By Lindsay Green-Barber, PhD, Founder & CEO, Impact Architects
In the past five years, solutions journalism has become a closely watched model in the field of journalism. The Solutions Journalism Network has generated a robust network of journalists with formal training in solutions-oriented reporting, partnered with newsrooms whose leadership is committed to implementing solutions journalism as a core practice, and rigorously tested the underlying hypotheses for the impact of this practice.

As solutions journalism matures, philanthropic partners are exploring exciting new ways to bring solutions-oriented reporting into high-impact strategies to empower communities and individuals, shift public discourse, and address complex social challenges.

As funders look to solutions journalism as a potential path to increase the impact of their programmatic work, many questions remain. What is solutions journalism? What exactly is its impact? And, how can foundations best support this type of journalism?

What is solutions journalism?

The Solutions Journalism Network was founded in 2013, based on a belief that deeply reported stories that provide potential solutions to complex social problems will have a positive social impact by engaging audiences, increasing individuals’ sense of self efficacy, and leading to real-world change.

SJN does not do reporting, but focuses on spreading the practice of solutions-oriented reporting. SJN defines the practice of solutions journalism as “providing a rigorous framework, grounded in journalistic ethics and informed by today’s professional challenges, that enables journalists to cover society more comprehensively, revealing possibilities for civic agency and connection.”

SJN facilitates the “SJN Hub,” an online community of practice of more than 1,000 journalists practicing solutions-oriented reporting, designing curriculum for training journalists (in-person, remotely, and self-directed), conducting trainings in newsrooms, and disseminating knowledge and learning among its network. To date, more than 150 newsrooms have engaged SJN to produce staff workshops, develop reporting projects, and consult on audience or community engagement activities.

The impact of solutions-oriented reporting

Over the past five years, SJN has employed an ambitious research agenda to test their original hypotheses about the impact of solutions-oriented reporting. Through research that has included case studies, experimental design for A/B testing and comparative exposure to content, surveys, statistical analysis of web metrics, and more, SJN knows for sure about some impacts of solutions stories, is pretty sure about other effects, and is still unsure about a few things.

What we know—
Research consistently shows that solutions-oriented reporting has the following impact:

  • Increased affect for issue and story. Individuals report increases in emotional connection to the issues and stories as a result of exposure to solutions-oriented reporting.
  • Increased self-efficacy. Individuals report having a stronger belief that they can contribute to solutions themselves.
  • Intent to learn more. Individuals exposed to solutions-oriented content report higher levels of intent to learn more about the issues at hand than individuals exposed to traditional reporting.

For example, in a study about how a local solutions journalism project is received by members of an underrepresented and stigmatized community in South Los Angeles, Andrea Wenzel, Daniela Gerson, Evelyn Moreno, Minhee Son, and Breanna Morrison found that residents exposed to solutions journalism had a positive response and reported higher levels of self-efficacy and intent to take action.

And researchers at The Center for Applied Positive Research found that solutions-oriented reporting increased news readers’ problem solving skills, made people feel less anxious and more energized, increased their connection to the community, and more confident that they can come up with solutions.  

What we’re pretty sure about—

  • Increased affect for organization. Individuals report increases in emotional connection to the organizations that published solutions-oriented reporting, although there is limited research about this effect.
  • Increased intent to share.There is evidence that individuals are more likely to share solutions-oriented reporting than traditional reporting, both in academic research and in research conducted by SJN and partner organizations.
  • Discourse shift. Evidence suggests that solutions-oriented reporting shifts broader discourse about issues in other media and public debate.
  • Organizational sustainability. There has been no academic research (of which we are aware) about the relationship between solutions-oriented reporting and organizational sustainability. However, SJN partner organizations have on-the-ground experience that suggests that solutions reporting increases revenue, through sponsorships, membership, subscriptions, and philanthropic support.

In a research project I did with SJN and The Seattle Times, we found that The Seattle Times Education Lab’s solutions-based coverage of school discipline intensified a public conversation on alternative approaches to school discipline, especially in community and ethnic media in the Seattle metro area. Education Lab’s coverage also increased the attention of the Seattle Education Association on issues of school discipline. Increased attention to the issue created a new political opportunity for the WA state House of Representatives to pass legislation for school discipline reform.

What don’t we know—

  • Increased knowledge. Academic research has found mixed results regarding the relationship between solutions-oriented reporting and increased knowledge.
  • Intent to take action. Academic research has found mixed results regarding the relationship between solutions-oriented reporting and individuals’ self-reported intent to take action.

In 2017, Karen McIntyre and Meghan Sobel tested the effects of shock journalism and solutions journalism (in the context of sex-trafficking) in motivating readers to take action. It finds that neither shock nor solutions stories lead to increased empathy for trafficked individuals, greater understanding of the issue, increased desire to share the story, or increased desire to act. However, readers of solutions stories felt more positive and were more likely to read similar stories about the issue. However, because this research was based on sex-trafficking, it is likely that the topic had mediating effects on readers, beyond the type of journalism to which they were being exposed.

*Disclosure: Impact Architects LLC consults with Solutions Journalism Network on impact strategy and research.