When Bisma Bhat, a journalist in Kashmir, started researching the widespread scourge of child trafficking during the COVID-19 pandemic, she learned about two young girls who were rescued from domestic servitude by a non-profit organisation.
Upon further reporting, Bhat discovered a unique initiative by the NGO – a children’s club where young members keep an eye out for traffickers and their victims.
The story Bhat wrote, Inside Kashmir’s human trafficking hell – where minors are rescuing minors, shed light on child slavery in a region otherwise known for conflicts and insurgencies. It also provided an evidence-based solution to the problem.
“I got a super response on this story,” says Bhat, who wrote the article after attending a Thomson Reuters Foundation (TRF) training on Reporting on Human Trafficking. “So many people called and they were interested that this story be carried in the national newspapers.”
Bhat’s story is an example of a solutions-based approach that aims to provide impact and hope to readers, instead of helplessness.
As the world reels from the coronavirus pandemic and journalists scramble to update stories about cases, deaths and vaccines, people are struggling with ‘news fatigue’ – a mental health state resulting from an overload of information.
In the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism’s (RISJ) 2019 Digital News Report, 58% of people surveyed said they avoid news because it has a negative effect on their mood, while 40% said they felt powerless to change the event.
“This may be because the world has become a more depressing place or because the media coverage tends to be relentlessly negative – or a mix of the two,” according to the RISJ Report.
For journalists too, covering one disaster after another is stressful: the pandemic, the climate crisis, authoritarian leadership, economic inequality, human trafficking, sex slavery, racial injustice, religious tensions – the list is endless.
This is where ‘Solutions Journalism’ comes in – and it benefits both the reporter and the reader. It is also now part of several training programmes that TRF provides to journalists around the world.
As a journalism trainer at TRF, and a reader who gets anxious about negative news, I encourage reporters to search for potential solutions – this could be an initiative by a startup or an NGO, or by people working to thwart an existing issue.
What is critical is that journalists ‘investigate’ the solution and highlight adaptive responses to a problem, and not turn it into a content marketing gimmick. That’s for the PR agencies to do.
To be clear, breaking news still needs to be addressed with immediacy and accuracy; solutions journalism does not replace breaking news.
“Solutions Journalism is one of the most useful tools to have emerged in development communications in recent decades, as it allows journalists and NGOs to work jointly to identify a development challenge and report on it in a way that empowers the audience to enact change, without compromising editorial independence,” said Corinne Podger, a TRF Journalism Trainer and Director of the Digital Skills Agency media consultancy near Sydney, Australia.
But is solutions-based journalism changing readership behavior?
"When a news article is only referring to a problem, problem, problem from the headline to the end, as a reader you’ll be like ‘Okay, I get it, it’s saying everything is terrible’, whereas if the article on the same issue also talks about who’s better coping with the problem, and how, based on evidence, [then] you now have reasons to pay attention to it,” said Kyuwon Lee, International Associate in Seoul for the Solutions Journalism Network, a non-profit organisation that encourages reporters to write stories about responses to social issues around the world.
An audience survey conducted by media research company SmithGeiger in the U.S. – and commissioned by the Solutions Journalism Network – suggests solutions journalism is more interesting, builds more trust and helps people understand issues more deeply.
“This is an opportunity to engage a younger audience in local news more effectively than in a pure problem approach,” says Seth Geiger, SmithGeiger’s Co-founder and President.
News organisations around the world are focusing on this new approach.
The New York Times has an editorial section called ‘Fixes’ run by David Bornstein and Tina Rosenberg, co-founders of the Solutions Journalism Network. The BBC runs ‘People Fixing the World', The Boston Globe has a ‘Things That Work' column and The Guardian has 'The Upside' – to name a few.
When I teach solutions journalism, I notice an immediate change in demeanour among the participants – they appear less cynical.
Journalist Sharmila Thakuri was keen on writing about the drop in apple production in a village in Nepal known for its luscious orchards. After TRF’s Solutions Journalism class – which formed part of a training on Reporting on Climate Change and Energy Transition – Thakuri found an NGO that was helping farmers grow an alternative fruit that would survive in warmer climates. She wrote about how kiwis were dethroning the famous apples, providing employment and hope to the villagers.
Similarly, Jhesset Thrina Enano wrote a story about solar panels installed by churches in Philippines as a way to practice and preach about renewable energy transitions.
“Solutions stories are not supposed to serve up a panacea to the world's monumental problems, such as the climate crisis,” says Enano, who attended the TRF climate training. “But these stories can show our responses to many of these problems, while exploring their limitations and possibilities so that they can be opportunities for learning and further development.”
Meanwhile, Bhat, who received accolades from readers and her editor for her article about the children’s clubs in Kashmir, says she wants to write more stories with a solutions-based approach.
“When people read tragic news, feelings of anxiety come to their minds, but when they read solutions-based journalism, they think in a positive way,” says Bhat. “I think this is a better way to report things.”
Kavita Chandran is a Journalism Trainer with the Thomson Reuters Foundation in Asia and a former Reuters journalist.