A recent post by the World Editors Forum looked at the ’emerging mega trend’ of constructive journalism. It followed the publication of a book by Ulrik Haagerup, Constructive News, and took note of the US-based Solutions Journalism Network. Here, the organisation’s co-founder, David Bornstein, clarifies what constitutes solutions journalism as opposed to ‘sunshine’ journalism.
We’re trying to establish ‘solutions journalism’ as a category of reporting that focuses on responses to social problems and explains how they work, or why they may be partially working, or failing, but still offer teachable lessons.
It’s not meant to inspire, or make people feel good, or to get people to be activists; it’s just good reporting looking deeply at people involved in problem solving and what can be learned from their efforts and stories. We would not characterise Upworthy, Humans of New York and South Africa: The Good News as examples of solutions-based journalism.
These sites tell many great stories, but they have other goals. Solutions journalism and ‘good news’ are very different things. One is about the question to understand how problems can be solved — the other is often about people doing nice or inspiring things.
We have a list of 10 questions that we use to help us think about what solutions journalism is. It’s not gospel by any means, but we find it useful to think through what this practice is, and how it can be done rigorously. I include them below.
1. Does the story explain the causes of a social problem?
A solution should be explained in the context of the problem it’s trying to address. Documenting the causes of that problem will clarify the opportunity for a solution to create leverage and impact.
2. Does the story present an associated response to that problem?
The acid test: if the story doesn’t describe a response, it’s not solutions journalism.
3. Does the story get into the problem solving and how-to details of implementation?
A great solutions story delves into the how-to’s of problem solving,
investigating questions such as, ‘What models are having success improving an educational outcome and how do they actually work?’
4. Is the problem solving process central to the narrative?
Solutions journalism, like all journalism, is about great story telling. It should include characters grappling with challenges, experimenting, succeeding, failing, learning. But the narrative is driven by the problem solving and the tension is located in the inherent difficulty in solving a problem.
5. Does the story present evidence of results linked to the response?
Solutions journalism is about ideas – but like all good journalism, the determination of what works (or doesn’t) is supported, where possible, by solid evidence. For early-stage ideas, where the only “evidence” may be the assertions of credible observers, the key is not to overclaim.
6. Does the story explain the limitations of the response?
There is no such thing as a perfect solution to a social problem. Every response has caveats, limitations, and risks. Good solutions journalism does not shy away from imperfection.
7. Does the story convey an insight or teachable lesson?
What makes solutions journalism compelling is the discovery — the journey that brings the reader or viewer to an insight about how the world works and, perhaps, how it could be made to work better.
8. Does the story avoid reading like a puff piece?
Solutions journalism is expressly not about advocating for particular models, organisations, or ideas. Journalists pursuing solutions stories are bringing their discernment to explore ideas and methods, not to advance an agenda or make people feel good.
9. Does the story draw on sources who have a ground-level understanding, not just 30,000-foot expertise?
Solutions journalism comes alive when it draws on practical how-to insights from
people working in the trenches, who are knowledgeable about on-the-ground realities and the details of implementation.
10. Does the story give greater attention to the response than to a leader/innovator/do-gooder?
We see a clear distinction between solutions journalism and what is often called “good news”. ‘Good news’ stories tend to celebrate individuals and inspirational acts. Solutions journalism is about ideas, how people are trying to make them work, and their observable effects.