Solutions journalism (or solution-based journalism) is an approach to reporting that focuses on solutions to problems in the world, as well as raising awareness of those issues. Proponents of solutions journalism maintain that this form of news reporting is necessary for society – after all, the widespread standard journalistic approach of simply communicating problems can be unproductive in a number of ways, which we will take a look at in more depth.
Proponents of solutions journalism distinguish it from ‘good news’ stories, in the sense that the latter may involve a superficial reporting of a solution, without a careful examination of the evidence pertaining to the effectiveness of that solution. Moreover, good news stories tend to focus on an individual or institution behind an innovative solution, rather than emphasising the benefits and downsides of the innovation itself. Solutions journalism is, undoubtedly, still a fringe form of reporting in the news media; however, given the negative effects resulting from the news industry, it appears that solution-based journalism can instil a sense of hope and efficacy in the general public, which is often lacking. Indeed, many of us find the news extremely dispiriting in nature.
The Problem With Traditional News Reporting
Of course, raising awareness about issues in the world can play a vital role in resolving those issues. Nonetheless, there is also research showing that simply reporting on problems can also reduce people’s sense of efficacy (their ability to enact change), as well as contribute to a persistent feeling of apathy and cynicism. Consuming so many negative stories on a daily basis can make issues in the world appear overwhelming and intractable. This then leads to the unfortunate situation of people disengaging from public life, in the conviction that they are powerless to make any sort of meaningful difference.
As a case in point, the Associated Press (AP) published a study in 2008 showing that young people were tired of news that they perceived as negative and lacking an effective solution. This results in a phenomenon known as ‘bad news fatigue’, which is when the sheer quantity of news negative stories drains you, causing you to tune out, rather than be motivated about actively engaging with the issues being reported.
This experience of news fatigue can be quite deleterious. Exposure to bad news can result in what the psychologist Charles Figley has termed ‘compassion fatigue’ (also known as vicarious traumatisation or secondary traumatic stress): “a state of exhaustion and dysfunction, biologically, physiologically and emotionally, as a result of prolonged exposure to compassion stress”. Reading about so much bad news in the world can empty your compassion reserves, as it were, making you become numb and desensitised to subsequent negative stories. Symptoms of compassion fatigue include:
- Behavioural changes (becoming easily startled and a reduced ability to remain objective)
- Physical changes (exhaustion, physical symptoms of anxiety, and cardiac symptoms)
- Emotional changes (numbness, low mood, and a decreased sense of purpose)
Compassion fatigue is a relatively recent term, but it describes a perennial experience. As the historian Samuel Moyn succinctly puts it, “Compassion fatigue is as old as compassion.” Compassion fatigue is also commonly referred to as the cost of caring. In his essay, Empathy in History, Empathizing With Humanity (2006), Moyn notes that the 18th century philosophers who “rooted ethics in sentiment and sympathy” were worried that “devoting oneself to an ethic of exposure and sensitivity to others’ suffering (or of engagement and action to relieve it) might lead to a numbed ethical sense.” And it was these concerns that led the German philosopher Immanuel Kant to disentangle sentimentality from ethics and, instead, attempt to root morality in reason.
Philosophy aside, it seems clear that the 24-hour news cycle can easily tend towards compassion fatigue. It’s never been easier to expose oneself to all the various tragedies that befall individuals, groups, and societies all over the world. Furthermore, the way in which we learn about such horrors – through the lens of traditional news reporting – can disempower us. This is why solutions journalism is so desperately needed.
The Benefits of Solutions Journalism
Solution-based news stories tend to share the following features in common:
- Identifying the root causes of a problem
- Highlighting a response or responses to that problem
- Presenting evidence relating to the response’s impact
- Explaining how and why the response is working or not working
Advocates of solutions journalism believe that its evidence-based approach to the assessment of solutions can help the public see credible possibilities for moving forward, as well as make informed choices when it comes to pressing issues. Citizens may even try to replicate the solutions that they read about.
Solution-based journalism can also give communities, leaders, innovators, and philanthropists the knowledge base they need to make informed decisions on policies and investments that will ultimately benefit society. In defence of solutions journalism, some commentators argue that this form of journalism enhances investigative reporting, by underscoring valid reasons as to why difficult problems can be solved.
Solutions journalism, as well as increasing public engagement, can encourage people to have constructive conversations about a range of issues, rather than talk about problems in an apathetic and exasperated manner. Solutions journalism is not meant to replace traditional news reporting but is, instead, designed to complement it. By combining the watchdog role of traditional news with stories about effective responses to issues, solutions journalism aims to present the public with a more comprehensive, complete view of those issues. Indeed, Samantha McCann, curator of the Solutions Journalism Network, contends that by excluding solutions journalism from reporting, readers will not be able to gain an accurate portrayal of events in the world. McCann states:
If you are only reporting on what’s broken, you are not actually giving them all the information they need to respond. [Journalists] are really helping to shape the narrative of how people view the world. And if you are not giving them that other half, you’re giving them a dark picture of what is happening, which is not accurate.
The Solutions Journalism Network, which promotes the practices of solutions journalism, published a study demonstrating that readers are more engaged with solutions-based stories than problem-based stories, were more likely to share such stories on social media, and were more likely to read more articles from the same publication and author.
Mary Hockaday, controller at BBC World Service English, stresses that solutions journalism is not a soft, feel-good kind of journalism. In her words, it’s not “uncritically buying into people who say ‘we’ve solved this, we’ve cracked that, look at how wonderful we are’. And it is not about buying into one particular ideology about how the world’s problems should be solved.” Solutions journalism is, moreover, not intended to be self-righteous and preachy about any particular solution. Reporters engaging in solutions journalism strive to apply the same kind of critical thinking, rigour, and scrutiny that any other reporter should aim to bring to their work.
Outlets dedicated to solutions journalism (or constructive journalism) very much operate as a minority within the news industry, with such stories never really gaining the kind of traction seen with traditional news reporting. This, no doubt, relates to the fact that traditional news media is entrenched, widely disseminated, familiar, and trusted by the public as go-to sources of information about events in the world. The popularity of problem-based storytelling may also relate to the way that our brains are wired. Nonetheless, solutions journalism is on the rise. Outlets like Positive News, the world’s first publication based on solutions journalism, are widely read and considered highly reputable sources of information on current affairs and social issues.
I have written for different news outlets, with some focusing on problem-based reporting and others (such as the startup FourGoods, where I write for now) prioritising solutions journalism. And speaking from personal experience, I definitely feel more engaged and optimistic when writing for the latter. Another upside, then, of solutions journalism is that it can make a journalist’s work more meaningful and fulfilling. So, as we can see, the value of solutions journalism is multifaceted, with its proliferation likely to benefit journalists, the public, and society at large.