What is Solutions Journalism?

Solutions journalism is critical and clear-eyed reporting that investigates and explains credible responses to social problems.

It looks at examples where people are working toward solutions, focusing not just on what may be working, but how and why it appears to be working based on the best available evidence, or, alternatively, why it may be stumbling. It delves deep into the how-to’s of problem solving, often structuring stories as puzzles or mysteries that investigate questions like: What models are having success reducing the dropout rate and how do they actually work?

When done well, the stories provide valuable insights about how communities may better tackle important problems. As such, solutions journalism can be both highly informing and engaging, providing a reporting foundation for productive, forward looking (and less polarizing) community dialogues about vital social issues.

Solutions journalism, like all journalism, is about great story telling. These stories have characters who are grappling with challenges, experimenting, succeeding, failing, learning. What’s different is that the narrative is driven by the problem solving and the tension is located in the inherent difficulty in solving a problem, not primarily in the (often reductive and limiting) argument that may surround the popular conception of the problem.  Solutions journalism can include reporting on responses that are working, partially working, or not working at all, but producing useful insights. We can learn just as much from a failure as a success. The key is to look at the whole picture, the problem and the response (journalism often stops short of the latter).

We can’t stress this enough. Solutions journalism is expressly not about advocating for or proposing particular models, organizations or ideas, picking winners, or making suggestions to readers about what they should do to fix a problem. It is merely about presenting responses to problems, along with the associated results, and trying to explain what happened. Journalists pursuing solutions stories bring their journalistic lens to bear on the responses without an agenda (save for the self-evident agenda that society should have the facts, as best as they can be ascertained, about how efforts to address problems are faring). Reporters who care about the problems they cover can help society by showing what people are doing to try to solve those problems, for better or worse. That means swinging the spotlight far and wide and focusing on data and evidence.

Solutions journalism isn’t a movement. It’s not to be confused with “civic journalism” or “public journalism.” It is simply a humble journalistic practice: a tool that helps reporters to tell whole stories (problems and responses) faithfully and soberly.  Solutions journalism is not “good news” or “positive” news. “Good news” stories celebrate individuals and inspirational acts.  They usually present little in the way of evidence or description of methods. They focus on the kindness of strangers or the actions of heroic people. They are meant to inspire and create a warm feeling. They are often served up as seasonal fare, or on Fridays. That is very different.

Solutions journalism is about ideas, how people are trying to make them work, and the observable or measurable effects they are producing.  What makes solutions journalism compelling is the discovery — the journey that brings the reader or viewer to an insight about how the world works and, perhaps, how it could be made to work better.

The best solutions journalism involves deep dives, critical assessments, and compelling stories about the ideas, models, policies, organizations, and people working to solve our toughest problems.