Solutions Journalism


If you have ever heard the journalistic quip, “If it bleeds, it leads,” you know that news headlines and stories are often dominated by negative stories about topics like violence, crime, and corruption. After all, professional journalists’ system of news values tends to prioritize stories that deviate from the norm, and that deviation regularly comes in the form of violations (e.g., murders or kickback schemes). Moreover, news audiences are attracted to negative news across many beats. For example, when it comes to politics, people are more likely to click on negative news headlines. In fact, scholars have long documented a “negativity bias,” through which people pay more attention and devote more mental effort to consuming negative information.

However, negative news can have a draining impact on audiences. People regularly complain about negativity in journalism, and often report negativity as a key reason for news avoidance. (This is despite the fact they are more likely to consume negative stories when they do consume news.) Moreover, such news can leave audiences feeling powerless or hopeless, which in turn can lead to their withdrawal from democratic processes and discussions about civic affairs.

To combat this, some journalists have sought to re-calibrate journalism toward a solutions-oriented approach. Through solutions journalism, reporters cover a wide variety of social issues facing citizens in a way that hones in on and emphasizes the potential responses, or solutions, to those issues. The resulting stories aim to provide deeply reported, in-depth information about a particular issue and make clear to audiences what possible means of solving that issue have been, or may be, applied.

Solutions journalism advocates believe that pairing problems with their potential responses in rigorous, evidence-based reporting helps provide audiences with a more complete and dynamic understanding of the issues that shape and influence their communities. Moreover, advocates believe that it can empower citizens by helping them clearly see how they might take part in combating those issues or being part of ‘positive’ change. In short, solutions journalists seek to make their audiences more informed and efficacious citizens.

Solutions Journalism in Practice

Solutions journalism stories cover a variety of social ills and injustices, but they are united by their shared focus on a solution’s effectiveness, limitations, and resulting lessons. For example, reporters have applied solutions journalism practices to cover how teachers were improving classroom discipline practices; how Los Angeles community leaders were fostering more inclusive activism; how New York social justice experts were opening doors for prison reform; how a range of communities were working to reduce violent crimes; and how medical leaders were improving access to health care. As evidenced by these examples, solutions journalism is ideally suited for local news because it is easier to connect audiences to concrete resources within their communities to address problems they likely encounter locally.

According to the Solutions Journalism Network, solutions journalists tend to engage in four critical acts when producing journalism:

  1. They center the story on a response (or potential solution) to an important issue, and they cover that response clearly by providing all the critical information and detail that audiences need to know in order to understand how the response works (or doesn’t).

  2. In covering a response, they emphasize its actual effectiveness (or lack thereof), rather than what the response was intended to achieve. Clarifying the response’s effectiveness requires providing audiences with understandable evidence.

  3. They make audiences aware of the response’s potential limitations and break down the boundaries and scope of that response to the problem.

  4. Finally, solutions journalists include insights about the problem that is illuminated by a response in a way that can be useful to their audiences and seekers of alternative (or follow-up) solutions.

Another way of remembering these four key acts is to remind oneself to tell the “WHOLE story” through this mnemonic device:

  • W — What response does the story address?

  • H — How does the response work?

  • O — Offer insight.

  • L — Include limitations.

  • E — Evidence of impact.

Solutions-oriented stories are thus not merely stories about a problem that end with a quick paragraph about ways people are thinking of solving that problem. The would-be solution(s) are the very core of the story. Notably, the solution(s) don’t have to be a perfect or even largely effective responses to an issue. Occasionally, the response might be ineffective or only partially effective. However, by sharing insights about the potential response, solutions journalism can help audiences learn from both failed and successful responses.

Although solutions journalism focuses on potential responses to systemic challenges — a strategy that can help to engage audiences who feel overwhelmed by typically negative news — such stories are not necessarily positive (“happy news”) pieces. Instead, they find specific newsworthiness in the examination and coverage of solutions for the problems that citizens face, especially when those solutions arise outside of traditional social structures. Put another way, they are designed to offer a pathway forward, and thus a form of hope, for seemingly intractable issues.

Benefits to Solutions Journalism

Proponents of solutions journalism believe that this approach to news construction makes readers more engaged with news about issues facing their communities. Additionally, research suggests that people who consume solutions-oriented journalism are more likely to share the stories they read and seek out additional information about the problems being covered. Put another way, solutions journalism can advance both professional and economic objectives, as well-informed and highly motivated audiences can both partake in democratic processes and become more likely to consume an outlet’s future news products.

Unsurprisingly, a large number of mainstream and alternative journalistic outlets (e.g., The Boston Globe, The Seattle Times, and The Chicago Reporter) have adopted solutions journalism practices in their news coverage in recent years. Moreover, non-profit groups like the Solutions Journalism Network have helped to popularize the practice in recent years by offering educational resources and training for individual journalists, journalistic outlets, and journalism educators.

Key Takeaways

  • Solutions journalism stories present responses to important social problems through evidence-based reporting that makes clear the extent of a response’s effectiveness, what its limitations are, and what insights can be gained from that response.

  • Solutions journalism stories are driven by the need to engage and inform communities, not to give them “happy news.” They are critical and detailed examinations of a potential solution, not soft news pieces glorifying a social actor or problem response.

  • Research shows that solutions-oriented journalism can engage readers, make them more informed, increase their likelihood of sharing news, and drive them to seek out additional information about the issue being covered.