We were recently featured on MuckRack’s #MuckedUp twitter chat. This was the second time we’ve joined forces—the first time in October to discuss the basics of solutions journalism and earlier this month to discuss our recently released Editor’s Toolkit (available for free download here). Participants from around the world logged into Twitter to learn about solutions journalism and how to introduce it into their newsrooms. During the chat (and in many encounters we have had with journalists in newsrooms and elsewhere), a few commonly held misconceptions repeatedly came up about what solutions journalism is (and isn’t). Here, we lay out the top three myths about solutions journalism and why they don’t hold water:
- Solutions journalism is biased. It asks journalists to suggest or advocate for solutions to problems.
One of the top misconceptions about solutions journalism is that it advocates for a specific solution or proposes a solution that doesn’t yet exist. Solutions journalism does neither of these things. In fact, while stories that do these things have their place in journalism, we consider them to be solutions journalism “impostors.” Stories that propose solutions that don’t yet exist (what we call “think-tank journalism”) don’t have the quantitative or qualitative evidence to show that the response is really working; solutions journalism stories, in contrast, are about programs and policies that are already being implemented, and rely heavily on evidence to show how effective the program/policy has been. Stories that advocate for a specific solution (e.g. use the word “should”), are usually found in the opinion section of the paper. Authors take a stand and argue why a specific program is the best choice. Solutions journalism stories, on the other hand, could appear on the front page of any newspaper as well-reported, investigative pieces that allow the reader to come to her own conclusions based on the evidence. The reporter doesn’t argue for one side or the other, but simply reports on how a group, individual, or institution is responding to a social problem and what the results have been. (Check out our full list of impostors here.)
- It’s either solutions journalism or more traditional watchdog reporting; you can’t have both.
Some think that doing solutions journalism is an “either/or” proposition, and that doing it means covering solutions instead of covering problems. It doesn’t. Solutions journalism is one tool in a journalist’s toolkit, and it should be used when there is a significant gap in the public consciousness about what is being done to address a problem. The trick is to ask: “What’s missing from the public conversation?” Sometimes, it’s awareness or outrage about the problem, in which case it might be premature to start reporting on solutions. There should always be up-to-date reporting about what’s broken in order to hold people accountable. But at times what is most needed is awareness about potential solutions. This is where solutions journalism comes in. A solutions angle can be integrated into almost any story or series, even a problem-oriented one. Within a single story, for example, you can first hone in on the problem (briefly, if the problem is well-known) and then spend the rest of the story focusing on how people or organizations are responding to it. Or in a series, you can include a solutions segment as the last part (or two) of an in-depth investigation into a problem. In other words, solutions journalism is one lens through which to view an issue and, when used alongside other lenses, it makes for a fuller and more accurate picture.
- What you’re reporting on has to be The Solution.
Solutions journalism pieces are well-researched, in-depth investigative pieces about responses to social problems. They look at the nitty-gritty details of how and why a policy or program is working in a certain area. But sometimes the response isn’t actually working. Or it’s only working partially, or it’s only working under certain conditions, or it addresses only one facet of the problem. Or it used to work and it doesn’t anymore. The point is, it doesn’t have to be 100 percent effective, working in all situations, at all times–solutions like that are almost non-existent. Good solutions reporting will point out limitations, and never overclaim about the effectiveness of a solution. Solutions journalism doesn’t shy away from caveats, and it always highlights areas where the response may be failing. (See our “Solutions journalism and failure” section from our core toolkit for more on reporting on failure.) If it turns out the solution you reported on back in the day is no longer working in the present, write an update; if you were doing your job at the time of reporting, relying on the most recent & reliable evidence, you’re in the clear. Situations change, after all, surrounding both problems and solutions.
But isn’t this problem-oriented journalism, you ask? Aren’t many problem-oriented stories just old solutions that have failed? The important distinction here is that solutions articles are agnostic about the outcome. For example: If you are at a newspaper like The Detroit Free Press, and Ford is instituting a wellness program that Boeing already tried, a solutions focus means you report on the Boeing program. You do that story no matter whether you find it works well, partially, or not at all. With a problem-focused story, you’d likely only publish if it were an exposé of a program that hasn’t worked. In this way, the solutions focus is liberating: you don’t have to worry that it’s not a story, no matter what you find. As long as it brings the reader/viewer/listener to an insight about a response to a problem, it counts. It’s also important to remember that there is no one solution to any problem. Lots of things can work; solutions journalism can highlight the many different potential responses to a problem.