Solutions journalism

05. Watch out for fake SoJo! /

Critics and proponents of solutions journalism often confuse this new genre with other ways of dealing with news

Care Bears! Just the kind of jibe used when it comes to broaching solutions journalism. For sceptics accustomed to ” traditional ” journalism, looking for solutions to problems means denying the problems. It’s seeing the world through rose-tinted glasses. It’s telling stories about trains that arrive on time. It’s describing the happy news of nice people for a contented audience.

Except that solutions journalism is not one-dimensional, nor is it a bit simple and corny. And the best way to understand what it is…. to probably list what it is not.

SoJo is not good-news journalism

In fact, journalists looking for solutions don’t even really care about the news of the day. They’re off the media agenda. The problems they address are most often structural.

And yet, SoJo is often confused with good news. It’s true that solutions-oriented investigations often turn out to be good news, informative and optimistic.

But that’s not the point.

Ultimately, it’s possible to investigate solutions… without finding any that truly work. And failure is also enlightening!

The difference between solutions journalism and good-news journalism is that good news is factual. There’s no need for an investigation to announce that the national team won a match or that inventors have found a way to remove fog from glasses when wearing a mask. 

This good news is certainly worth reporting… Yet it cannot be replicated. So, it’s not about solutions. It’s just feel-good news, which frankly isn’t so bad for a start. But solutions news, well that’s far more difficult to find…

SoJo is not an opinion

When you start to make a newsroom aware of solutions journalism and ask for ideas for topics, often you just have… ideas. Faced with problems, everyone has an opinion, and journalists are more than willing to share theirs.

But there are places for that, such as editorials, columns and posts. 

Solutions journalism is not an opinion. It’s based on facts and people taking action.

Everyone has the right to have ideas. Everyone can be tempted by this type of “intellectual comfort”: you just need to produce more or consume less, raise or lower taxes, strengthen or limit the power of judges… In short, “all we need is…”.

Opinions are respectable and freedom of speech is a fundamental right, but an idea is not a solution until it has been applied and, above all, validated.

SoJo is not reflection

To find solutions, you often need experts. But not always and not only.

The expert is only part of the solution and his analyses are not evidence until they are corroborated in the field.

For example, an expert can explain that floods are caused by global warming, increasing urbanisation, arid soils and the artificialisation of river banks and therefore, a different river management policy is needed. But his explanation only becomes a solution if it is illustrated by a report in an area that has managed to ward off or limit flooding by redeveloping the banks to make them more resilient to heavy rainfall.

SoJo is not a superhero

“She protects the last great apes”, “He turns household waste into gold”, “She saved hundreds of lives”… Headlines aren’t always crowded by dreadful dictators, corrupt officials and psychopaths on the loose. Faced with these supervillains, we regularly come across superheroes and superheroines who have an exemplary story to tell, who have shown remarkable self-sacrifice and admirable altruism. Some end up as Nobel Prize winners and some are canonised during their lifetime.

These “role models” are recurrent and inspiring figures. However, they are not solutions. A superhero is unique, that’s the principle. His action can rarely be replicated unless you have superpowers.

There’s only one Mandela…

Of course, not all media personalities have such intimidating status. However, glorifying them by insisting on what they “are” often obscures what they “do”.

Solutions journalism focuses less on individuals and more on their actions: actions that can be duplicated, provided they are explained.

SoJo is not a religion either…

Good news, opinions, reflections, superheroes… all these variations of positive journalism are not in contradiction to solutions journalism. They could almost be seen as complementary. Some media outlets mix all these types of journalism to create an ecosystem of constructive news.

But this is not the type of journalism we are studying in this series. 

To tell a good news story, you just need to know how to write a factual article.

To trace the journey of a remarkable person, you have to know how to paint a portrait.

Other skills are used to explain a solution.

Solutions journalism is a demanding discipline that is close to investigative journalism.  It’s a method that has been gradually refined over the years and that we will continue to explore in the next episodes.

Things to think about

  • Watch today’s news and select a theme, if possible, a dramatic one. Imagine all the variations of this theme: a “moralizing” editorial, good news in the torrent of bad news, search for “role models”, analysis articles, reporting on solutions.
  • Explore media that practice an ecosystem and see if your media could learn from it. For example, subscribe to the 20-minute “Stay Positive with Us” newsletter that provides a mix of good news, initiatives, self-help messages and role models.
  • Take a look at the ecosystem of the Guardian’s “Upside” section where good news rubs shoulders with genuine “solutions” articles, editorials, analyses and more…

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