So how do we fix this? Lessons for content from solutions-focused journalism

Companies can build trust by communicating, honestly and with evidence, on how they are tackling their own problems and those of society

Relentless negative news has a polarising effect: it either makes people feel furious or so powerless that they switch off from the issue altogether. What is often missing, particularly when events are reported in real time, is informed discussion of solutions to the issue at hand.

Two New York Times journalists, Tina Rosenberg and David Bornstein, along with author Courtney Martin, felt strongly that presenting the problem, without a thorough review of solutions, was turning people away from important issues such as the environment, economic equality and political accountability.

In response, the trio set up Solutions Journalism Network (SJN), a not-for-profit organisation that trains journalists to report solutions with the same degree of analytical rigour as the events themselves. Over eight-and-a-half years, SJN has trained more than 22,000 journalists, including freelancers and those working independently, and more than 500 newsrooms across the US, Europe, Africa and Asia.

The training is based on four pillars: one, solutions stories cover a response to a problem, not a plan or a promise; two, there must be evidence, qualitative and quantitative, that demonstrates the effectiveness of the solution; three, the story should report the limitations of the solution; four, the story should distil the lessons to offer insight into how that solution could be applied elsewhere.

“Solutions journalism is not ‘feel good’,” says Fara Warner, initiative manager for business and sustainability at SJN. “It’s investigative journalism that holds those in power accountable for the solutions they bring to the table, not just for the problems they may have created. We also want the stories that newsrooms and journalists cover to help inspire others to also take action, to ask ‘could I do that here, is it scalable, is it replicable?’”

This type of cross-pollination often happens when a journalist covers a solution in place elsewhere to highlight what can be done about a problem in their own community. For example, after investigative reporter Nichole Manna wrote about a programme in Richmond, California, dedicated to ending cyclical and retaliatory gun violence for the Fort Worth Star Telegram in Texas, Fort Worth established a similar effort. That programme, called VIP FW (Violence Intervention and Prevention Forth Worth) uses ex-convicts instead of police to intervene in and mediate conflicts.

Solutions journalism can also lead to more public discourse and civic engagement. In mid-2020, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in Georgia replaced its line-up of national opinion columnists with more solutions-focused coverage, which resonated with its audience. One reader wrote, “Thanks for pausing the polarizing ‘both sides’ discussions, especially during this time where we all need to come together to provide care and assistance to our neighbors.” Another said: “I appreciate the effort to improve and will look forward to seeing how it works out.” Managing editor Mark Waligore said the solutions lens has made him and his readers feel smarter and more hopeful, and has helped his editorial team reframe some of its news coverage.

Applying a solutions approach in content

SJN’s four pillars for solutions stories, which combine to produce an evidence-based explanation and insights that others can use, offer lessons to companies producing their own content, says Warner, who was previously part of the team that led the Wall Street Journal’s branded content newsroom.

“Businesses could really get behind the power of this kind of storytelling to effect change in communities,” she says. “We see that solutions journalism catalyses people to take action. They don’t feel paralysed anymore; there’s something they can do.”

Transparency and evidence also make content marketing more compelling, she adds: “Really think about what evidence you’re bringing, be comfortable with limitations, be comfortable with exposing your challenges, because that provides honesty, for one thing, and also provides an opportunity for others to say ‘I saw that challenge and I think I have a solution for it’.

“Thinking about what insight you can offer also takes it out of being just your story and that can be a way for others to say ‘I’d love to replicate that or collaborate on that’. Working in this way is asking companies to do things that sometimes they’re not that comfortable with, but it can be very powerful.”

A new way to talk about purpose

The solutions approach is right for big social and environmental issues facing a company, not for content about products or day-to-day operations. The good news is, this is likely to be what audiences want to read about: customers and employees are increasingly focused on the purpose of business and investors’ decisions are increasingly driven by environmental, social and governance factors (ESG).

“A lot of companies realise this is where their consumers are focused, and that’s why we see a lot of this brand storytelling around mission and purpose,” says Warner.

Another advantage for content marketing is that solutions stories are the ones that people are more likely to recommend to friends and colleagues: “We do know from research, and this is what more news organisations are realising, that solutions-based stories are shared more widely and often times are some of the most emailed stories. They have a long tail to them.” She pointed to a New York Times Fixes article from March on prison food, which got 600,000 unique page views, as well as another Fixes article, on making a water park more accessible and inclusive, which was the most shared video on the entire website in 2017, as examples.

Warner’s newsroom projects focus on the environment and sustainability, and businesses often have an active role in the solutions being reported on. However in many cases, she says, companies are not communicating effectively about what they’re doing – either by labelling initiatives as sustainable when the claim doesn’t stand up to scrutiny, so-called greenwashing, or by not knowing how to tell a genuine success story. Using the pillars of solutions journalism in their own content helps to address these problems by demonstrating relevance to big societal and business issues and building corporate credibility.

Bringing research to life

SJN does not work with companies yet, but it has expanded beyond newsrooms to work with academics and not-for-profits such as Project Drawdown, the initiative set up to promote the most effective climate solutions in order to bring forward the moment when greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere begin to fall. SJN also has a searchable database of more than 12,000 solutions stories that uphold its four pillars, vetted by its specialists, which writers and companies can use for sourcing and inspiration, and academics as a resource for reliable case studies exploring social problems.

“Bringing journalism into the conversation helps academics to better communicate their research when they’re teaching in the classroom, to show real-world applications and say ‘this is not just something sitting in a research paper, this is how it’s been covered by the press, and here are some teachable moments we can draw out and learn from’.”

Opening up a dialogue

The unrelenting pace of events over the past year, taking in a global pandemic and economic catastrophe, Black Lives Matter protests, the US presidential election and Brexit, have left even the most committed news junkies and activists for a range of causes feeling wrung out. But to make progress on the biggest issues facing us as humans, politicians, companies and news organisations all need their audiences to be fully engaged.

“What can get lost in both branded content and journalism is that it’s the end consumer who is important,” says Warner. “In environmental issues, but also all kinds of social issues, people want to be involved in solutions – but to be involved effectively, they need to know about the solutions, and the solutions need to be properly vetted.”