Midberry discusses solutions journalism at research colloquium

Ellen Glover • Oct. 2, 2017

The future of good media coverage can be seen in solutions journalism, a specific style of coverage that reports on solutions to problems as well as the issues themselves, according to Media School assistant professor Jennifer Midberry.

“It’s not enough to present readers with a problem,” said Midberry, whose interest in the subject stems from her doctoral studies at Temple University. “It’s important to show solutions to address the problems, too.”

Midberry presented data from her own solutions journalism research at Friday’s research colloquium. She conducted the research with co-author Nicole Dahmen, associate professor at the School of Journalism and Communication at the University of Oregon.

Solutions journalism has been around since the 1990s and has roots in peace journalism, which reframes war coverage by focusing on peaceful conflict settlement, and civic journalism, where journalists function as advocates by trying to get their readers involved in specific social causes, she said. Both forms, as well as solutions journalism, haven’t always been received well because they don’t follow practices commonly seen in mainstream journalism, specifically objectivity.

However, solutions journalism proponents like Midberry argue that this method is best, because it involves rigorous reporting and a comprehensive look at a given issue that requires several perspectives and a deeper look at both the issues and potential resolutions.

This philosophy has been backed up by several studies that look at the effects of solutions journalism on readers. Midberry referenced one such study, done by the Engaging News Project, which found that, after reading stories that focused on both the problem and potential solutions, subjects felt more optimistic and had a greater feeling of self-efficacy. This outlook extended to longer page-view times and an increase in information seeking and sharing after finishing the stories.

Visuals can humanize an event; visuals can humanize issues. But, in spite of the best intentions of photographers, these images often only depict vulnerable individuals and hopeless situations as a call to action. Although that sounds great, viewers can experience compassion fatigue if (the images) aren’t presented in an effective way. –Assistant professor Jennifer Midberry

This study only focused on text, though. As a visual scholar, Midberry wanted to understand how images came into play in a solutions journalism piece.

“Visuals can humanize an event; visuals can humanize issues,” said Midberry. “But, in spite of the best intentions of photographers, these images often only depict vulnerable individuals and hopeless situations as a call to action. Although that sounds great, viewers can experience compassion fatigue if (the images) aren’t presented in an effective way.”

Midberry set out to find examples of when photography successfully depicted a subject by showing both the problem and a solution. She had two questions in mind: What do solutions journalism visuals look like, and what should they look like?

To answer this, Midberry analyzed 112 articles – and the 527 photos that went along with them – written by both daily and online news publications within the last year. Of those 527 photos, 73 percent showed solutions only, 11 percent showed problems only and 14 percent showed both.

Midberry showed a variety of examples originating from publications ranging from the Chattanooga Times Free Press to The New York Times. Midberry said that if stories show all problem and no solution, then the readers will feel hopeless and overwhelmed. If stories have all solution and no problem, then readers will think the problem is solved and no longer needs their attention. With a balanced approach, readers can have a full understanding of the problem and then have solutions – both good and bad – that they can use if they want to.

She also analyzed the quality of the images. Most of the 527 photos were original to the publication and taken by a staff photographer. About 3 percent were either from a wire service or stock photos. Midberry said original photos are always better, because they are more precise and can help to further humanize the issue at hand.

Midberry concluded that there is a need for be more balance between depicting solutions and problems among today’s solutions journalists. However, as this style of reporting becomes more common — thanks to groups like the Solutions Journalism Network, which works to fund more solutions journalism — coverage will likely become more well-rounded.

To do solutions journalism well, a publication needs time and resources, Midberry said. This is still a limitation that needs to be resolved, but its success could potentially start with universities teaching solutions journalism practices in their own programs.

“This could even be introduced to the curriculum here,” Midberry said.

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