06. Thinking “SoJo” in a newsroom /
No one is born a solutions journalist, they become one. You have to learn to think the other way round, get rid of certain habits, exit the media agenda and ask new questions to new people
Practising solutions journalism is not a natural reflex for a journalist. It’s a bit like asking an athlete to correct a movement repeatedly performed for years on the track. In the beginning, there are mistakes, misunderstandings and a lot of productions that focus on problems… rather than narrating the solution. The teaching of constructive journalism is still in its infancy in journalism schools and almost all of us have been trained to embrace a way of thinking that is fundamentally opposed to SoJo.
We chase after salient facts, current news, especially the dramatic stuff. But the topics of solutions journalism are often less spectacular than those that make the headlines. And they are often scorned by the proponents of journalistic orthodoxy, even if mentalities are gradually changing.
Hence, when lockdown measures were first taken during the Covid 19 epidemic, there were multiple reports in the French media about young people in sensitive neighbourhoods who were not observing protective measures (alarmist journalism). With the sometimes heavily implied undertone that these behaviours might go towards explaining the high contamination rates in these particular areas.
Then we saw, and sometimes in the same media, reports about workers in poorer suburbs mobilised on the front line without protection against the virus (explanatory journalism) and stories about groups of youths setting up self-help chains to provide support and food to the most vulnerable (constructive journalism).
Dangerous youth or young people showing solidarity? The same subject, but dealt with from two angles which ultimately appeal to the reader’s emotions. Except in the first case, it is anger and indignation that take precedence. Whereas in the second case, a more positive emotion takes over and brings a little comfort to what is a tragic context.
These two effects are indeed the consequences of a change in method which deserves to be examined, putting one’s prejudices aside. “We can talk about things that are going well without it being an ethical drama”, points our Cyril Auffret, editor-in-chief of the weekend news on TF1 (see episode 11).
Thinking “the other way round”: habits to stamp out
- “Bad news is good news“, that’s our primal adage. Thinking SoJo, as Damien Allemand, digital manager at Nice Matin explains, is “turning the problem on its head”. And, he admits, “that was the hardest part” (in the book Le journalisme de solutions, pg. 42, Pauline Amiel, ed. PUG).
- Stop miserabilism. We all have automatic responses to events. When a disaster strikes, for example, we immediately go looking for the victims and our natural inclination will be to track down the most miserable testimonies of those who have lost everything. It’s more complex to explore resilience, to look for examples of those who are coping and write about how they do it.
- Stop playing watchdog. Watchdog journalism, both factual and critical, has become largely mainstream. It is a priori an ideal approach for bolstering the journalist’s credibility. But it’s also a devastating vantage point for the confidence that journalist should inspire. This journalism ends up being counter-productive when the journalist denounces everything he or she reports.
- Moving away from sterile debates. Spectacular but sterile debates do not advance any cause. Can the journalist simply divide the floor between two camps talking at each other without actually listening? The culture of permanent confrontation and deaf dialogue between those for and those against has reached its limits.
How to change perspective
We have to stop following the agenda as defined by media stakeholders (government, celebrities, companies, etc.). We must also stop passing on news produced by others (news agencies, colleagues, communicators). SoJo enthusiasts – like investigation enthusiasts, for that matter – find their own sources and create their own subjects.
- Questions to ask yourself. Faced with a dramatic event, a structural problem or a blockage of some kind, the solutions journalist asks himself questions that others rarely do.
- Did someone try something else somewhere?
- Did it work?
- Can what works here be replicated elsewhere?
- Who implements the most effective measures?
- Why does what gets stuck here, work there?
This list often leads us onto previously unexplored tracks thanks to what can be called “comparative journalism”. By changing the paradigm, we change the meaning of the news.
- Sources to harness. Besides using data, something we’ll take a look at in the next episode, SoJo enthusiasts also reach out to a key source often neglected by their editors: their audience. At Nice Matin, subscribers are the ones who choose the topics… not the politicians or the journalists. And we realise that the questions they ask themselves are subjects ignored, or at least minimised by newsrooms. Other regional newspapers in France such as La Montagne or La Voix du Nord have also reversed the solely “top-down” way of informing. On radio station France Inter, in his “Carnets de Campagne”, Philippe Bertrand calls upon his listeners to contribute to his programme. There is real potential for radio stations which often have a loyal community of listeners.
Dedicated team or SoJo culture?
As soon as you have a big newsroom, the question of a dedicated team may arise. Actually, let’s be clear, this is probably the best solution for solutions journalism (as it is for investigation or fact checking, for that matter). The exemplary experience of Nice Matin, where the Solutions hub is a sort of profit centre (see episode 9) is the most striking proof of this. It can also be noted that entire media outlets such as Kaizen, We Demain, So Good, Usbek & Rica, Postivr in France (or the StopBlaBla project in Africa) account for more than 50% of solutions journalism content.
However, it is most often through a special issue such as the Libé des solutions or a section (“Solutions” by Brut, “La France des solutions” on TF1, “Le Figaro Demain” and especially “Upside” by The Guardian) that SoJo can flourish within a newsroom.
This is the simplest way to show that solutions can be complementary to other problem-based topics that make up more than two-thirds of news headlines.
Things to think about
- Explore the websites of all the media outlets mentioned. Even if some require a subscription payment, you will get a good idea of their editorial line. And don’t hesitate to make the most of any free or one-euro trial subscription offers.
- For a while at your newsroom meetings, stop proposing the types of topics that fall into the “watchdog”, sterile debate or miserabilism categories, and avoid bad news. Initiate dialogue with those who continue to promote them.
- At each newsroom meeting, try to come up with a solutions angle by drawing inspiration from the “Questions to ask yourself” in the “How to change perspective” section above.
A CFI project in partnership with France Médias Monde