We rely on the news media to diligently report on problems that society needs to fix—from failing schools, to income inequality, to hunger, to gun violence—just to name a few. Recently, though, some journalists have been moving beyond just highlighting problems we need to solve to actually pointing out solutions.
Proponents and practitioners of what’s known as “solutions journalism” describe it as providing “rigorous, compelling coverage of responses to social problems—reporting done with the highest of journalistic standards.” Underlying the push for this kind of reporting is a concern that if the news media fails to highlight how people and institutions are working to solve problems, then we’re not getting the whole story.
Among those giving solutions journalism a big push is the Solutions Journalism Network (SJN), a nonprofit founded by David Bornstein and Tina Rosenberg, veteran reporters who write the “Fixes” column at The New York Times, and Courtney E. Martin, a journalist and author. In a talk delivered at the 2014 frank gathering in Gainesville last February, Bornstein described solutions journalism as a kind of how-to narrative. Solutions journalism stories show readers “how to make sure kids with asthma don’t end up in the emergency room once a week” to “how to prevent kids from toxic stress” to “how to solve crime.”
SJN has just published the “Solutions Journalism Toolkit,” which authors Martin and Sarika Bansal say walks “users through the practice of solutions journalism, from the first step — identifying a response worth investigating—to the last—engaging readers in your piece once it is published.”
One of the arguments the toolkit advances for an increased emphasis on solutions journalism over traditional reporting is that the current “theory of change” that “pointing out social problems will spur reform” doesn’t live up to the promise. The authors write, “It is increasingly inadequate for journalists to simply note what’s wrong and hope for society to create better laws or provide proper oversight. The world’s problems are just too complex and fast-changing. People must learn about credible examples of responses to problems in order to become empowered, discerning actors capable of shaping a better society. In this context, journalism must augment its traditional role, spotlighting adaptive responses to entrenched social ills.”
If the news media fails to highlight how people and institutions are working to solve problems, then we’re not getting the whole story.
The examples the toolkit offers are one of the best ways to understand what makes solutions journalism unique. Among them:
—A year-long series in the Corpus ChristI Caller-Times called “Cost of Diabetes” that did more than just bring attention to the fact that Corpus Christi, Texas has the highest rate of amputations in America. Instead, the series described how other U.S. communities were doing better at dealing with diabetes care. According to the author, Rhiannon Meyers, the series helped spark conversations “here about what we can do differently and what we are not doing now.”
—After reading a New York Times “Fixes” column about a community mobilizing strategy called Rapid Results, organizers of the 100,000 Homes campaign got in touch with Rapid Results and learned how to implement it in communities where the group was trying to find housing for homeless people. Through its work with Rapid Results, the campaign met its goal of housing 100,000 chronically homeless people.
—As a result of three solutions-focused stories in a Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel series on poor treatment options for mental health partients, a new health board was established in Milwaukee to oversee the former system and the city increased its budget for mental health care.
Along with those examples of effective solutions journalism as as guidance and writing tips, one of the most valuable elements of the report, is the discussionabout what’s not considered solutions journalism. Among the “no nos”:
—Hero worship stories that “gush about the person’s decision to leave a high-paying job to save the world.”
—Silver bullet pieces that “describe new gadgets in glowing terms, often referring to them as ‘lifesavers.’”
—Think tank articles that propose “things that don’t yet exist.”
—Chris P. Bacon riffs about “good people doing cute things,” but that leave out “the structural issues that we want solutions journalism to address.
Done well — and correctly — solutions journalism has much to offer. As toolkit authors Bansal and Martin write, “Many of us became journalists because we want to have an impact, to make the world better. But uncovering wrongdoing isn’t the only way to have an impact. Revealing problems is crucial, of course — but that impact is magnified if alongside the problems, we report on how people are trying to solve them.”