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Not just more bad news: What is solutions journalism?

How Medill is boosting an innovative approach that goes beyond problems
solutions journalism
A recent solutions-oriented article from the Illinois Answers Project explored how Evanston confronted traffic fatalities, a major problem for cities across the U.S.

A recent article from the Illinois Answers Project explored how Evanston confronted traffic fatalities, a major problem for cities across the U.S. The piece looked at how the city’s actions increased safety for cyclists, then used the example to understand what insights it could offer to Chicago, where traffic crashes, injuries and deaths have risen over the past decade.

In addition to covering local news, the work is an example of an approach known as solutions journalism.

“Solutions journalism covers a response to a pressing social problem, and then it looks at the evidence of how the intervention is working. It really invites you into understanding how a potential answer or a potential response is working or could work,” said Deborah Douglas, ’89, director of the Midwest Solutions Journalism Hub at Northwestern University and a senior lecturer at the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications.

As the journalism industry faces a crisis of trust on top of technological and financial disruption, solutions journalism offers a new way to engage audiences.

Recently, Medill partnered with the Solutions Journalism Network (SJN) to create the Midwest Solutions Journalism Hub, one of four university hubs nationwide providing solutions journalism training programs for newsrooms, educators and students.

Douglas, an award-winning journalist and educator with deep Chicago roots, became the leader of the Northwestern hub in February 2023. Since then, she has recruited almost 50 media outlets across the Midwest to the hub, led introductions to solutions journalism trainings for newsrooms and students and launched the hub’s newsletter.

Douglas recently spoke with Northwestern Now to explain what solutions journalism is and its place in today’s media landscape.

What makes solutions journalism different from traditional storytelling?

“Traditional journalism revels in problematizing everything. It's like a cat who goes out to get a mouse, and they keep bringing dead mice back and saying, ‘Look what I got. I'm a good mouser. Look, I have another one. I have another one.’ But what happens is that when people only see problems, then they start to avoid those stories. We’re in the midst of an epidemic of news avoidance because people just can't take more problems. They need to have a sense of hope, they need to have a sense of agency, and we need to hold space for the inherent dignity of everybody in our communities.”

How does it center community?

“I always say that solutions journalism is the missing piece of the inclusion puzzle, because when you have marginalized communities and outlets are trying to figure out authentic ways to cover them that don’t further marginalize them, it's a way to show the work being done, the thought being done, the action and activity around people's understanding of the things that help their communities either thrive or … hold their communities back.”

The four parts of solutions journalism are response, evidence, insights and limitations, according to SJN. Why are the last two so important?

“Insights, that's where you're going to see your subject matter experts. The insights are also a great opportunity to center people who live in the affected communities in the story, because individuals are experts on their own lived experience. Sometimes we think personal experience is a softer credential next to a subject matter expert who has lots of credentials. But solutions journalism makes room for personal experience testimony, the bearing of witness around one's own personal experience, to live alongside the hard data.

“Then, you have limitations, and this is where the rigor comes in. It's called solutions journalism, but it's really response journalism, because you're covering the response. It’s not, ‘We have to go out and find something that worked.’ We are going out and we are looking at where people are identifying the potential to apply interventions to get a different kind of impact or outcome.”

How can this approach better engage an audience?

“[Because solutions journalism shows] the work and how it's done, research out of Solutions Journalism Network shows that audience members have a higher sense of self-efficacy and they spend more time on the page, if it's a written piece of journalism. Revenue-wise, they tend to be some of your most ardent supporters, so they're more likely to want to sign up for a newsletter or community engagement opportunities. Funders are excited about it. Sponsors and advertisers are more likely to consider funding when they know that solutions journalism is involved, because so many people are looking for a different way to draw and build audiences and then to maintain a sense of trust with those audiences.

“Solutions journalism, because of the relationship that it creates with audience members, is a part of that response that we need to find as journalists to develop and engender greater trust with audiences.”