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October 27, 2022updated 17 Nov 2022 2:19pm

Solutions journalism: Could it be the antidote to news avoidance?

By Aisha Majid

As the news agenda continues to be dominated by crisis after crisis, data suggests that increasing numbers of people are dealing with the doom and gloom by simply avoiding it.

According to this year’s Reuters Institute Digital News Report, 38% of people said they often or sometimes avoid the news – up from 29% in 2017. Feelings of powerlessness and depression were cited as among the main reasons readers are disconnecting.

But while Covid-19, the war in Ukraine, the soaring cost of living and climate change are important issues affecting us all, is there another way the media can report on them?

This is where solutions journalism - a growing movement that seeks to report on what’s working in the world and not just what’s wrong with it - comes in.

"This is not a time for journalism to go soft. There are really crucial crises going on around the world," says David Bornstein, a journalist and co-founder of the Solutions Journalism Network, a New York-based organisation that says it has worked with more than 500 newsrooms.

"The question is how does journalism inform people to ensure accountability and protect the public without making people feel powerless and hopeless?" he adds.

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"We need solutions journalism to round out the news mix so that people have a sense of hope, agency and dignity."

One of the most pressing issues of the day that has lent itself particularly well to solutions journalism is the climate crisis. It is the specialist subject of Bloomberg’s solutions-focused vertical, Green.

While Bloomberg Green does not shy away from the more traditional reporting on climate issues such as studies warning of the catastrophic effects of global warming, reporting on technological solutions that could solve the crisis is core to the vertical.

"From a Bloomberg perspective the business of climate change and the business of the energy transition struck me as a story that wasn't being told well enough across the news landscape," says John Fraher, Bloomberg's senior executive editor for ESG and energy.

"There's a lot of money coming into the space and smart business people looking five or ten years down the line want to read solutions journalism because it will give them a sense of where the interesting technologies are where they should invest their money."

While Fraher says that the majority of the vertical’s reporting is oriented towards solutions, writing about solutions is not necessarily always happy reading.

"On the one hand solutions is writing about new and interesting climate solutions. But good solutions journalism is also about highlighting the problems."

This includes exposing greenwashing, he says.

"I actually view that as solutions journalism as well… Part of our role is to educate readers into understanding what is a good solution, a credible and valid solution and what's a phoney solution," says Fraher.

Bloomberg is among perhaps a handful of mainstream newsrooms that have an explicitly solutions-focused vertical. The New York Times until last year had a solutions column called Fixes while The Guardian had a section called The Upside. Solutions journalism is still far from being the bread and butter of editorial agendas and rarely makes front pages, however. Most newsrooms are still wedded to the old idea that "if it bleeds, it leads".

But Bornstein believes that solutions journalism is catching on, albeit slowly.

While the Solutions Journalism Network does not profess to have captured every example of this type of reporting being produced, the organisation has so far collected more than 13,900 examples of solutions reporting from 1,800 outlets around the world.

In the nine years since the network was set up, there has been a palpable change in how solutions journalism is viewed, believes Bornstein.

"There's much less resistance to solutions journalism. When we started in 2013 it was very difficult to get people to see this as legitimate journalism. People said it was advocacy, feel-good and puffery. There were all sorts of beliefs that if you do solutions journalism, you can't do it with rigour and you can't do it independently," he says.

Will Doig, editor of Reasons to be Cheerful, a non-profit newsroom founded by ex-Talking Heads frontman David Byrne in 2019, agrees with Fraher and Bornstein that solutions journalism is more than just positive news.

Despite the publication’s name, Reasons to be Cheerful does not shy away from solutions that are hard to stomach.

"We definitely have a segment of our readership that just really wants to feel good but not all solutions are about issues that feel good. Sometimes the issue is really tough to look at and sometimes the solution itself is imperfect or challenging," says Doig. He cites reporting on gun crime and the criminal justice system to US audiences as examples.

While Reasons to be Cheerful is a small publisher with a team of eight, Doig believes the outlet is part of a vanguard.

"We’re trying to make solutions journalism feel like a legitimate part of the news cycle and not just a side project," he says. "We're feeling a little bit like we're at the forefront of a trend which feels good."

Going back to the growing trend of news avoidance: is there any evidence that solutions journalism can stop readers drifting away from the news?

"A question I get asked a lot is how it must be so hard to get people to read our stories because everybody just wants to read bad news," says Doig. "But that has not been our experience. It seems almost the opposite. The hunger for this type of news is greater than we thought and greater than a lot of people assume."

A 2020 study by US media firm SmithGeiger commissioned by the Solutions Journalism Network found that stories with a solutions focus resonated better among readers.

The A/B study showed 638 readers two sets of stories - traditional, problem-focused stories and solutions stories covering responses to problems.

Some 88% said that a solutions journalism story they viewed left a positive initial impression on them, compared to 74% for a comparable problem-focused story. And 83% said they trusted the solutions journalism story, compared to 55% who said the same about the problem-focused story.

Solutions journalism might also help news organisations in other ways. Constructive stories, argues Bornstein, connect better with audiences who are increasingly funding the news - whether through digital subscriptions, membership fees or donations.

"Now that the news is standing on its own two economic legs and doesn't have a third-party payer which used to be advertising, we really need to make sure that the news product itself is something that people feel speaks to their concerns directly, especially at the local level," he says.

"News avoidance is a big problem. But so are revenues. Can you really fix the news business without tinkering with the product itself?"

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