Solutions Journalism: What Reporters can do to beat ‘Negative News Fatigue’

A Reuters Institute study shows readers are getting tired of negative news. Another survey reveals they are interested if the story has a solutions-based approach.

Photo: Cowomen

When Bisma Bhat, a journalist in Kashmir, started researching about rampant child trafficking during the pandemic, she learned about two young girls who were rescued from domestic servitude by a non-profit organization.

Upon further reporting, Bhat discovered a unique initiative by the NGO—a Children’s Club where young members keep an eye out for traffickers and their victims.

The story Bhat wrote, Inside Kashmir’s human trafficking hell—where minors are rescuing minors, shed light on child slavery in a region otherwise known for conflicts and insurgencies. It also provided an evidence-based solution to the problem.

“I got a super response on this story,” says Bhat, who wrote the article after attending a training on Human Trafficking held by the Thomson Reuters Foundation (TRF). “So many people called and they were interested that this story be carried in the national newspapers.”

Bhat’s story is an example of a solutions-based approach that aims to provide impact and hope to readers, instead of helplessness.

Photo: Nathan Dumlao

As the world reels from the coronavirus pandemic and journalists scramble to update stories about cases, deaths and vaccines, people are struggling with ‘news fatigue’—a mental health state resulting from an overload of information.

In a study by the Reuters Institute in 2019, 58% of people surveyed said they avoid news because it has a negative effect on their mood, while 40% said they felt powerless to change the event.

“This may be because the world has become a more depressing place or because the media coverage tends to be relentlessly negative—or a mix of the two,” according to the Reuters Institute, which is a research center at the University of Oxford. TRF, the philanthropic arm of Thomson Reuters, funds the Reuters Institute.

For journalists too, it is stressful to cover one disaster after another: the pandemic, climate crisis, authoritarian leadership, unstable economies, human trafficking, sex slavery, racial injustice, religious tensions—the list is endless.

This is where ‘Solutions Journalism’ comes in, and it benefits both the reporter and the reader.

It is also now part of several training programs that TRF provides to journalists around the world.

As a journalism trainer at TRF, and a reader who gets anxious about negative news, I encourage reporters to search for potential solutions—could be an initiative by a startup or an NGO, or by people selflessly working to thwart an existing issue.

What is critical is that journalists ‘investigate’ the solution and highlight adaptive responses to a problem, and not turn it into a content marketing gimmick. That’s for the PR agencies to do.

To be sure, breaking news still needs to be dealt with immediacy and accuracy as it has been for years. Solutions Journalism does not replace breaking news.

“Solutions Journalism is one of the most useful tools to have emerged in development communications in recent decades as it allows journalists and NGOs to work jointly to identify a development challenge, and report on it in a way that empowers the audience to enact change, without compromising editorial independence,” says Corinne Podger, a TRF media trainer and Director of the Digital Skills Agency media consultancy near Sydney, Australia.

But is solutions-based journalism changing readership behavior?

“When a news article is only referring to a problem, problem, problem from the headline to the end, as a reader you’ll be like ‘Okay, I get it, it’s saying everything is terrible’, whereas if the article on the same issue also talks about who’s better coping with the problem, and how, based on evidence, you now have reasons to pay attention to it,” says Kyuwon Lee, International Associate in Seoul for the Solutions Journalism Network, a non-profit organization that encourages reporters to write stories about responses to social issues around the world.

An audience survey conducted by media research company SmithGeiger in the U.S., commissioned by the Solutions Journalism Network, suggests solutions journalism is more interesting, builds more trust and helps people understand issues more deeply.

“This is an opportunity to engage a younger audience in local news more effectively than in a pure problem approach,” says Seth Geiger, SmithGeiger’s co-founder and president.

News organizations around the world are focusing on this new approach.

The New York Times has an editorial section called ‘Fixes’ run by David Bornstein and Tina Rosenberg, co-founders of the Solutions Journalism Network which encourages and trains people to spread the love for constructive and impactful stories. The BBC runs ‘People fixing the world’, The Boston Globe has a “Things that Work” column, and The Guardian has ‘The Upside’, to name a few.

When I teach Solutions Journalism (SoJo), I notice an immediate change in demeanor among the participants—they appear less cynical.

Journalist Sharmila Thakuri was keen on writing about the drop in apple production in a village in Nepal known for its luscious orchards.

After TRF’s SoJo class on Climate Change, Thakuri found an NGO that was helpingfarmers grow an alternative fruit that would survive in warmer climates. She wrote about how kiwis were dethroning the famous apples, providing employment and hope to the villagers.

Similarly, Jhesset Thrina Enano, wrote a story about solar panels installed by Churches in Philippines as a way to practice and preach about renewable energy transitions.

“Solutions stories are not supposed to serve up a panacea to the world’s monumental problems, such as the climate crisis,” says Enano, who attended the TRF training on Climate Change and Energy Transition.“But these stories can show our responses to many of these problems, while exploring their limitations and possibilities, so that they can be opportunities for learning and further development.”

Meanwhile, Bhat, who received accolades from readers and her editor for her article about the children’s clubs in Kashmir, says she wants to write more stories with a solutions-based approach.

“When people read tragic news, feelings of anxiety come to their minds, but when they read solutions-based journalism, they think in a positive way,” says Bhat. “I think this is a better way to report things.”

Kavita Chandran is a journalism trainer with the Thomson Reuters Foundation (TRF) in Asia and a former Reuters journalist. This article was first published on the TRF website and has been reproduced here with the author’s permission.