Stories focusing on efforts to solve problems as a primary element can help restore trust in the media, supporters say.

Civil Beat has a clear mission. You can read it on our website and see it reflected in our stories.

The goal is to help inform our readers through “investigative and watchdog journalism, in-depth enterprise reporting, analysis and commentary.” The focus is often on exposing problems, although our reporters also usually include possible solutions as part of their stories.

But what if we start leading with the solutions instead of the problems? Not always, but more often. The problems are still illuminated but in a more hopeful way. It’s a matter of approach.

That’s the idea behind the solutions journalism movement, which has gained momentum in recent years as the media industry grapples with a lack of trust among the public. We’re not talking about fluff pieces touting a program or even promoting individual do-gooders. Those are good stories that have their place.

Volunteers for the Ocean Defenders Alliance (ODA) pull tires up out of the water after being removed from the ocean floor by divers Sunday, September 12, 2021. This event marked the first time anyone had organized efforts to remove debris from the bay. (Ronen Zilberman photo Civil Beat)
Ocean cleanup campaigns are among many initiatives by organizations and individuals trying to improve their communities. (Ronen Zilberman/Civil Beat/2021)

These are rigorously reported stories that look at responses to social issues — why they work or why they don’t work. The nonprofit Solutions Journalism Network, which has trained me and others as solutions journalism trainers in an effort to spread the word, has established three other criteria for the stories:

— They should be evidence-based with data or other qualitative results showing the effectiveness of the solution.

— They should include limitations and not shy away from shortcomings and obstacles to implementing the solution.

— They should provide insights with lessons learned to show why the solution matters to readers and how it may, or may not, apply to other areas.

  • Behind The Story

That last one is especially important to Hawaii, an archipelago in the middle of the Pacific that can feel isolated at times. We can learn from initiatives in other states, although we may also have unique circumstances that limit the effectiveness of those initiatives in the islands.

Take this story by Chad Blair — “Here’s What Hawaii Can Learn From Other States On Publicly Funded Elections.”

Hawaii also has many lessons to share with other states, as Jessica Terrell wrote in “Hawaii Has Had Amazing Success Reducing The Number Of Homeless Vets. Here’s How.”

You can read more examples from Civil Beat and other news organizations on SJN’s solutions story tracker.

Solutions journalism is also a way to improve trust and engagement with readers as well as help counter a decline in trust in the media in recent years.

A survey released earlier this year by Gallup and the Knight Foundation found that trust in the media is so low that half of the respondents “feel most national news organizations intend to mislead, misinform or persuade the public.”

It also found that half or more of respondents reported difficulty in sorting out facts and being well-informed amid the rapid pace of the news cycle and information overload.

On the bright side, for us at least, 65% of respondents said local news organizations “have the resources and opportunity to report the news accurately and fairly to the public,” while about half believe most local news organizations care about how their reporting affects the broader community and can be relied on to deliver the information they need.

The results were based on a Gallup survey completed between May 31 and July 21, 2022, by 5,593 Americans who were at least 18 years old. The margin of error was plus or minus 1.5 percentage points at a 95% confidence level, according to the methodology.

The type of news reported also makes a difference. Recent research has shown that people are tired of the steady stream of negative headlines that seem to have increased with growing divisiveness in the political atmosphere as well as violence. The age-old journalism axiom that “if it bleeds, it leads” is passe.

A Nieman Lab study in May found that “looking at positive news stories — specifically, videos and articles featuring acts of kindness — can actually counteract the ill-effects of seeing negative news stories.”

That brings us back to solutions journalism. Solutions journalism is not necessarily happy news. But it is a serious look at people and initiatives trying to implement change and make a positive impact on communities. What’s working and what can we learn from them?

Not all stories are meant to be solutions stories, of course. Civil Beat maintains its focus on exposing wrongdoing and problems that are affecting the community. But watch for us to increase our coverage of responses to problems, with a critical eye.

Instead of “if it bleeds, it leads,” which Civil Beat has never adhered to, we’ll be increasingly looking at ways to stanch the bleeding. Let us know if you have ideas.

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