With every Twitter tirade by U.S. President Donald Trump, it becomes more clear that the world needs good journalism.
But it’s also clear that American politics has become terribly polarized despite a strong tradition of journalists calling out misdeeds and speaking truth to power.
The news media wield tremendous responsibility over democratic discourse. Yet all too often the media are blamed for fuelling mistrust and for peddling fake news. It’s time to push back.
One way to do this is by employing a different strategy for reporting the news through what’s known as “solutions journalism.”
Contrary to what the name might imply, solutions journalism is not about reporters telling readers how to solve the world’s most difficult problems. Nor is solutions journalism about feel-good stories and fluff.
Instead, solutions journalism is all about hard news told through cold, hard facts.
News reports typically identify a conflict (a war), diagnose its causes (ISIS) and draw on sources (military analysts) to shed light on what’s going on.
But there’s a fourth frame, identified by journalism scholar Robert Entman, that is easy to overlook in news reports — discussing remedies to problems.
Solutions journalism tries to change the journalistic equation by giving more prominence to solutions. It reports on responses to social problems by moving the solutions out of the footnotes and into the tough stuff at the top of a story.
Many journalists push back on solutions journalism, arguing that it is not the job of journalists to tell people how to solve the world’s ills. But solutions journalism is not about advocating for solutions. It’s about turning a light on the remedies by making them a more prominent part of the narrative.
So what would a solutions story look like in practice? For instance, where a typical climate change story may report on the latest doom-and-gloom statistics about forest fires, a solutions-oriented piece might explore the simple steps you can take to fireproof your backyard and your home.
The solutions story still gets you thinking about climate change and forest fires, but in a way that is far more familiar and accessible.
Positive psychology to produce news
Like journalism, the field of psychology has long focused on negative emotions, such as anxiety, anger or fear. Journalism scholars Karen McIntyre and Cathrine Gyldensted say this “disease model of the world” explains the excessive emphasis in news reports on chaos, conflict and all that is wrong in the world —as opposed to what is actually working.
They make a case for a “well-being” approach to news reporting — one that considers the positive as well as the negative. This matters because of the role that positive emotions play in psychology.
According to Barbara Fredrickson, a psychology professor at the University of North Carolina, positive emotions can have the effect of “widening the array of thoughts and actions that come to mind.” Not only do positive thoughts “signal optimal functioning,” she writes, they also “produce optimal functioning.”
In other words, when we think about what is possible, not only do we feel good, but we are better able to see into the distance and connect the dots.
The solution is the story
Unfortunately, in the news industry, there is still a perception that a story about something that’s going right may not attract as large an audience as a story or headline about what’s going wrong.
That may be true in the instant we come across a negative headline and feel the urge to click it. But, as Fredrickson notes, negative emotions narrow our attention spans and constrain how broadly we think about issues or problems.
It’s this constraining dynamic that can drive people into echo chambers and filter bubbles. It also makes people cynical, and that’s neither good for society nor a good long-term business strategy for the news industry.
According to McIntyre and Gyldensted, one of the ways journalists can open up a discussion about solutions is by adding a future orientation to their story — by asking, and trying to answer, the question: “What now?”
“For example, reporters can ask their sources how problems could be solved, how people could collaborate, or what kind of progress their sources envision,” they write.
Another technique for drawing out solutions is for reporters to ask questions that get at people’s reasons for thinking a certain way — or that tap into what “the other side” thinks.
Using these and other techniques, solutions journalism gives people more reasons to think there are ways out of difficult problems — because there usually are. Ultimately, the approach is about painting a more complete picture of the world and about giving people fewer reasons to turn away from the news.