by Center of Media Engagement (University of Texas in Austin).

Photo by Olav Ahrens Røtne on Unsplash