View of Delhi
Credit: By Jakub Hałun CC BY-SA 4.0, Link

Solutions journalism is reporting that focuses on possible responses to societal problems, evaluating how well they work and what others can learn from them.

The Solutions Journalism Network lists four ingredients that a solutions-focused story should have: exploration of how a response works; evidence of its impact (or lack thereof — failed responses can be included if it is clear how they could be improved); an analysis of limitations to this response (for example, does it only work for some members of an affected group? Is it a short-term or expensive solution?) and a look at the insights or lessons others can learn.

A few examples of what this looks like on the climate beat are articles looking at how certain communities have succeeded in re-planting trees or evaluating policies and technology that can drastically reduce food waste.

READ MORE: What the Solutions Journalism Network learned talking to ~100 newsrooms about SoJo

During a Twitter Space organised by the Solutions Journalism Network – the non-profit that pioneered the 'SoJo' approach — three climate journalists discussed the role that solutions reporting can play in the climate beat, both good and bad.

Not a replacement

Lou Del Bello covers the climate from Delhi, and says that because climate news is still a relatively new beat, journalists are still identifying the most effective ways to cover it.

While she agrees that solutions journalism is one piece of the puzzle, sometimes the problem is the story. Therefore, we still need journalism which explains what is happening and why.

"It’s so important to remember that some stories cannot come with a solution because otherwise they wouldn’t be systemic problems. We see this in the developing world particularly because the developing world is facing compounding crises - climate crisis, pollution crisis, economic crisis, global health problems and more."

Freelancer Peter Yeung agrees that editors should not aim to include a solutions angle on every climate story. He explains there are a few ways to add a 'forward-looking' note when reporting on issues with no clear solutions.

This could include a short profile of possible responses even if they have not been tried, noting why these could be effective and why they have not yet been implemented, or it could simply be reporting on any actions that are being taken to raise awareness of the problem, such as community campaigns.

Beware over-simplified stories

A desire to include solutions angles in every story can lead to journalists presenting complex narratives in a simplified way. At worst, this results in misrepresentation: suggesting that a problem has been solved, when really you are reporting on a one-off or even an ineffective response.

Yeung notes that journalists need to watch out for 'greenwashing' or PR stories that are sold as solutions. He also recommends that climate journalists take a long-term view — some responses may not be worth reporting on when they have just been launched. Journalists should build a relationship and follow up several months or years later.

"Evidence of the proof of impact is a crucial part of a solutions journalism story, as are limitations," says Yeung.

To Del Bello, over-simplification is also a development issue: she finds that Western media often report on climate issues further afield in a simplistic way. This is possibly because they assume their readers are less prepared to invest time learning about complex topics that are playing out 'far away'. Instead, solutions-focused articles should embrace the complexity of climate issues.

She gives the example of yearly winter spikes in pollution in Delhi, where she lives.

"Every year you have articles that pick one soft innovation and they transform this into a big feature with a title 'This smart innovation could solve the Delhi pollution problem' — maybe in the article the journalist says that that’s not quite true, but it’s how the headline portrays it. It reinforces the message, perhaps even to policymakers, that this is a good approach: find a shiny innovation that may not change anything but looks good."

Ajit Niranjan, a freelancer who regularly reports for Deutsche Welle, also notes that journalists can apply the solutions journalism framework to failed or ineffective solutions if there are lessons to learn.

"You can look at the solution all the politicians are talking about and explain that experts think it is ineffective. Look at the trade-offs," he suggests.

Do not neglect 'boring' solutions

When choosing which stories to cover, it is a question of finding responses which have achieved clear positive results, and where other communities could draw lessons. This often means highlighting the responses which are not 'shiny and new'.

Del Bello compares Delhi's smog towers, a 'flashy' innovation which scientists generally agree are ineffective, with India's decision to adopt EU emissions standards for new cars.

"Emissions standards sound really boring, but it works and over time all cars will be less polluting and contribute to a cleaner city.

"It will also take time. People will hold onto their old very polluting models until they literally fall apart because a lot of people can't afford to replace their cars, so it's a timeline of five to ten years before it will make a difference. But if there was a quicker fix it would have been solved already."

Empowered, not uplifted

One of the often mentioned benefits of solutions-based reporting is that it may lead to higher audience engagement, steering people away from news avoidance.

But all three climate reporters cautioned against seeing solutions journalism as an 'antidote' to 'negative news'. Also, reducing the anxiety of readers far removed from the problem should never come at the cost of misrepresenting the impact on the affected community.

Niranjan adds that while there is increasing public awareness of the need to address climate change, many international polls still show that few people rate the climate as one of the most important issues to them.

"One of the problems with climate journalism is that society is complacent. There’s a huge gap between what scientists are saying about how bad things are, and how much people grasp that [...] One key reason why we shouldn’t lean too far in framing this as an antidote to the despair is that I think most people are not despairing about climate change."

Leaving solutions out of the coverage altogether risks framing problems as inevitable — failing at journalism's role of holding power to account. But there is plenty of space for raising greater awareness of the problem, and for examining the caveats of proposed solutions.

One approach which Niranjan recommends is spending time looking at several possible solutions, weighing up their pros and cons.

"This doesn’t necessarily make people happier and it’s not 'positive' when you talk about what regulations would need to be in place to actually get these solutions scaled up and cost-effective. But what it does do is give your audience an angle they’ve probably not seen before."

The motivation for solutions journalism should be telling interesting, relevant stories and informing your audience deeply. That should leave them with a greater sense of agency, though not necessarily feeling positive or reassured.

The climate question is so important for our societies that it needs to be covered from all angles; solutions journalism is just one, and the topic always needs to be approached with rigour.

Four questions editors should ask

  • Why is this solution worth reporting on? There should be concrete lessons that we can learn from the response, otherwise you risk misrepresenting what is happening.

  • Have you spoken to the people directly affected? They will often have clear insight into which responses will be most effective, and can highlight limitations that even experts may not know about.

  • What are the obstacles to this solution succeeding fully? These might be intrinsic to the response (maybe it is only effective in certain environments) or they might be external (for example if it is highly reliant on government funding, or it takes a long time to work).

  • Which part of the problem does this solution respond to? You can write about responses to either systemic issues and root causes, or to 'symptoms' of the problem, but your reporting should be clear about which it is.

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