Why should I read or watch solutions journalism?
Across the world, more than 30% of the population admits to actively avoiding news.
Media scholars Karen McIntyre and Meghan Sobel explain that two major causes of news avoidance are psycho-social numbing (the phenomenon that makes it difficult to feel like large-scale suffering in distant places is real) and compassion fatigue (the idea that the more suffering we are exposed to, the harder it is to feel the impact of it). But solutions journalism is different from the problem-centric reporting that leads to these forms of emotional burnout.
In 2017, researchers at the Institute for Applied Positive Research found that solutions-oriented reporting made people feel less anxious and more energized and increased their connection to the community. But beyond just feeling “less upset” when they walk away from the news, audiences reported a stronger willingness to talk about the issues, collaborate with others, and hold officials in positions of power accountable for change.
In 2020-21, we commissioned SmithGeiger, a leading media research firm, to study the impact of solutions journalism. SmithGeiger talked to over 600 local news consumers in six television markets across the country (Austin, Chicago, Cleveland, Kansas City, Phoenix and Portland, Maine) to understand the impact of a solutions journalism approach compared with the more conventional “here’s a problem we’ve uncovered” story.
SmithGeiger found audiences prefer the hope and reassurance they get with solutions journalism. Audiences rated solutions stories as more interesting and important than conventional stories, and, after watching the solutions stories, they were more likely to take action: talk to others about the story, search the internet for more information and feel inspired to get involved. In other words, when we see that positive change can occur, it helps us to see that our own actions matter and inspires us to become involved in efforts for social change. The stories also built loyalty to the stations that aired them. SmithGeiger’s findings were unequivocal: Solutions stories outperformed traditional journalism in all six markets across a number of indicators. The findings did not vary by geography or demographics — or, notably, by political ideology.
Why should I write or produce solutions journalism?
Simply put: it’s what audiences want.
News, especially U.S. media, has a bias toward the negative. For example, in a study comparing U.S. news coverage of COVID-19 in 2020 to international coverage of the pandemic, economics professor Bruce Sacerdote found that 87% of national U.S. news coverage of COVID was negative, compared to 51% of international news coverage (meaning that national U.S. news was failing to update audiences about improvements in care, vaccinations, and falling case and fatality rates). That relentless negative coverage has a significant impact on how audiences engage with media: in a global survey of news audiences for the Reuters Digital News Report, one-third of respondents said that they “often or sometimes” avoid the news because it has a negative impact on their mood. Solutions journalism provides a more well-rounded and accurate portrayal of news and current events.
Solutions journalism is also good for public trust in the media. In a 2021 survey, Pew Research found that 42% of U.S. adults have no trust in the information that comes from national news organizations, up from 35% in 2019. But in research conducted by media research firm Smith-Geiger, 83% of respondents said they trusted a solutions journalism story, compared to just 55% who said the same about a problem-focused story on the same topic. These impacts are not limited to national news: the Columbia Journalism Review conducted an in-depth interview project in Philadelphia in 2018 that found that “local media outlets would do well to consider how their news agenda could offer a greater balance of information through more solutions-oriented reporting.
All of that public trust and increased attention is good for your bottom line. Moreover, solutions coverage creates readers who are more likely to click through headlines to read the full story, spend more time on the news site, and are more likely to return to your website in the future. In fact, one outlet that shifted to a solutions (or constructive) journalism model noticed a 29% increase in subscribers. Later, in a pilot project around revenue in 2019-21, 12 participating newsrooms together brought in $1.5 million from grants, sponsorships, donations and reader revenue from solutions journalism. Research strongly indicates that solutions journalism delivers the kind of loyal and engaged audience that is more likely to enter reader revenue programs to support journalism.
How is solutions journalism improving society?
Time and again, research proves that offering audiences solutions gives them both a reason to engage in collective action and - crucially - hope that it will work. Beyond renewed faith in the solvability of social crises, solutions journalism creates audiences who are better informed and more willing to discuss issues with their community. Psychologist Jodi Jackson explained in her book You Are What You Read that user engagement with constructive or solutions stories is higher than average and they are often among the most shared pieces. Other researchers concur - a study conducted among readers of the Chattanooga Free Press found that public discourse (measured via Twitter) increased following the publication of a solutions series. These benefits are only going to increase in the future, as solutions journalism resonates especially well with Millenial and Gen Z audiences.
Want to learn more?
At SJN, our mission is to transform journalism so that all people have access to news that helps them envision and build a more equitable and sustainable world. And one way we do that is to connect mission-driven organizations like yours with stories that can help you — and all of us — get there. Solutions Worth Sharing, a biweekly email with two solutions stories ready for you to drop into your newsletter or social media feed, can get you started.
Do you have more questions about the value and importance of solutions journalism that have not been addressed here? SJN has been following the evolution of research on solutions journalism in both academic and professional circles and we would be happy to help you find what you are looking for. Contact Jenn Rosen with research-related questions or to tell us about a solutions-related research project you have already completed. We would love to hear about your work.