Giselle Green is a former BBC News journalist, now working as a communications consultant and running a solutions journalism project. She has worked in political campaigning and the charity sector.
It is difficult enough living in lockdown. But living in lockstep with bad news makes it even harder. The sheer volume of covid-19 news, its relentlessness, its all-encompassing nature, make it unlike anything that has gone before.
According to the latest weekly research from Ofcom, growing numbers of people are dialling down how much they check in on news about covid-19. And more than a third are ‘trying to avoid news about coronavirus’, with young people and women the most likely to be doing so.
As with so many other issues, the covid-19 crisis has shone a light on a trend that has been growing in recent years: news avoidance. A report last year from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism showed over a third of people in the UK actively avoid news, up 11 per cent in two years. The main reason? Almost 60 per cent of news avoiders blamed the negative impact of news on their mood while 40 per cent cited their powerlessness to influence events.
The ‘if it bleeds, it leads’ approach to news has always meant negative stories have dominated the news agenda. The modern development of a 24/7 news culture followed by its infiltration into our social media feeds has made it hard to escape the bad news cycle. Instead its negative impact is just magnified.
Even pre-coronavirus, studies including by professor Denise Baden of Southampton University flagged up how the news makes us miserable, with a bigger mood drop in women than men. It leaves us feeling anxious, disengaged and disempowered. Far from keeping us informed, it can plunge us into despair.
Our evolutionary instinct for physical survival is competing with our need to protect our mental health.
Coronavirus has taken this negative news bombardment to a whole new level as it has totally blitzed the news agenda - and clearly affects all of us so directly and so harshly. Our evolutionary instinct for physical survival is competing with our need to protect our mental health.
But just as covid-19 has underscored a pre-existing drift away from news that negatively impacts us, it has also highlighted a thirst for more constructive news, news that makes us feel hopeful, engaged and empowered while keeping us informed.
Solutions or constructive journalism reports on responses to problems. Rather than merely investigating what is going wrong, it explores what is going right too. It looks for proof of why some responses are working and offers insights to help replicate or scale-up solutions. It should not be confused with happy, fluffy news. Nor does it mean ignoring bad news or sugar-coating it. Or parroting government spin.
Studies had already shown that audiences want news that includes solutions, with young people particularly keen on this and that we are more likely to share these types of stories on social media. Over the past few years, solutions journalism has gathered pace across the world with major news outlets including the BBC, Guardian and New York Times incorporating these types of specialist news strands. Now this approach is having a bit of a moment, as audiences tire of unalloyed covid-19 gloom and journalists and editors look to solutions-focused stories as a counterweight.
Mark Rice-Oxley of Guardian Upside said coronavirus has "turbo-charged" solutions journalism. The irony is not lost on him that it has taken one of the grimmest stories ever covered by the media to achieve this. He told a recent solutions journalism webinar that the Guardian had upped its constructive coverage from two or three solutions stories per week to two or three per day.
Some of the themes it has examined are what other cities and countries are up to, such as Vilnius’s plan to allow bars and cafes to use public spaces so physical distancing is possible; stories about the inspiring and effective action of health workers, like the Sheffield care home staff who live in and have avoided any covid-19 cases; and reports on the positive impact of lockdown, for example on the natural world and for many disabled people.
The penny has dropped, they finally get it, we have to have the good with the bad.Mark Rice-Oxley, The Guardian
Rice-Oxley told me "it’s unclear whether change is here to stay", but he has noticed a shift amongst colleagues and editors: "The penny has dropped, they finally get it, we have to have the good with the bad."
He added that subscriptions to his weekly Upside newsletter have almost doubled to more than fifty thousand, with tens of thousands more reading it on the site every Friday.
Another news outlet that is having a corona-bounce is Positive News. An online and print magazine, it is a pioneer of constructive journalism, focusing its coverage on "progress, possibility and solutions".
CEO Sean Wood says it has seen "a big spike in website visits" – a tripling of its peak monthly traffic. In April, sales of subscriptions to Positive News magazine in print were up 150 per cent compared to the previous year, according to Wood.
He added that similar, albeit smaller-scale, spikes happened after the two previous panic-inducing (for many) events: the Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump.
"Negative news can be a cause of continuous background stress and anxiety for many people, which becomes normal. But then when a crisis hits, this impact of the news becomes overwhelming and people need positive stories to find some balance and hope."
Someone who felt so overwhelmed by the news, even before coronavirus struck, that she stopped watching it, is Jodie Jackson. She started studying the psychological impact the news has on us and ended up writing a book about why we need to change our media diet – "You Are What You Read".
She says: "My advice to others (and what I'm doing) is be deliberate in your news searches and ask search engines what's working. If we don't actively seek progress taking place, then we shall most likely miss it." She offers a helpful starter kit of where to find these types of stories.
