Positive Deviance - The Art of Solutions-Focused News

03 September 2015


This summer the Solutions Journalism Network (SJN) launched the Editor's Toolkit - a follow-up to the Solutions Journalism Toolkit helping to equip journalists keen to take a more positive, practical and problem-solving approach to reporting. GEN interviewed SJN's Director of Intelligence, Rikha Sharma Rani, to find out how a solutions-orientated approach to news stories is relevant to today's media world.

What's your role at Solutions Journalism?

I'm Solutions Journalism Network’s Director of Intelligence (I consider it a job perk that my title makes me sound like a CIA operative). I manage all activities related to intelligence gathering for the organisation, with a focus on learning and impact. The learning function informs our internal strategy and operations. My job is to ask questions like, "how can we do this better?" and "which of our practices are working and which aren't?" The impact part of my role is more externally focused, centered on assessing the impact of solutions journalism on newsrooms and audiences. 

How did solutions journalism come into being?

Journalists have been doing solutions journalism, though it may not have been called that, for a long time. Journalists like Atul Gwande, Peg TyreMeg Kissinger and our co-founders have been reporting on solutions in one way or another for years. But these stories reported in a serious way were, and still are, a small portion of overall news coverage, which tends to focus on what's broken. SJN was formed in 2012 to tip the balance, to get more journalists doing solutions-oriented reporting on a regular basis. To do that, the practice needed a name and, more importantly, a set of guiding principles to articulate what it is (and isn't). So while solutions journalism isn't necessarily new, it's only recently that it is being treated as a distinct approach to covering the news. 

What is Solutions Journalism

Solutions journalism has gained traction in recent years, I think, because media makers have started to understand that a constant barrage of problem-focused news can actually harm society. It can cause news fatigue, apathy and disengagement from the very issues that we're trying to spotlight. The irony is that this is happening despite the explosion of social innovation that has taken place over the last several decades, which has led to progress on so many fronts. The business of producing news has also undergone rapid change. News outlets are looking for fresh ways to engage audiences (our early research suggests that solutions journalism lends itself to stronger audience engagement). I think the rapidly changing landscape has also forced editors and journalists to be more open to new approaches than they might have otherwise been.  

Is this approach different from classical reporting of an event: the who, what, when, where, how and why of a story? 

I wouldn't say the reporting is different. I'd say the lense is different. Solutions journalism employs the same skills and journalistic judgement as any good story, except that in this case you happen to be reporting on a response to a problem. Solutions journalism also tends to go deep into the "how." We use the term "howdunnit" to describe many of these stories. They explain, often in fine grain detail, how an idea came to fruition, how it was implemented, how barriers were overcome and how results were achieved. Take this story by Sarah Yager in The Atlantic. You know from the headline that it's about how having nurseries in prisons lowers recidivism rates for moms. You read on because you want to know how that happens. It's like a crime drama show on TV.  You know Jack Bauer will survive every time, but you keep watching because you want to know how things unfolded.  

Quote on Solutions Journalism Ethos

Is there a positive news storytelling agenda or a social justice angle to what you might call a solution journalist’s approach to a story? 

I cringe a little when people call solutions journalism positive or good news because it makes it sound like you're writing for the sole purpose of making people feel good. There's nothing wrong with that, necessarily, but that's not what solutions journalism is. It's just good journalism. It tells a more complete story - one that informs the audience more fully. Can solutions journalism be inspiring? Absolutely. But providing inspiration is not a defining feature of the practice. Like any good journalism, solutions journalism is, first and foremost, about informing and empowering citizens. It's not pushing an agenda or writing good news for the sake of good news. It's writing objectively about what efforts are being made to solve problems because those efforts, and the results they bring, are newsworthy. And that includes efforts that end in failure, as long as there's something to be learned from that failure. 

dad and kid on bike

Is working with new technologies integral to this strategy?

