Solutions journalism

14. The SoJo crash test /

Credible, practical, social, useful, can be replicated… the right SoJo satisfies multiple criteria. Here are nine questions to use to validate its content.

The report is finished, the investigation closed, the broadcast in the can… But did we produce good SoJo? In other words, constructive content, solutions that can be replicated, credible answers, practical instructions for use, social, environmental and socially aware… The bar is high but the objective is achievable. Just answer the nine crash test questions!

1. Is the problem explained?

If there are no problems, there are no solutions. This is the basis of SoJo.

Mind, the problem is not necessarily a tragedy (climatic, humanitarian…). Perhaps it is simply a need (education, equality…). But whatever its intensity and gravity… it must exist. Otherwise, we are doing good news journalism. Or at best, reviewing initiatives.

The problem must therefore be presented and explained in all its complexity. Even if it is not the heart of the narrative.

2. Are the solutions clear?

The heart of the narrative is the solutions. The problem may (almost always) be singular, but the solutions are indeed (quite often) plural. Rarely is there only one answer. To limit the spread of Covid, the solution was not using either barrier gestures, masks or hand washing. It was a combination of the three responses in conjunction with other measures –  isolation of positive cases, testing of contact cases, ventilation, etc.

If flooding intensifies in an area, multiple responses are also available: relocation of inhabitable areas, planting of certain trees to stop soil erosion, fighting against land artificialisation, construction of “lake” dwellings, etc.

But even if only one solution is dealt with, it is its explanation, or rather its popularisation, that needs to be at the centre of the story. The narrative should not be too technical or highfalutin. This is not an expert presentation. It is a story that is simple to understand and (relatively) easy to replicate.

3. Is there an answer to a social/collective problem?

SoJo is not a catch-all where you try to solve all the problems of the world, from heartache to neighbourhood quarrels. In fact, the solutions journalist must respond to a collective and not a personal problem, he is not a practitioner of individual consultation. Several people need to be involved and the resolution of their problem must be for the common good and to build, let’s not be afraid of the words, a better future.

How do you know if you’re on the right side, as notions of good vary from one environment to another? There is a reading grid ratified by 193 countries in 2015 for this. Your production will be good SoJo if it corresponds to one of the 17 objectives of sustainable development as defined by the UN. Let’s remind ourselves in passing.

  1. Eradication of poverty;
  2. Fight against hunger;
  3. Access to healthcare;
  4. Access to quality education;
  5. Gender equality;
  6. Access to clean water and sanitation;
  7. Use of renewable energies;
  8. Access to decent jobs;
  9. Building a resilient infrastructure, promoting sustainable industrialisation for the benefit of all and encouraging innovation;
  10. Reduction of inequalities;
  11. Sustainable cities and communities;
  12. Responsible consumption and production;
  13. Fight against climate change;
  14. Marine life;
  15. Terrestrial life;
  16. Justice and peace;
  17. Partnerships for the achieving objectives.

4. Does the narrative revolve around solving the problem?

The SoJo is often a good story with endearing protagonists and an exemplary narrative. Except that the good story is good for morale but has no impact on society (see question 3). A good story serves no purpose if we don’t explain how it is possible.

In this last sentence, the important word is “how”. How it’s done. How it’s made. How it’s disseminated. How you learn. How you find a solution…

All these questions need to be asked. And the answers have to be told, described and detailed. This is how solutions journalism differs from positive journalism.

5. Is the evidence visible, palpable, concrete?

Even if they are less involved with the dark side than investigative journalists, solutions journalists must have the same reflexes as investigators. More sources are needed. They must go beyond words and verify actions. In other words, SoJo is not limited to interviewing an association leader. The rhetoric can be great and the reality more nuanced.

In a SoJo investigation, victims of the problem who have (or have not) become beneficiaries of the solution are questioned. We go out into the field to check the rhetoric. We are looking for evidence of impact: statistics, achievements…

6. Can the story be replicated elsewhere?

You have an exemplary story and tangible results, bravo. But is it useful to others?

The Covid-19 pandemic has provided many examples of false good solutions. What worked in one country could not be exported to another. Can you reproduce in a democratic state, with a population that is, shall we say, disobedient, a method of isolation that has proved its worth in a totalitarian state populated by disciplined citizens?

Environmental topics also work in some climatic contexts and not in others. Some stories are only possible because a sponsor has spent billions. And sponsors are not a species that replicates easily.

In short,we need to check that the story we tell does not depend solely on the local context, the climate, a political system, genetics or a superhero. And if the story seems to be confined to a local context, we should not give up telling it (because it can be inspiring). But specify all its limits…

7. Is there an instruction manual?

A solution is like a furniture kit. The best way to replicate a story is to give an explanatory note. In an in-depth investigation as in a field report, whatever the subject, a practical box or a picture tutorial, it is the simple ingredient that will give the subject its full dimension. And this will often be the part that is most read or consulted…

8. Is there a drift towards La-La-Land?

It’s a natural tendency. Even the most cynical journalist is not immune to enthusiasm. While practising SoJo, you meet fantastic people who do a colossal amount of work and achieve extraordinary feats. But there is no need to add more: take the words fantastic, colossal, prowess and extraordinary out of this last sentence. And you will be more credible.

“Between two words, you have to choose the least,” said writer Paul Valéry. A solutions story is inherently strong. Its narrative should be sober without adulatory adjectives and value judgements that undermine credibility. This is the best way to protect yourself from teddy bear drift and somewhat silly journalism…

9. Are there contrary opinions, different points of view, “enlightened sceptics”?

Solutions to a problem often trigger new problems. There are not always “win-win” answers and former beneficiaries of a situation can become the victims of a solution. Whatever the justification, it should not be hidden.

But more broadly in a solutions topic, you need to look for the limits. Meeting those who highlight them to do so.
It is often opponents who profess them, but it is also sometimes promoters of a solution who give them honestly. Experts are also good at showering enthusiasm. In any event, these divergent points of view should be noted, even if they are out of angle.

Investigative journalists are frequently accused of conducting incriminating investigations. It would be a pity to turn the quest for solutions into an incriminating investigation…

Something to think about before checking

  • The idea is not to have 9/9. Perfection is rarely found in this world! But well above the average (5 out of 9). And to respect at least the first two questions otherwise it’s not SoJo!
  • There are other checklists. We saw the four SJN criteria in Episode 3. We can also draw inspiration from the information criteria for the Monde Suivant as defined in Patrick Busquet’s “Nos Paroles Façonnent le Réel” (we counted 14). Exacting but complete!
  • State the context, the issue and/or the need for collective interest
  • Present the answer, its method, its objectives
  • Introduce the actors, the supporting and operational partners, the action financing
  • Present the method of evaluation, the results
  • Present the impact and development potential confirmed by independent voices
  • Provide contacts

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