Journalists are no strangers to the phenomenon known as news fatigue. So much of the news we consume leaves us feeling powerless and desensitized. We get overwhelmed with what is wrong with the world and are left wondering, “What now?” In addition to informing, one of the functions of journalists is to empower — a purpose that is unfortunately often overshadowed by gloom and doom.
But what if there is a way to shift the focus? What if we could flip the frame and come at stories from a solutions-oriented angle? That approach is exactly what the Solutions Journalism Network (SJN) has refined and perfected over the past three years. Samantha McCann, the network curator at the SJN, recently visited the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication (SOJC) to speak with students and faculty about this new form of storytelling and how it is changing the way we report news.
McCann knows all too well how disheartened the news can make readers feel. “You shut down because there’s so much bad news and you’re inundated with problems,” she said. “But when people think something can be done about a problem, they are more receptive and attentive to the information.”
Solutions journalism, as McCann explains it, is an approach to reporting that addresses social issues but focuses on responses to the problems. It is about taking a rigorous look at the whole picture — both the issue and the answer. She says the typical assumption in journalism is that if we draw attention to a problem, then “people will engage in it and a solution will be found.” But it doesn’t always work out that way. She suggests that, instead of fixating on what is going wrong, we can look at what is going right.
According to McCann, a solid solutions piece contains four key components:
- A response to a problem
- Evidence of its effectiveness
- Insights into how others can get involved
- Limitations (to avoid sounding like fluff)
These four pillars help to avoid “impostors” — stories that try to come across as solutions journalism but fall short in some capacity. McCann has found that these impostors are often sources of skepticism among professionals who fear that solutions journalism could easily be read as advocacy journalism or public relations.
Research shows that a solutions approach is effective at boosting engagement and readers’ overall outlook. According to McCann, the SJN has found that people who read solution stories “feel more inspired or optimistic after reading the article. They’re more likely to read the articles from the same paper or journalist. They’re more likely to get involved in working toward a solution.” With the right tools and information, this research suggests, we can engage readers and empower them to take action.
The SOJC was one of the first schools in the country to offer a course on solutions journalism. The class, taught this past winter term by SOJC Adjunct Instructor Kathryn Thier, focused on social issues in Oregon and how to report on them using solutions journalism. OR Magazine, a UO student-run iPad publication (another first in the nation in 2011), is also joining the solutions journalism trend and will be covering solutions for Oregon in its spring 2016 edition.
When you take a step back and look at all of the components that make up solutions journalism, you see that it simply comes down to thorough and complete journalism. It is the whole story. By using solutions journalism in our work as storytellers, we can be not only watchdogs but guide dogs, leading readers to the information that is crucial for improving their communities and their lives.
Story by Corinne Ellis ’16, photos by Judy Holtz ’16