Solutions Journalism – marrying news and activism

It’s been a depressing summer of news – even for those of us who work in the industry. Gaza, ISIS, Ukraine, ebola – any more awful things to add to the list?

Such a relentless catalogue of woes is taking its toll, according to Bryn Mooser, the co-founder of the news website Ryot.org. Young people are turned off by the news, he told me, because they feel they can’t do anything about it.

Bryn’s comments came during a stimulating panel discussion I hosted for Plus Social Good during the Social Good Summit in New York this week. The other panelists were Stephen Keppel, Univision’s Head of Empowerment Initiatives, Claire Wardle who is senior social media strategist for UNHCR, and Niall Dunne, British Telecom’s Chief Sustainability Officer. The one thing we all have in common is that we are in the business of information.

The topic was nothing less ambitious than the future of media, paying particular attention to the challenges and opportunities presented by the rise of digital communications.

I started by talking about how people are now media consumers of news as well as producers of it, thanks to smartphones and social networks. Media organizations like the BBC understand now that, in an increasingly crowded marketplace of ideas, we must offer our content wherever our audiences are – on TV, radio, online, social and mobile. The democratizing power of sharing culture also requires us to have a more two-way conversation with audiences, but for BBC news, at least, we draw the line at providing impartial, balanced coverage and leaving people to decide what action, if any, they want to take.

That’s an old model in the eyes of others. Stephen Keppel talked about Univision’s many social action campaigns, grounded in news coverage but offering advice and actions that audiences can take to solve some of the problems or issues highlighted. This is solutions journalism.

Niall Dunne shared the example of BT Sport, a channel which aims to encourage audiences to get involved in sport more. It is free, but only to BT customers. Still, it represents an expansion into content production, rather than BT’s traditional role as a service provider.

Claire Wardle explained that UNHCR’s role has also changed – as news organizations cut back and pull out of dangerous areas such as Syria, humanitarian groups find themselves the frontline witnesses to horrific events – and they are using smartphones and cameras to provide pictures to the outside world, which are then picked up by traditional media. This is providing a solution to the growing problem of conducting journalism in risky areas.

But the phrase solutions journalism refers more to the marriage of journalism with activism – and that was the most fascinating area of our discussion. The idea is anathema to many old school journalists. The point of the news, they say, is to help people make sense of the world, not to advocate for particular solutions. Our job as journalists has been to show the world as it is, not as we think it should be. But the democratization of news brought about by digital technology may be changing that.

Ryot.org’s click rate certainly suggests audiences subscribe to that idea – and crucially, the site attracts a high proportion of millennials – the future consumers. The disruptive technology of digital communications is having a profound effect not just on how we produce the news but on what constitutes news at all.

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