Andrea Wenzel, one of the co-authors of a new report from the Tow Center for Digital Journalism, described solutions journalism as “rigorous and compelling reporting” covering responses to social problems, focusing on things that might be working or an attempt that for some reason may be struggling.
“I also find it helpful to think about what it’s not,” she said. “It’s not a ‘good news puff piece’ and it’s not a kind of ‘hero story’ about one person doing something exceptional. It’s more about ideas and individual characters. A great solutions journalism story tends to be things that take a more systematic look at a problem and might be scalable or transferable.”
Wenzel calls herself as a “recovering journalist”, who previous worked in public radio and spent 15 years doing international media projects and training. She’s now in a Ph.D. program in communication at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.
“One of the arguments that people make about solutions journalism is it’s a sort of an antidote to terribly depressing news,” said Wenzel. “That basically audiences feel disempowered sometimes by the news that they get and that solutions journalism can be a way to engage audiences more, a way to get folks to read stories and also talk about it with friends and maybe even think about how they can get involved some way.”
Wenzel and report co-authors Daniela Gerson and Evelyn Moreno examined how solutions journalism could be used to address gaps in local media coverage in underutilized or stigmatized communities.
“There’s been some promising things and some mixed things, but most of it’s used national-level, quantitative studies,” Wenzel said. “For our Tow study, we wanted to try to complement this by looking at the local level, looking at what did people feel about solutions journalism when it was about their own communities. We wanted to hear more about why people felt the way they did by using qualitative focus groups, so we can really dig in to understand it,” she said.
They conducted six focus groups with 48 African-American and Latino residents in South Los Angeles to gauge their response to the solutions journalism format.
This latest effort was a followup to an earlier Tow Center study conducted in collaboration with the Metamorphosis Project.
“They had done this series leading up to the 50th anniversary of the Watts riots,where they got together community organizations and local media to do a series of solutions journalism stories,” she said. “These stories looked at things like health, jobs, housing, education, public space. And we wanted to understand how do residents from South L.A. feel about how their community was covered.”
Wenzel and her colleagues had the focus groups read the stories — both solutions and non-solutions versions — and talk about what they thought of the stories and the larger subject of how the media covers their community.
“Overall, people responded to the problem-solving orientation of solutions journalism,” she said. “They said they’d be more likely to seek out news and share stories with friends or family if it was a solutions-oriented story.”
On this week’s It’s All Journalism podcast, producer Michael O’Connell talks to Andrea Wenzel, one of the authors of a new report from Columbia University’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism: Engaging Communities through Solutions Journalism. They discuss how solutions-oriented stories can better engage local audiences and inspire them to take positive actions in their communities.