How to Make Solutions Journalism a Part of a News Outlet’s DNA

By: Devin Windelspecht | 11/17/2021

When the COVID-19 pandemic arrived in Nigeria in February 2020, Nigeria Health Watch quickly adapted its coverage to focus on the global crisis. In place of traditional reporting on facts and figures, however, this health advocacy and communications nonprofit used a novel, growing approach known as solutions journalism. Their reporting addressed the effects of the pandemic on Nigerians, and how communities were responding with their own, often innovative solutions.

Vivianne Ihekweazu, managing director of Nigeria Health Watch, recently spoke during an ICFJ Global Health Crisis Reporting Forum webinar about how the organization has used solutions journalism to cover health and the pandemic. She also offered tips for journalists and newsrooms interested in incorporating this approach in their own reporting. 

Why use solutions journalism?

Solutions journalism is a relatively new innovation in journalism. Focusing on how communities, businesses and individuals respond to challenges with their own solutions, it shouldn’t be mistaken for just reporting on “good news” stories. Instead, the approach aims to cover the ways in which solutions are sustainable, scalable and effective.

Nigeria Health Watch began using this method around 2013 to cover health issues, an under-reported topic in the country at the time. “There was a realization that, in the health sector, we faced so many challenges, but there was no one talking about how many programs are working, what differences they’re making and how they’re facing challenges that not even the government could solve,” Ihekweazu said. What we did was look at interventions that were making a difference.”

For Ihekweazu, the benefits of solution journalism are twofold. First, it shines a light on affected  communities rather than just the larger problem. It does so by showing the agency in which they rise up, identify and implement solutions. Second, it helps hold the government to account by highlighting its responsibility to solve problems.

For example, Ihekweazu noted how her outlet’s coverage of an initiative by women in rural Nigeria to purchase a taxi to transport mothers in labor to area hospitals highlighted the innovation, while also spotlighting the failures of the Nigerian government. “While this was a good thing, at the same time it showed the failure of the responsibility of the government to provide healthcare that this solution was even needed,” Ihekweazu said. 

How newsrooms can report on solutions

When Nigeria Health Watch first started practicing solutions journalism, the technique was still relatively new. Now, it is gaining mainstream recognition, with many news sources even creating dedicated desks specifically to produce solutions journalism stories.

For journalists new to solutions reporting, Ihekweazu recommended four important “pillars” to guide their work: 

  • What are you reporting on? By clearly identifying the problem at hand – such as a cholera outbreak in a local community– journalists can determine if there is already an intervention by the government or international NGOs that is addressing the issue. 
  • If no external intervention is apparent, the second task is to see if there are people in the community who are responding to the problem. These may be businesses, community leaders or local nonprofits invested in creating a solution.
  • Once a solution is identified, it’s important for journalists “not just to do PR,” Ihekweazu stressed, but to conduct quantitative and qualitative reporting to see if the solution is actually making a difference. Determine what people in the community are saying, and find hard numbers.  These might include figures of lives saved, or quantitative evidence of fewer people falling ill that can be linked to the solution. 
  • Finally, and perhaps most importantly, look at how scalable or sustainable a solution is. Does the solution have a long-term effect, or does it simply create temporary change that subsides after a few months? Are there ways that this solution could be adopted by other communities to solve similar issues, or do the conditions surrounding the solution make it unique only to that one community? 

With these pillars in mind, it is equally important for solutions journalists to know why they’re reporting. “The reason for doing it is to find answers to social problems. That has to be your north star,” said Ihekweazu. “Why do you want to do it? You want to do it to be able to provide empowerment and hope that not all problems are insurmountable.”

[View past webinars and key quotes]

Looking towards a solutions journalism future

It may not yet be mainstream, but solutions journalism is building momentum. One of its earliest adopters, Nigeria Health Watch now offers trainings to mainstream newsrooms across the country. “They identified it as something maybe a bit newer, something that would help them differentiate themselves from other news houses,” Ihekweazu said. 

This isn’t just being taught on a professional level. According to Ihekweazu, universities have looked to build entire modules on solutions journalism. The result may be a new generation of journalists who effectively incorporate a solutions approach in their reporting, establishing it as a new standard in the field. 

Newsrooms interested in creating content that serves an important role in solving today’s challenges might consider investing in solutions journalism. “Ultimately as momentum is built, this will also become the center to reporting on news,” Ihekweazu said.

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