Countering Negativity: How Solutions Journalism Can Help Us Find Hope Amid COVID-19

July 15, 2020
Since the pandemic hit, the public need for answers has pushed many journalists to rethink their approach to telling stories. Ukrainian and international experts shared their experiences and ideas on how solutions journalism can help deal with public despair and fear in the time of coronavirus.
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Photo credit: shutterstock.com

In the world that has been suddenly shaken by the  coronavirus crisis, information has become a basic need. Given the rapid developments of the pandemic in different places, people have had to follow the news to be aware of new regulations, new threats, and the scale of the problem locally. However, simple reporting and informing has proven insufficient to counter fears and uncertainty in society. Journalists have had to not only adapt to the situation but seek ways to prevent panic and respond to the public's need for information in a constructive manner. This is, basically, what solutions journalism is meant for.

Solutions journalism is a relatively new concept that is also referred to as "constructive" journalism.

Instead of pushing negative, shocking, and/or manipulative information to boost ratings, solutions journalism emphasises balance, offers more context, and provides possible avenues of resolution and examples of the problem being covered.

In recent years, this practice has proliferated due to specialized platforms such as  the Solutions Story Tracker, which gathers stories from countries around the globe. It has become an integral part of many international news agencies and media outlets such as the BBC (World Hacks videos and the People Fixing the World podcast), the New York Times (Fixes), and The Guardian (The Upside). As explained by British author and journalist Peter Pomerantsev at the LMF, during this time of prolific misinformation and fakes about COVID-19, solutions journalism can be a powerful counter against disinformation and widespread conspiracy theories, since COVID-19 has given journalists a chance to remind the public of the importance of their work.

In a nutshell, solutions journalism is about hope and inspiration. "We are used to consuming news like 'some airlines went bankrupt.' But if we see a story about how one airline company actually managed to avoid bankruptcy, it can help others see a solution and reinvent themselves," noted Jakub Górnicki during the LMF online discussion. Górnicki is a Polish blogger and co-founder of the Outriders Network and its flagship Outride.rs media project, which aspires to re-invent journalism.

The uncertainty caused by the pandemic made the journalists at Outride.rs quickly change their strategy of covering the news. While mainstream outlets have been constantly putting out negative news about the coronavirus pandemic and its consequences, Outride.rs has chosen a more constructive approach to media coverage. "[We decided] to stay relevant rather than stay financially stable," said Górnicki. With a worldwide network of reporters, they bring global stories into the context of Polish public discourse.

To seek out responses to COVID-19's challenges, Outride.rs launched Radar, a platform that allows their community and reporters around the world to inform about corona-related problems and offer solutions to them. "We tried to map and find responses to whatever the COVID-19 pandemic effects have been," he explained. Outride.rs coverage goes beyond health issues of the pandemic. They cover how COVID has affected everything from industry to homeschooling.

Interaction with the audience is another key element of solution journalism that helps create stories of the highest value for society. Radar conducted a survey of its readers which showed that education, healthcare and tourism were priority topics for their audience. As a result, there are now more than 1 000 impactful coronavirus-related stories on Radar, fact-checked by its regional editors. Not all of them offer long-term solutions to problems. Instead, they might just inspire readers and prompt ideas, Górnicki explained. "What constructive journalism does for a society is to change the discourse. It pushes it to be simply very creative."

In Ukraine, the term has been rarely used but well practiced by both national and regional media outlets. Hromadske, The Ukrainians, The Babel, Lustrum, and others have been more focused on seeking out answers to social issues.

During the quarantine, solution-based stories have come out of Ukraine's national public broadcaster, Suspilne. Five video reports show the ways how people have dealt with COVID-19-related issues in Ukrainian society. For instance, UA: Pershiy reported on Ukrainian designers making protective gear for doctors, as well as on an organization of rescue bikers called Motohelp which is helping ambulance services. This content has been part of the research done by a newly-founded interdisciplinary project called the Public Interest Journalism Lab, which  was launched jointly by Ukrainian and British journalists and sociologists from the Arena programme at the London School of Economics, the Kharkiv Institute of Social Research, and the Lviv Media Forum. Researchers studied public opinion and reactions to the videos they produced, and then used their results to come up with practical recommendations for media outlets to create meaningful and impactful stories.

This guide was created, explained author and project co-founder Nataliya Gumenyuk, to offer strategies for editorials and to help outlets produce "constructive" content which would counter panic and confusion in society. On the other hand, she stressed, solutions journalism is not about embellishing the truth, but rather about showing a problem and a solution. To facilitate a solution to a problem, the journalist can both show how someone managed to deal with it and why someone did not, Gumenyuk added.

At the same time, there is a thin line between solutions journalism on the one hand and activism or promotion on the other. It is crucial for journalists to keep balance when trying to bring hope.

While preparing their reports for UA: NPB, Gumenyuk said they tried to "keep maximum objectivity and stay distant" by showing their subject as an example. Nevertheless, as Jakub Górnicki explained, solutions journalism can indeed increase the segment of active people in a society.

Another question that might raise concerns or scepticism is the financial viability of solutions-oriented media content, especially when mostly negative news sells well. Gumenyuk, who is the former head of independent broadcaster Hromadske, is sure that the biggest asset of the media, especially in Ukraine, is trust. It is the basis of quality journalism that also determines its success. Here, she says, solidarity and objectivity are what builds media credibility and what also lead to positive impact on society.

In regards to finances, Górnicki is convinced that smaller media outlets can benefit from their coverage of the pandemic through grants, membership increases, donations, cooperation with local companies, and other forms of mutual support within their communities. "It should not be about traffic," he stresses. "Traffic is not the only factor of impact; it's a hint." What matters is a neutral story that can bring positive changes on a local level.

Sure, solutions journalism cannot provide unambiguous answers to all problems. In most cases, it won't. In the end, as Pomerantsev argues, any long-term result is always about cooperation and interaction between volunteers and the state, which is especially important in the context of Ukraine. But in between, there is the social responsibility of journalists that can prompt this cooperation through very specific stories of people solving problems in a specific place. They do not teach, but rather inspire and offer ideas on how people can adapt to the new reality we are facing.

This publication was produced with the support of the European Union. Its contents are the sole responsibility of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the European Union.

IRYNA MATVIYISHYN
Analyst and journalist at UkraineWorld and Internews Ukraine

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