It's as integral as it is for any other kind of journalism. People are consuming news differently today than they did in the past and journalists need to be able to work with these new technologies to reach as many people as possible. Solutions journalism is no exception. Solutions journalism may be more conducive to the use of some of these technologies because it tends to be evidence driven. For example, there's an approach to finding solutions-oriented stories that is based on "positive deviance." Instead of looking at a database, identifying the worst performer and doing an expose, you would look for the best performer, investigate whether there's something noteworthy going on and, if so, do a solutions-oriented story. Because these stories are data driven, they often lend themselves to more interactivity, use of graphics, data visualisations - all the things that make stories engaging to audiences. 

The Editor’s Toolkit is a sequel to the Solutions Journalism Toolkit - what feedback did you get to the first edition and how is the Editor’s version different?

The response to our first toolkit was terrific. To date, it has been downloaded by almost 2,500 journalists in 116 countries, and the feedback has been great. That toolkit was largely focused on the individual behaviours and skills necessary for journalists to produce great solutions journalism. The Editor's Toolkit moves from the individual to the organisation. What does it take to introduce solutions journalism into the DNA of an entire newsroom? It lays out strategies that editors can use to increase the likelihood that solutions journalism will be adopted and sustained by journalists in the newsroom. 

Has there been interest from any of the big newsrooms? Can you tell us which organisations will be implementing the Editor’s Toolkit strategies?

Our flagship collaboration has been with The Seattle Times on "Education Lab," a series that uncovers promising solutions in education that is now in its third year. And we recently announced two new partnerships, one with The Boston Globe on education and another with The Detroit Free Press on violence prevention. Two of our co-founders, David Bornstein and Tina Rosenberg, write a weekly column for The New York Times that highlights responses to a wide array of social problems. We've been thrilled to see how many newsrooms have adopted this approach, from large national outfits to family-owned community newspapers. We've worked with over 40 newsrooms and trained over a thousand journalists around the country. But one of the reasons we created this toolkit was to expand our reach beyond the newsrooms that we're directly working with, including in other countries. So we hope as many editors as possible read this toolkit, see value in the solutions approach and deploy it in their own newsrooms. 

Where in the world is solutions journalism likely to be the most effective? 

Right now we're working primarily in the U.S., so it's hard to know what impact solutions journalism will have elsewhere. But I'd say any place that is dealing with potent social problems, particularly around things like education, health and violence. Problems in those realms are widespread and there are a lot of people trying to solve them, so there's a higher likelihood of finding promising models. In the U.S., we've seen solutions journalism have enormous impact in places like Fayetteville, North Carolina, which has one of the highest crime rates in the country, and Milwaukee, which has for years struggled with a broken mental health system. Every city, town, county, state, country struggles with these issues to differing degrees. I'd say the more potent the problem, the more impactful solutions journalism is likely to be because people will be more vested in finding a solution. I think there is a lot of opportunity for solutions journalism in developing countries where social issues are often front and centre. 

How does solutions journalism improve a reader’s understanding of a story?

Take the ebola outbreak in West Africa. What did society need to know about that? First, we needed to know that it was happening, what ebola was, where it was happening, how it's contracted, etc. After we knew the facts, we looked for more context and deeper analysis. How did it start? Why is it spreading so fast? How does this outbreak compare to other disease outbreaks that have happened in the region? Coverage could have stopped there. The alarm bells had been sounded and we knew the situation was urgent. 

Ebola Outbreak Uganda

Eventually, though, we started to see solutions-oriented stories like this one about how Uganda had contained earlier ebola outbreaks, and this one about how Nigeria had contained the current one. That information changed our collective understanding in a fundamental way, because it showed that ebola could be contained. Its spread wasn't inevitable. That was a different perspective than the one dominating the news, which was all about body counts. Of course, knowing the toll of the disease was critical. But so was knowing that there are proven strategies to keep ebola from spreading. The inclusion of solutions journalism in the unfolding of the story gave people a much fuller and more accurate picture of what was happening on the ground. 


Photo Credits:

Ebola Alert Desk Photograph taken by CDC Global. Flickr Creative Commons Licence.
All other photographs courtesy of Solutions Journalism Network.