Solutions Journalism seeks to equip readers with in-depth knowledge of a social problem, so that they can tackle it more effectively.
2020 has been a year of tumult: the COVID-19 pandemic has turned the world upside down, the murder of George Floyd sparked protests against racism across the West, and devastating forest fires from Australia to Siberia have been a stark reminder of the ongoing climate crisis. These social, environmental and health problems can seem too intractable to fix. This is where solutions-based journalism steps in: it seeks to equip policymakers, community organisers and individuals with in-depth knowledge of a social problem, so that they can tackle it more effectively. In this article, we provide an overview of solutions-based journalism and interview local reporters with experience writing in this format.
Is Solutions Journalism the Solution?
By Andreas Rossbach
The aim of solutions journalism is to spark constructive conversations on how to address social problems. The approach, which was developed by the American non-profit organisation Solutions Journalism Network (SJN), encourages journalists to write about solutions to social problems, and not just to expose those problems.
The Constructive Institute at Aarhus University, whose aim is to reduce the “tabloidization, sensationalism and negativity bias” of the news media, classifies solutions journalism alongside civic journalism, activist journalism, crowd-powered reporting and other forms of journalism as “constructive journalism,” which goes “beyond the problem-based narrative, embracing complexity, and engaging with the community."
The approach has come a long way since it took off a decade ago. In 2010, David Bornstein and Tina Rosenberg—the founders of SJN—launched the first of the New York Times “Fixes” series, which looks at potential solutions to real world problems. Since then, dozens more news outlets have launched their own solutions journalism pages. From BBC's World Hacks and Politico’s What Works, to Fast Company's Impact page and the Boston Globe's Things that Work, 44 news outlets today dedicate a beat, vertical, or—sometimes—their entire coverage to rigorous solutions reporting. For example, BBC World Hacks’s stated mission is to provide people “with idas to make the world a better place.” They have reported on a plethora of solutions to world problems, from second-hand shopping malls in Sweden that aim to reduce waste, to life-saving “cervical selfies” in Namibia. In “What works," Politico magazine looks at stories ranging from how a Houston-based health app is preventing flood damage to the Baltimore after-school program teaching the next generation of tech gurus.
What is solutions journalism?
According to the Learning Lab created by Solutionsjournalism.org, there are five criteria to apply when writing or producing a solutions-oriented story.
Focuses in-depth on a response to a social problem
This does not mean that the causes of the problem cannot be addressed, but it should definitely describe a response.
Examines how the response works in meaningful detail
The narrative is driven by problem-solving and explains in detail the answer to a ‘How to’ question.
It focuses on effectiveness, not good intentions, presenting available evidence of results
Solutions journalism is about ideas, but is supported, where possible, by solid evidence.
It does not just offer inspiration, but includes insights that others can use
It provides the reader with insights into how the world works and how it could be made to work better.
It analyses limitations to solutions
There are no perfect solutions. Good solutions journalism is critical on current and proposed solutions and addresses limitations and risks.
What is solutions journalism not?
Solutions journalism is sometimes mistaken for stories that glorify an individual or an individual’s approach to a particular problem. Stories that focus on technical inventions that can help alleviate problems should also not be confused with solutions journalism. Neither should stories that profile a particular organisation, or stories that point towards solutions that do not exist yet. Finally, stories that mainly address problems and throw in a possible solution in the final paragraph cannot be considered solutions stories.
Why is solutions journalism important?
According to researchers, journalism has an in-built ‘negativity bias’ which means that publications disproportionately publish negative material at the expense of positive stories. This is because readers pay more attention to negative than to positive stories, even though it may leave them feeling disempowered, helpless or cynical.
Solutions-journalism seeks to correct this imbalance by critically analysing solutions to the myriad social problems reported in the news, which are often neglected by journalists.
In order to become empowered, people must learn about credible examples of responses to problems. Analysing both the problem as well as the responses gives a more adequate and nuanced view of the issue, since it takes both sides of the story into account. It also increases reader engagement, since people can feel more empowered and less cynical about the problem. Solutions stories are more likely to be shared on social media, and can advance the public discourse.
Tips for pitching a solutions-focused story
We summarized a few tips for pitching a solutions-journalism story to any outlet.
