New York-based Solutions Journalism Network (SJN) is on a mission to “spread the practice of solutions journalism: rigorous reporting on responses to social problems”, reads their website.

In her paper on the subject, US professor of journalism and communication, Kathryn Their, argued that “while using the critical standards of traditional journalism, solutions journalism emphasises comprehensive explorations of why and how solutions work. Solutions journalism reframes traditional journalistic approaches to reporting on social problems as it seeks to engage readers, offer a blueprint for change, and alter the tone of public discourse”.

Discussing the concept with AJENda, New School journalism professor, Allison Lichter Joseph, said: “My experience both as a journalist and as an instructor, is that people don’t trust the news, they don’t feel that the news helps them in their daily lives, and they don’t feel represented by the news they read. The solutions approach (journalism), as an educator, I can say that my students are very inspired by it, because it gives them some sense of possibility. And this is particularly true around complex issues like climate change, like systemic racism, like health care disparities. They are very overwhelmed by the problems and they seek the solutions. It helps them more in their daily lives.”

In a nutshell, said Joseph, solutions journalism is rigorous reporting about responses to social problems. She added: “In the solutions approach, we are still doing rigorous investigative in depth journalism reporting, but what we are reporting on are the efforts people are making to respond to problems.”

Joseph cited David Bornstein, who is one of the founders of the SJN, as saying that “problems scream, solutions whisper”. In seeking to report the solutions, the journalist has to look closely and listen, she argued, adding “because the problems drown out the solutions, but the solutions are there”. Thus, the solutions journalism approach involves looking for a response to a social problem; looking for evidence of the effectiveness of that problem; looking for any of the limitations that we don’t just say, “Oh, it’s great”, said Joseph. Solutions journalism looks for the limits, “and then we look to see how other people might learn from this response”.

“So, one question that I asked my students is: ‘who is doing it better’?. If you are investigating health care, and there is child mortality in your area, who is doing it better? Who has figured out a response? What makes their response work? Who is doing it better? That is the sort of a driving question one might ask when one is doing solutions journalism,” argued Joseph.

SJN is piloting the solutions journalism project in Nigeria, Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda, where 30 fellows have been recruited and afforded training. The project’s manager on the continent, Ruona Meyer, said they expected to work with up to 60 newsrooms within the next three years. “We have identified and just concluded training for the first cohort of newsrooms from Nigeria, Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda, and are in the process of selecting 10 fellows from an application process where we had over a hundred entries,” said Meyer.

Solutions journalism benefits both the reporter and the audience in a situation where there is a “lot of burnout and a lot of overwhelm on the part of journalists who are constantly covering the problem”. With solutions journalism, the reporter benefits and the reader benefits, as well, said Joseph.

While solutions journalism might sound like not impartial reporting, but activism or advocacy, Joseph says “more and more, even my most sceptical, diehard journalist friends, say they to understand that you can’t just report the same problems over and over, and over again, that we have to start reporting on the responses to those problems in an equal manner”.

Joseph disputes the notion that solutions journalism might be uncritical, saying: “The solutions approach interrogates what doesn’t work, about the response. So, the response is sort of the heart of the story. Say, for example, I have a student who did a story about childbirth mortality rates among African American women in California, very disproportionate issues in maternal health among black women in the US.

“She looked at a response that a local community was having, and she really said: ‘Is this response working? What works about it? What doesn’t work about it? What are the problems with it?’ Therefore, in no way is solutions journalism uncritical. Solutions journalism is very critical, sceptical, even. It just looks at a response.”

Like the traditional journalism approach, independence in reporting is also observed in solution journalism, says Joseph, adding that “there is no allegiance to any other stakeholder, other than the reader”.