The world isn’t coming to an end! How solutions-focused news rekindles hope
Brutal wars, scorching heat, the soaring global cost of living. Doomy headlines are driving growing numbers of people to stop seeking out the latest updates about our troubled world. But communicators and journalists take note: there is an antidote to news avoidance.
All of us need to switch off from the news now and then. It doesn’t take a huge leap of empathy to understand why. Few people can stand being fed gloom and doom, day in, day out, with no hope, answers, or end in sight. It’s no wonder many choose to look away.
But news avoidance has hit new heights since the start of the devastating war in Ukraine, which in turn came hot on the heels of COVID. Thirty-six percent of people surveyed for this year’s Reuters Institute Digital News Report said they sometimes or often intentionally restricted their news intake.
This leaves journalists — and communicators more widely — with a huge problem. How can we get audiences to care about the cascading crises facing our world? And for us at the United Nations, how do we move people to join us to act to make the world a better place?
There is hope of a cure. The same report suggested that a simple tweak, a minor re-framing, of news stories can engage those otherwise avoiding news. ‘Solutions journalism’ is a method that highlights credible responses to the world’s problems, offering a much-needed shot of hope alongside the fear.
This novel approach to news places audiences and their needs front and center. By challenging newsrooms’ traditional negative focus, its advocates are experimenting with ways to put the news media firmly back into the service of democracy and public discourse.
“We feel hopeless, so we need people who are not giving up hope. [We need those who are] pointing out the problems and also going the extra mile to find people working on the solutions and making them visible,” Ellen Heinrichs, head of the Bonn Institute, told a recent seminar I attended in Germany.
Ellen’s colleagues at the Solutions Journalism Network define this as “journalism [that] investigates and explains, in a critical and clear-eyed way, how people try to solve widely shared problems.” In other words, “covering what works, without the fluff.” To do so, reporting should four key elements. Alongside the response itself, it should offer insight into how the response works (or doesn’t), evidence to back up those conclusions, and an exploration of the response’s limitations and shortcomings.
Including all these elements ensures solutions journalism remains as rigorous as any problem-based approach. “Asking about solutions in an informed way is critical journalism at its best,” as Ellen Heinrichs put it. And, at its best, audiences come away with constructive insights into how challenges are being met in the real world. That can, in the right circumstances, indirectly galvanize them into action.
One of the best things about solutions journalism is that it helps raise the normally unheard voices of those tackling the world’s problems from a range of different perspectives. This is a great way to foster constructive public discourse — even on thorny, intractable long-term problems such as conflict or the climate emergency.
We need more research into the impact of solutions journalism, but pioneering newsrooms say this kind of reporting can boost audience trust and engagement — at a time when surveys show that both are falling — and potentially win back badly-needed subscribers and supporters for struggling independent media outlets.
To me, the lesson is clear: Offer an exit route out of the crisis, and audiences stick around to see what happens. At the UN we are adopting this approach too, carrying public communication into the future in our bid to bolster trust in our public institutions and strengthen democratic structures.
There is much adaption to be done if we want to win back the news avoiders. But I believe that constructive stories that offer solutions can instill a sense of possibility even in the most disheartened. By presenting the news not just with problems to despair over but also including opportunities to act upon, we can reclaim the attention of those who had lost hope.
(thanks to Josie Le Blond for her collaboration on this piece)