- Provide a clear, detailed, time-sensitive answer to ‘Why should readers care’ about this story
- Include lots of evidence—qualitative or quantitative—of the response’s impact
- Acknowledge the response’s limitations, and investigate its replicability
- Include a headline that sells the story’s value and shows its timeliness
- Choose a media outlet that focuses on solutions-journalism or that shows an awareness for them.
“You can have solutions journalism on failures”
An interview with Nina Fasciaux, manager for Europe & International coordinator for the Solutions Journalism Network. She became a journalist in 2010, after being involved in humanitarian work. From 2011 to 2015, she was the web chief editor of Le Courrier de Russie, a French newspaper in Russia. Now based in France, she is involved in several editorial projects and provides training sessions on solutions journalism and media decoding (how media messages are produced, disseminated, and interpreted).
What makes a good solutions story, in your point of view?
The Solutions Journalism Network has a definition, one that is really easy to understand: solutions journalism is rigorous reporting about responses to social problems. People often misunderstand what solutions journalism is: they think it's more 'fluffy' journalism, positive journalism, or it flirts with advocacy.
We have four criteria to do a good solutions story:
- Explaining how the response that you're investigating works in detail;
- The evidence that it is working;
- The insights (what are the lessons learnt for this response to be replicated or adapted to another context);
- The limits (talk about the limits, the risks, the challenges that implementing this response involves).
What is the difference between constructive journalism and solutions journalism? Maybe solutions journalism is one of the disciplines when you talk about constructive journalism. Is that right?
That’s right. I think constructive journalism is a lot broader, it's future oriented, it has some positive psychology in it and it thinks beyond solutions journalism. But when you do solutions journalism you can use some tools from constructive journalism. To do a good solutions story you need to define first what the problem is. And to define what the problem is, you often have to talk to your community, have the people impacted by this problem define the problem themselves, engage with your audience. These are the kind of tools that you find in constructive journalism as well.
What are the most important things to bear in mind when working on a solutions story, especially in a cross-border project?
To me, cross-border projects involve global problems. So the problem you're looking at solutions for might be global. The biggest challenge—and I think the most important thing to do—is to define precisely what the problem is. You will not have a good solutions story on climate change or on migration—you need to define within those topics what is precisely the problem: is it access to drinkable water? Is it access to clean air? Or on migration: is it how to integrate the people who are in your country or is it how to make sure that they have access to education? This defining process needs to take place at the very beginning. Then the solution is probably partly addressing the problem and it's OK to have a response that only partly works, there is no such thing as a perfect solution. Being aware of those limitations and also being really clear about what the problem is—this is the best way to get a solutions story started.
There's a fine line between solutions journalism and advocacy and activism. Traditionally, journalists put a problem on a plate and let the audience decide what they might do or not about it.
I cannot agree more. I think people often misunderstand solutions journalism. The first mission of solutions journalism is to better inform people by speaking about problems and looking at responses. And I guess the term 'solutions journalism' is not perfectly fitted, because it suggests that you have the right solution. We spend a lot of time during our training and in our newsrooms explaining how to avoid advocacy, how to avoid this kind of journalism that flirts with activism. Another issue is: how to define people not only by the problem they face? You can also actually have a solutions story on failures: they provide lessons for the future.
What I think describes it a bit better is 'solutions oriented journalism', because it provides different puzzle pieces of a solution to the reader.
Yes. You can have solutions stories about any topic, but they have to be time-sensitive. Sometimes you just have to let the people know that there is a problem and maybe one day you'll have the opportunity to talk about solutions too. But you're right: solutions oriented journalism might suggest a less activist role.
It also comes from the notion that people want to have solutions journalism because they feel like there's this mantra of negative news.
It shouldn't be about being 'more positive', it should be about informing people of a more complete and complex story about one topic.
You have to acknowledge that there are multiple opinions and nuances and the situation is complex. When I travel across Europe to give training to newsrooms, migration is the first topic the journalists refer to. It's always the same story and they are looking for a new lens for this topic. There is a cross-border newsroom called The Local: they have nine newsrooms across Europe and they built a solutions journalism training program for journalists on this particular topic: how can you bring the solutions journalism to the migration beat?