The most high-profile flag-bearer for solutions journalism is the non-profit Solutions Journalism Network which has trained thousands of journalists through online courses and face to face workshops. Its solutions story tracker is now embracing coronavirus big time. You can find hundreds of international covid-19-related news stories logged on their site from Alaska to Uganda. And none will leave you in despair. Quite the opposite.
But while these types of stories are optimistic, they are grounded in reality. They offer 'hope with teeth'.
Solutions journalism is “neither doom and gloom nor fluff.” (@hansenkarenm) It is hope with teeth. It is journalism that refuses to paint communities as made up only of problems. And we hope it makes people feel better than good. We hope it makes them feel powerful. 8/8— Solutions Journalism Network (@soljourno) April 21, 2020
Of the many advantages of solutions journalism, is that they are highly effective at holding those in power to account. Far from distracting attention from government failings, they focus attention directly on them. As Mark Rice-Oxley explained, if we find out why one country or city did it better, "we can pressure our own governments who, let’s face it, are having a tough time dealing with this. We can say, 'Well, you say it’s difficult to roll out enough tests, but Taiwan did it. You say it’s hard getting a hold of the ventilators, but Germany managed'."
Solutions or constructive journalism is also a strong way of engaging and empowering audiences, areas where regular news frequently fails, and which often end with people avoiding news because 'there’s nothing I can do about it.' Whether it is by contributing to success stories or being inspired to copy solutions they read about, this type of journalism creates a closer and healthier relationship between audiences and the media.
Guardian journalist Jessica Murray, who has now been drafted into reporting more or less full-time for Guardian Upside and the paper’s new uplifting coronavirus series Hope in a time of crisis says: "When I put a call out for positive stories on Twitter I was absolutely inundated with responses and suggestions, people were so keen to pass on stories of how communities, businesses and neighbours were responding to the pandemic." And on a personal level she herself feels "a lot more hopeful and uplifted" writing these stories.
When it comes to describing what a solutions story is - and is not - the Solutions Journalism Network has quite a rigorous definition and assiduously avoids stories involving ‘hero worship’ (glorifying an individual) or silver bullets (bigging up potential solutions that lack hard evidence) or purely heart-warming tales.
These softer stories can be found aplenty in 'normal times' in outlets such as the Huffington Post’s HumanKind, the Telegraph’s Bright Side and The Happy Newspaper. They are now cropping up more widely across all media, including on BBC local radio, ITV news, even Elle magazine. Many newspapers are running their own covid-19-campaigns, like the Independent’s Help the Hungry appeal and the Daily Mail’s Mail Force to supply PPE. The Daily Mirror is smartly using the pandemic as a way of connecting people of very different persuasions and backgrounds.
These lighter positive stories play a useful role in improving people’s mood, showcasing examples of 'corona-kindness' and giving readers a way of feeling they are doing something useful.
But there are genuine concerns that upbeat news stories about coronavirus - or at least too much prominence given to them - can act as a diversion from government failings. For editors with a political axe to grind, putting Captain Tom Moore on your front page is clearly preferable to splashing on an escalating death toll, inadequate testing or shortages of PPE. But even for those without an agenda and wanting to offer constructive news, getting the balance right can be tricky.
The coronavirus situation will pass but, in its wake, there will be increased awareness of constructive news.Sean Dagan Wood, Positive News
Interestingly, Sean Wood said that even his own publication Positive News, which steers clear of stories at the fluffier end of the news spectrum, did give coverage to Captain, now Colonel, Tom Moore and his meteoric fundraising for the NHS. Wood, who thinks audiences are not as bothered as journalists about the ‘constructive’ or ‘solution-focused’ labels, says that more accessible positive stories "can occasionally be a gateway into real solutions journalism."
He explains: "The coronavirus situation will pass but, in its wake, there will be increased awareness of constructive news because there have been so many relatable positive stories around the crisis. These will help legitimise the importance of constructive stories among audiences and journalists and will cause more people to question negative news being the default."
His team are already planning for the next print edition of Positive News magazine to look at how society can move forward towards a better world after the pandemic.
As we enter the next phase of the coronavirus pandemic and start to consider how to safely ease the lockdown, the words of David Bornstein, the co-founder of the Solutions Journalism Network, are as salient as ever: "For society and also for journalism to thrive, it needs to be regularly highlighting with rigour new ideas and models that are showing results against our most pressing problems."
By exploring innovative ideas and analysing evidence of success, solutions journalism can - and should - play a vital role in helping us pinpoint what is working to combat covid-19 and in keeping all of us well-informed, engaged and hopeful about our future.
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