Solutions journalism

07. Preparing and conducting the investigation /

There is no real solutions journalism without a minimum of investigation.  The objectives of these two types of journalism are different, but the methods are comparable

Between investigative journalism and solutions journalism, the objective may be different, but not necessarily the method. When an investigator seeks to denounce (a corrupt person, a polluter), a solutioner tries to… solve (corruption, pollution). Ultimately, a solution should in fact be the conclusion, the last episode of many investigations (sometimes it is and works very well).

As for method, journalist and trainer Mark Lee Hunter confirms there are comparisons to be made between the SoJo enthusiast and the hypothesis-based investigator, as explained in his manual for investigative journalists (available on UNESDOC).

The solutions journalist, like the investigative journalist, will formulate a hypothesis, look for open sources, possibly unearth closed sources, rely on human sources, find allies, question their opponents, verify their statements and last but not least, produce evidence.

But to achieve this result, the “solutioner” will not ask quite the same questions as the “investigator” and will be more obsessed with the “how” than the “why”.

Use of data

When faced with a problem, the first reflex in SoJo is to look for data to check how the area studied is situated in relation to a whole.  For example, if your hypothesis is that children dying from leukaemia in a certain area due to a polluting cotton crop, you need to compare child mortality data across the country or across the continent. Then cross-check your data with the cotton growing areas. And while the initial reflex of the “classic” investigative journalist will be to go snooping in the sectors where infant mortality is highest, the solutions journalist will seek out where it is lowest. Next, he will go and interview sector players to understand how this result was achieved. Was it thanks to organic farming, a different input policy, setting up cultivated areas far from housing? And so forth.

All solutions investigations can be started in this way by using the data.

  • Education: what method is used by the school where academic success is highest?
  • Health: which cities or countries fare best during a pandemic and how do they do it?
  • Urban policy: which cities have the best traffic congestion control and what strategic choices have they made?

This method, which is based on data, has the merit of immediately focusing on the result.

You then, of course, need to check that factors linked to an exceptional environment do not favour a “good score”. For example, lessons to be learned from an exceptional success rate at a school in a residential neighbourhood are highly relative compared to a school in a built-up city suburb…

Data must also be reliable and available, which unfortunately is not always the case.

Interview techniques

After collecting open data, the solutions journalist frequently turns into a field journalist. The solution is most often explained through reports and interviews with the protagonists.

In order to gather information, a reporter must obviously ensure she’s gone over the minimum with victims, witnesses and stakeholders of the solution by asking the basic questions of any self-respecting journalist: who, what, where, when and why. But above all, she will insist on asking “how”. How did we get here? How do we manage this approach to wild animals? How does this machine work? How do we master this technique? How do we learn a new process? “How” is the question most used when working in SoJo.

But it’s not the only one.

When meeting with people who have implemented a solution, it’s in your best interest to plan a substantial list of questions.Here is a non-exhaustive list.

  • How is your idea new?
  • What is the first thing to do to implement it?
  • Are special skills needed to apply it?
  • How can you acquire these skills when you don’t have them?
  • How did the people concerned react?
  • And who were against it?
  • What were their arguments?
  • What was your response?
  • Does your idea work because of your environment?
  • What will it take to make it work elsewhere?
  • Have others contacted you to apply it?
  • What doesn’t work well?
  • What doesn’t work at all?
  • What are you going to do now?

These questions may seem a little intimidating and, at times, suspicious. But SoJo-oriented investigations are often surrounded by suspicion for they are sometimes accused of complacency. The best way to avoid succumbing to “just being an advocate” is to look for the limits of the solution and highlight them.

And if the solution doesn’t work, or doesn’t work well, or doesn’t work at all, you have to say so! We always learn from failure.

Show, explain, prove

Beyond the interview, it is also necessary to think about illustrating the solution during the report. This advice applies first and foremost to video because it is useful to film a process in order to be able to replicate it. Solutions stories have a tutorial aspect that should not be overlooked.

Nor should it be overlooked in writing. Include boxes with user guides, for example. These will need to be prepared during the report phase.

Who to contact during the investigation?

Everyone. Or almost everyone. Your target is:

  • Victims of the problem (in an area)
  • Former victims (in another area) benefiting from the solution
  • Those who implemented the solution: designers and users
  • Experts in the problem
  • Opponents to the solution

Representatives of civil society and political authorities.

Things to think about

  • What is your hypothesis and what open data is available for your investigation? Where can you find it at national level (is your country engaged in an Open Data programme)? And at international level? (Consult studies by the UN, World Bank, ADB, etc.) Find open data portals on
  • Who are your human sources? Your allies in your investigation? List them.
  • Take a look at the list of questions included in the “Interview techniques” section above and double it with new questions specific to your investigation (questions mostly starting with “how”!).

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