Here you can find some links to best practices. First of all, there is the Solutions Story Tracker, that collects all kinds of solutions stories:
An example in The Guardian on how a program for women suffering physical and sexual assault in Tajikistan has had remarkable results:
Another story in The Guardian reports on a new cure for sleeping sickness in the Congo:
Here is a story on how Honduras brought its homicide numbers down:
Interviews with journalists
Interview with solutions-focused journalist Jacopo Pasotti
What makes a story a solutions story in your point of view?
A solution story is not just a "positive story", or a "happy end" story. Especially when dealing with long term processes such as climate change, there is no clear end in a story. As a reporter I am reporting about a point in time, the future is still full of uncertainties. A solutions story, in my opinion, presents a problem, presents challenges, talks about failures, but it shows a case where a solution was proposed or found, at least to deal with a part of the problem. In my stories I do not aim to show a victory against odds, that would be an easy and cheap way to tell a story. I want to show cases of humans who did something, who took action, made decisions and found a solution. Solutions, as I said, are probably just a step, not definitive. When you deal with environmental journalism, as I do, it's hard to believe there is such a thing as a definitive solution.
What things are the most important to consider when working on solutions stories, especially in a cross-border project?
When you think you found a solutions story, you should carefully check that your enthusiasm for that story will not introduce a bias. For a bias I mean idealizing the solution and minimizing the odds. It's quite normal to believe that “Wow, this particular community of fishermen in Madagascar has found a new way to make a living after overfishing along their coasts. They learned aquaculture techniques and now sell farmed products to a processing industry that distributes products in Europe.” But are they really building a resilient community or are they just living a gold-rush that exposes them to a volatile market? Those techniques will require buying medications to prevent epidemics in their cultures, this will create a dependency from another industry, and require more cash. Will the community be able to cope with this in the long term? These are uncertainties that should be discussed in your piece.
What can solutions journalism contribute to cross-border journalism?
There are cultural and educational differences among different countries and these enrich the conversation and broaden the perspectives in a team. When I have collaborated with local journalists from the area I am reporting on, the results have always been really outstanding, since they can provide a perspective I wouldn't be able to, coming from abroad.
Interview: Solutions-focused photojournalist Sanne Derks
What makes a story a solutions story in your point of view?
Stories that not only show the suffering and devastating consequences of an event or phenomenon, but also take a look at solutions and the power of people to deal in a constructive way with what is happening to them. It gives a more nuanced view of what is happening, showing both the negative impact and the positive outcomes.
What things are most important to consider when working on solutions stories, especially in a cross-border project?
Make sure that everybody is on the same page, in terms of editors and team-mates. I wrote a story on the gendered impact of climate change in a Bolivian indigenous community. The editors who had given me the green light to write it expected women to be more adversely impacted by climate change than men. However, in the field I learned that, unexpectedly, women were empowered in several ways, since they were seen as the major victims of climate change and thus they were given more funding opportunities and offered more capacity-building workshops to enable them to speak up for themselves. When I wrote the article, the editors at first refused to publish it, since it did not fit their expectations and they did not want to publish a positive story on climate change.
What are the questions/potential problems one should think about when planning solution projects?
You should balance your research and data very well. You shouldn’t try to focus on a solution at all costs whilst ignoring its potential negative implications. That will make you frame your story in a certain way, and might run the risk of denying the underlying problem.
What can solutions journalism contribute to cross-border journalism?
It is interesting to look at certain phenomena across borders and different cultures. It provides a broader range of best-practise examples, and allows us to see how communities elsewhere deal with similar problems.
Which topics are in your opinion best-suited for cross-border solutions projects?
I think stories focusing on the agency of people to deal with something that has significant consequences in people’s lives are the best.
Are there any samples from your work you can point to as good examples?
Yes, I did a few stories on climate change resilience:
Or in Spanish on climate change resilience in the Ecuadorian city of Guayaquil: https://elpais.com/elpais/2019/12/02/planeta_futuro/1575303960_851863.html
How can local journalism benefit from cross-border solution journalism?
The stories can be connected to larger problems, that have consequences in different ways in different parts of the world. The reverse is also true, that local problems can have consequences elsewhere. By putting the stories in a broader perspective, local journalism can make a bigger impact, since it can be connected to similar stories around the world.